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Our photographer of the year

Words by Timothy John
Photography by Sean Hardy

The joy of identifying a blossoming talent and granting it freedom of expression is one of the most rewarding aspects of an independent publication. 

Terry Hawes, Simpson’s founder and creative director, has a practiced eye, developed over years of working with leading design houses. He has given many burgeoning photographers their first editorial gig, among them Sean Hardy, Simpson's Photographer of the Year for 2017.

Hardy has three Simpson covers to his credit, including both issues published in 2017. The portraits that lead issues 11 and 12 - the venerated Graeme Obree and Colombian icon Nairo Quintana – represent only his most public contributions to the magazine in the last twelve months, however.

The richness of Hardy’s images and a disregard for established norms of composition that often sees his subjects command the very centre of the frame distinguishes his work on purely aesthetic grounds. 

More importantly, by capturing the small moments of a cyclist’s life, he is able to illuminate the universal truths of passion for the bike; those that unite the UCI WorldTour professional and the dedicated amateur.

For the double page spread that punctuates the Romance of the Road feature in issue 11, for example, Hardy selects the rider’s view to share the camaraderie of the bunch and the joy of riding on empty roads in glorious sunlight.

Lastly, Hardy is able to illuminate his subject’s character. Issue 11’s cover captures Obree in all his complexity; occasionally intense, but never hostile. The often-inscrutable Quintana is caught in a moment of absorption on the cover of issue 12, the perfectionist well known to his suppliers, lost in the moment while assessing the fit of a humble gilet. 

Hardy is a worthy winner, but is only one of several gifted photographers who contributed to Simpson in 2017, all of whom we would like to thank. In 2018, we look forward to discovering more emerging photographic talents and sharing their gifts with Simpson readers.


The Simpson connection

Sean Hardy is relaxed and jovial when we speak in the slow days that mark the 52nd week of the year. Christmas has been and gone and the new year has not yet begun. It is a period apt for reflection. 

Simpson, without sounding like a cliché, means everything to my photographic career,” he says. “If it wasn’t for the magazine, I would never have thought, ‘I can do this.’ Even now, when I get a call from Terry, I think, ‘Yes!’. It feels like coming home.”

Hardy’s 2017 has been a year of achievements, the greatest of which might have been gaining freedom from a nine-to-five job. He has been a full-time photographer for only nine months, during which time he has assembled a list of suitors, headed by Endura, for whom he has shot a diverse portfolio of world class athletes, from the aforementioned Quintana to YouTube sensation Danny MacAskill, the trials rider.

(Here, we’d like to extend our thanks to Endura, who kindly allowed us to publish Hardy’s pictures of Graeme Obree and Movistar Team, including Nairo Quintana).

Hardy gained his first big breaks with Simpson, however, shooting a Team Katusha bike on the mean streets of London for issue nine, and Paris-Roubaix for issue ten. The two, vastly different assignments offer a snapshot (no pun intended) of the magazine. 

Terry’s day aboard a Canyon Aeroad CF SLX tasked the photographer with capturing the sensation of riding race machinery in urban surroundings, while following the Queen of the Classics on his debut as a race photographer pushed Hardy towards a pre-race panic attack, and later an overwhelming surge of joy and relief, once the day was done.

Simpson is cycling, and cycling is imbued with the power to move, emotionally, as well as physically. It is fitting that Hardy’s break should come with a magazine concerned entirely with passion and not at all with profit. 

“Terry talks about ‘grassroots’ a lot, and that runs through everything I do, remembering why I love cycling. Sometimes, I’ll talk to him about a future project, and we’ll go off at a tangent and discuss another aspect of cycling, because we love the sport,” Hardy explains. 

“Normally, we’re discussing the roots of a subject and deciding how we might portray that in a picture. We’re trying to capture why people cycle, why they go out and ride in the rain for hours, for example; that love and passion for the sport. Simpson reminds me of that constantly. 

“Even when I’m doing shoots for other people, I always think I’m shooting for Simpson. It’s keeping that mentality, keeping that authenticity when I shoot. Authenticity comes from everything I learned from Simpson.”

The expressionist

By coming face-to-face with Graeme Obree for issue 11, Hardy photographed a rider he had idolised. Obree continues to inspire affection, even if his athletic achievements - two Hour Records and two world titles in the individual pursuit - had come to be overshadowed by his homemade machinery and well-publicised mental health issues. 

Simpson’s feature provided a new perspective on the man and his career; a more accurate presentation of a world class athlete and a survivor of emotional breakdown, blessed with an intuitive understanding of mechanics that bordered on genius.

“I was starstruck by Graeme and very nervous about meeting him,” Hardy admits. “He is very expressive, using his hands and his entire body language to communicate. When a person uses body language, their eyes ‘talk’ as well. For a photographer, that’s gold. 

“There were a couple of times during the interview where I forgot to lift up the camera, because he’s so engaging. When I’m asked to shoot a person, I never look into their background, because I don’t want prior knowledge to influence the picture. With Graeme, that was quite hard, because I knew what he’d achieved, but I didn’t know where he’d come from. 

“The minute he started talking about his past and being so expressive, I knew that I had to do justice to his experiences. I was amazed by what he was saying and had to get a picture that captured how I felt while he was talking.” 

The result is a series of striking portraits, shot in the café at the Kilmarnock branch of Morrisons, the most arresting of which appears on the cover of issue 11. Simpson’s supermarket rendezvous with Obree represented only half the shoot, however. Part two required Hardy to capture the man riding on his cherished training routes in Ayrshire’s beautiful Loudoun Valley. 

“In my head, he was always going to be a different person on the bike; most cyclists are. I was interested to see what sort of person came out. Was he going to be more serious, because of what he’d achieved? But he was the opposite.

“Because the shoot took place in his backyard, it was all very familiar to Graeme, and he was the first to open up. The roads were quite messy. I don’t know if it had rained, but he was playing around, dodging rocks and twigs and potholes. The more he played on his bike, the more he opened up about everything else. I just jumped on that.” 

An Englishman in Pamplona

There are many who might be starstruck in the presence of Movistar Team, the grandees of the UCI WorldTour, who can trace their history through Reynolds and Banesto, Delgado and Indurain. Its dual leadership is comprised of two of the most accomplished riders in the sport - Nairo Quintana and Alejandro Valverde. Joining them for three days at a hotel in Spain might be a dream for any cycling fan, but Hardy insists he was not overawed. 

He talks of a subconscious rise in confidence when shooting commissions and his presence in Pamplona was at Endura’s request. Still, Grand Tour winners are not to be trifled with, and approaching them with a camera in an environment that might be described as semi-public at best might have placed Hardy on his mettle. He says no. 

It’s not incidental that Hardy is from Kent. As a former bass player in a mod band, the words of Pete Townshend’s English Boy might not be lost upon him (“I know no fear/I serve with joy/I’m proud to be here/An English boy”). Ironically, his confidence was fuelled by the language barrier that separated him from his Spanish-speaking subjects. 

“I had no idea what they’re saying,” he admits. “If you’re with an English team, and you’re up and getting in people’s faces with your camera, maybe pushing it too far, you might just hear someone say: ‘Oh, fucking photographer’ and that will play on your mind. Movistar Team might be saying that all the time, but I have no idea, so I can keep being the dumb Englishman who gets in the way!”.

His laughter betrays the falsity of such an unflattering portrait. The fact is Hardy is a likeable character, who gets on well and easily with his subjects, many of whom contact him through Instagram and other channels to share their thanks, when they see his images posted by the likes of Endura or Simpson. Rapport building takes many forms, he reveals. 

“Sometimes, it’s not just about being the guy with the camera. It might be passing their shoes, just as they reach to grab them, or, when they’re trying on a jacket, helping them when something is caught. You’re not just the photographer in those moments, you’re part of the entourage for that day.”

Street view

Hardy’s interest in photography began about seven years ago, when his daughter Chloé began to walk. Keen to capture the moment for posterity, Hardy reached for his first generation i-Phone but was disappointed by the blurred result. 

Undeterred, he bought a small, entry-level DSLR camera and proceeded to do, “what every photographer does.” Family portraits, landscapes and seascapes followed. Hindsight has not softened his analysis. He describes the images as clichéd and, “really naff.” 

Still, a passion had ignited. Hardy took his new hobby to the street, inspired by the work of Vivian Maier. Street photographers are still those he admires most, those armed with nothing more than a small-bodied camera with a 50mm lens, but determined to capture a story. Hardy discovered that reportage is harder than it looks, however.

“I thought it was going to be easy and it wasn’t. It was really scary. You want to document other people’s lives, but discretely. Instead, it felt very invasive; wrong. But it was a great learning curve. I had to look for light and shadows. It taught me how to shoot with a camera, really. Everything followed from there.”

Travelling light

Hardy’s earliest experiments with street photography continue to shape his work. He still draws inspiration from reportage photographers, artists who, by capturing a moment, illuminate their subject’s whole existence, often doing so with little more than a Leica and a fixed lens. 

He values simplicity, in his aesthetic and equipment, and admits that while his current set-up, a Canon 6D with a 50mm lens, is not the most sophisticated, it forces him to focus on his craft. Cameras with, “a million focal points, and a million buttons on the back,” are not for him. 

“I want a camera to be small and light to travel with; a camera that doesn’t feel like I’m carrying around a studio and is very simple. All of my favourite photographers – old-time photographers, the greats - shot on little Leicas with manual focus. 

“Their images will stand forever. I don’t buy into big cameras and big lenses. I’m probably too old school, really. I want simplicity and a small lens, and, if I need to get closer to a subject, I’ll walk closer. This doesn’t work well at races, but it means I get different pictures to the other guys. 

“I’ve been at races and I can sense other photographers thinking, ‘How’s he going to do that? He’s got a 50mm lens,’ and they’re all sitting there with 700mm lenses. Don’t get me wrong. There have been many times when I’ve thought: ‘I wish I had one of those.’ But that would only mean I’d get the same shot as everyone else.”

Musical youth

Music was Hardy’s first creative outlet. He first showed talent on the flute. Despite reaching grade eight, he abandoned the instrument and a short succession of larger woodwinds (clarinet, then saxophone) in search of something cooler. 

Inevitably, the guitar suggested itself. He took lessons from a local lad, two years older, and set at nought his music teacher’s fears by gaining an A* grade in his GCSE music exam with a rendition of Cream’s Crossroads. 

Matters progressed. Hardy played in various bands, before finding a regular income with Springtide Cavalry, led by Kevin Iverson, his former guitar teacher. The band toured extensively on the mod circuit, supporting stalwarts Purple Hearts. Hardy sees a parallel between the two art forms. 

“I think of music and photography in exactly the same way,” he explains. “They work in my head on the same level. Writing songs was always a blank canvas. Back then, you always started with a pen and paper and a guitar and that was it. Photography is exactly the same. When I look through the lens, nothing exists until I press the shutter button. It’s the same with songwriting. Nothing exists until you strum the guitar or play the piano.”

The similarity remains, even when the composition is complete. As a musician, once Hardy had written, played and recorded a song, he was ready to move on. He feels the same about his photography. Despite keeping thorough archives, he rarely looks through them. Once a project is released, he can only see “a million holes” in his work, rather than the beautifully composed, richly textured images that Simpson readers enjoy. 

Musical frustrations sealed his departure from Springtide Cavalry. From necessity, Hardy had been designated bass player, a position lacking in creativity and far removed from the singer-songwriter-guitarist role he had pursued elsewhere. A growing interest in photography sealed his departure. He sold his equipment and bought a better camera.

Turn the switch

A final lesson from his time as a songwriter stays with him: do not force the action. There are days, still, when Hardy will hit the streets with the intention of capturing moments in the lives of others and finds that he simply cannot press the shutter button. He knew similar days when he held a guitar, rather than a camera. 

“There are still days now, when I’ll go out to shoot street photography and I just haven’t got the confidence. That might just be because…oh, I don’t know… because it’s not right. I used to get quite het up about that and think, ‘Why haven’t I got the confidence? I’m a photographer now. Why can’t I do this?’ But that’s where I relate it to music. You can’t write a good song every day, so I don’t push it. If it’s not going to work that day, it’s not going to work. 

“But something changes when I ‘go to work’. I'm doing my job. You kind of see it with cyclists, sometimes. When they’re not on the bike, they’re a different person to when they are on the bike, because they’re doing their job. It doesn’t matter how they feel or how their day is going, they’ll perform, better than we could ever imagine.”

Hardy admits to nerves in his early days as cycling photographer but this period is long past. It’s amusing to hear him talk about shooting the 2016 Paris-Roubaix for Simpson as a guest of Cannondale, when one considers how many more talents have subsequently passed before his lens. 

“Now it just seems to be fine. I turn on the switch and it works, thank goodness!”.

An emotional journey

Hardy has come a long way in a short time. Passion for cycling is the engine that drives his progress and he has established a momentum that has made him one of the most sought-after snappers in the sport. He remains humble and waxes lyrical about the talents of his contemporaries, notably Benedict Campbell and JoJo Harper.

He has left behind the mundanity of a team leader position in a call centre and later the pressure of a sales job for an insurance firm. As a father of two, and soon to be three, he has had to choose his path carefully and to roll the dice only when he was more certain of winning than not, but his gambles have paid off. 

We return to the Roubaix velodrome and to Hardy’s second gig for Simpson. Shooting a behind-the-scenes feature with Cannondale Pro Cycling for issue 10, Hardy ran the full gamut of emotions, from a sudden feeling of inadequacy as the cycling press corps rolled up at the team hotel to elation in the famed velodrome.

“I was stood in the middle of the velodrome, and it had almost emptied. There was rubbish on the floor and people sweeping up the area. This is going to sound really naff...I don’t know if even now I want to say it... but I started welling up, big time. It really hit me then. 

“I was a fan, so if I’d written a wish list, getting into the centre of the Roubaix velodrome would have been at the top and this was happening at the beginning of my career. I remember phoning my dad from the middle of the velodrome and saying: ‘I want to do this forever.’” 

Hardy has not found commissions in short supply and many of them have come from Simpson. As well as the aforementioned cover features, Hardy has shot a host of supporting articles, including the founder’s elegiac Romance of the Road piece for issue 11; a hymn to the joys of riding for pleasure and so a world removed from the savagery of Paris-Roubaix. When pro cyclists now come before his lens, Hardy treats them as he would any Simpson subject. 

“I remember shooting the paracyclist Denise Schindler on the Kitzbühler Horn in Austria for Endura and asking if she could ride harder. I thought: ‘She’s going to lump me, if I tell her that she’s not riding hard enough.’ But the images had to be authentic. 

“I don’t want to tell someone to look like they’re riding hard; I want to capture them riding hard. I want that look that comes in the eye, the grip of the handlebar as you’re pushing hard up a climb, and a lot of that comes from lessons I learned from Simpson and with Terry. It’s remembering where that passion comes from and why they’re doing it. It’s about authenticity and that's why Simpson means so much.”