This is a look back at a series I photographed while working as a bike messenger in Toronto in the 1990’s. All the images in the article were taken with a Rollei 35 SE.
It occurred to me while working as a messenger that it would be a great idea to combine my love of cycling with my love of photography and to start documenting my fellow messengers. The Bike Messengers 1992-1999 series was shot mainly in downtown Toronto and I started during a time that many messengers themselves think of a ‘golden age’, a time when there were many companies, many jobs, and the only competition, in terms of speed for the transfer of documents, was the fax machine.
It took me three years to overcome my shyness and approach one of the core groups that congregated around a kind of hub, a cafe/bar called Bread Spreads. Bread Spreads was one site where a large group of messengers from various companies hung out. It was run by former messengers, and was like a home away from home, a place to rest, to socialize between jobs and at the end of a long day.
It was impossible for me when photographing not only to want to record but also to glamorize, romanticize, mythologize this tribe/subculture with their camaraderie, swagger and outsider attitude. They became my friends, I was one with them, I was photographing from the inside. I became the guy with the camera, and my goal was to be invisible. I sought stillness, the intimate moments I could capture between the hectic dashes through city streets and traffic.
The Rollei 35 SE was the camera I carried with me at all times while working as a messenger. I started the series using a Minox EL, it was a fun camera to shoot with and took nice pictures, but I dropped it and that was the end of that. The fully mechanical Rollei 35 SE perfectly suited my preference for pre-setting focus and exposure and only having to concentrate on the subject. To my eyes the 40mm Sonnar lens has an almost 3D imaging quality, especially with shots taken in soft grey light using my favourite film Ilford HP5. I never had to think or worry about the camera, it simply functioned without fail through bone-chilling winters and hot and humid summers. For the organized bike messenger races and championships I used what was to me a ‘big’ camera, a Leica M4-P. I found these large events with messengers coming from around the world difficult to capture. It was harder to find the intimate connection that I needed.
I did all my own film developing and printing, my darkrooms were often improvised affairs in closets, kitchens or spare rooms. 8×10 RC proof prints would be made and often given to the subjects. Final prints were 11×14 or 16×20 fibre based and a selection was displayed at Bread Spreads and at some of the messenger events.
Much later I posted selected images on Flickr. More recently I wanted to do a different kind of edit. I went through my contact sheets sequentially starting at 1992 until I came to the 1999 end, selecting over 1200 images. On Instagram I posted one photo a day as if it was happening now, in current time, in an attempt to achieve a sense of immediacy and connection. I wanted to present the overall experience in a detailed way, showing people joining the group, the seasonal changes, changes in equipment, bikes, even the changes being undergone by city development. Some of the locations where we were ‘standing by’ are now so changed that they are unrecognizable. Even though the photos are a historical record, I was trying to transcend that limitation by creating a daily diary of the people involved. The Instagram feed @thebikemessengers can also be seen as one large contact sheet of my progress through the series.
This selection of images represents a quick glance at some of my favourite people, and favourite moments captured on film with my Rollei during my time as a messenger.
Trevor Hughes is currently exploring colour film, shooting with a variety of half-frame cameras.