group of messengers setting in a line

Street Portraits of Bike Messengers – Standing by with the Rollei 35 SE – Trevor Hughes

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.

messenger writing note on hand
Terry 1994
two messengers by car
Billy and John 1993
messenger unlocking bike
Handsome Dave 1996
two messengers with bikes on corner
Joe and fellow messenger 1993
messenger reading book
Jonathan 1996
three messengers talking
Albert, Darryl and Chris 1994
female messenger with cigarette in crowd
Mia 1993
messier sitting on corner
Standing by at 2 Bloor St. 1993
messenger on bike leaping
Tommy Toast 1993
messenger couple in alleyway
Stuart and Sweet Jayne 1994
messenger standing wearing large sunglasses
Chris 1992
messenger with girlfriend
Kelly and Kevin X 1995
messenger running with bike
Chris 1996
messenger with cigarette
Tim 1995
messenger with sunglasses
James Moore aka The General 1995
female messenger sitting in crowd
Anita 1993
female messenger in winter
Mia 1994
female messenger standing on corner
Heather 1998
messenger sitting on railing
Tommy Toast 1994
tired messenger leaning against wall
Manny 1995

The Bike Messengers on Instagram and Flickr

Trevor Hughes is currently exploring colour film, shooting with a variety of half-frame cameras.

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59 thoughts on “Street Portraits of Bike Messengers – Standing by with the Rollei 35 SE – Trevor Hughes”

  1. Some great shots here and how interesting it would be to meet up with these people after 25+ years and shoot them again! I too use a Rollei 35 as well as a Minox GT – both amazing cameras.

    1. A fantastic set of Life Images.. I used the Minox GT – great camera.. I was involved with the MotorBike Couriers.. great set of people… Deliver Safely – Get Paid – Enjoy Life… Regards, L

      1. Trevor Hughes

        Thanks Leonard for commenting. I regret dropping and breaking my Minox EL, photographing with it was simply so much fun.

  2. Thanks for this contribution to the 35mmc community! The group of messengers were captured aptly: you certainly earned their trust. It shows in their expressions.

    Plus, I love looking at all the classic mountain bikes I lusted over as a pre-teen (especially that Klein hardtail). And the bunny hop! Burly!

    1. Thanks Adam. Toronto was a little unique in that it was the mountain bike that was popular with messengers, not the fixed gear track bike.

  3. Excellent work, Trevor! There is an unstaged, inherent dynamic and a noninvasive intimacy in your approach, it never feels over-stylised as in many other bodies of work of similar subjects. And what a great camera! The black and white is awesome, sharp and vivid with pleasant tonalities. Congratulations!

    1. Thanks Eric. I have not seen “Red Light Go”, I will check it out. I raced a few alley cat races back in the days, crazy adrenaline rushes with the emphasis on crazy.

    1. Thanks Fred. I regret not going to CMWC 96 held in San Francisco. I do still have a worn Silver Bullet Courier jacket that one of the Toronto messengers brought back.

  4. These are terrific. These things show up in my news feeds based on the amount of time that I spend on photography sites, and often the images are uh, less than worth the click, but from the first shot I had a smile on my face.

    I’d love to see the actual large prints.

  5. What a great project! Lovely, evocative pictures and probably great memories for you! Three Cheers! I love my Rollei 35 s. Were you zone, hyperfocal, or guess focusing?

    1. Thanks Rob. I would guess the distance, I would measure out and practice memorizing distances like 4′, 6′, 8′, 10′. My working aperture was usually f/8.

      1. Gotcha. I usually hyperfocal or zone focus when using smaller apertures. I’ve managed a few decent shots guessing distance. Good stuff Trevor, love this series!

  6. This is brilliant, both in concept and execution. Well done. I join the others who suggest that these photographs belong in a book or zine. They capture a time and place so well. I use, but only occasionally, a Rollei B35, the stripped down economy class version of your camera. . It’s a liberating experience using a Rollei 35. You learn to trust your gut or you put it away pretty quickly.

    1. Thanks for the support Floyd. I always shot intuitively, I had to feel the shot was there, I was lucky if I could shoot one roll film in a week.

  7. I can’t even get my shots in focus with a range finder never mind scale focus. What was your technique please. Love your work

    1. Hi Karl, I would measure out some set distances, like 4′, 6′, 8′ and try to memorize them and on most days I became pretty good at estimating correctly. I would also preset the aperture, shutter speed for the lighting situation I was in so I would only have to concentrate on getting the shot. The Rollei 35 has a nice solid weight for such a small camera which also helps in preventing camera shake.

  8. Incredible photos and certainly inspiring as a recreational cyclist who carries a film camera and BW loaded. I have to ask, what was your primary developer? I often find hp5 a tad boring tonally unless I push it a stop, but these images have great tonality AND contrast.

    1. Hi Cody, thanks for the comments. I would rate HP5 at an EI of 200 and develop in Kodak Xtol at 1:1 (70°F 10.5 min) or 1:2 (70°F 14.5 min).

    1. Trevor Hughes

      Hi Brad, great to hear from you, I agree it was a special time. It can be difficult to choose images when I still feel, after all these years, a strong emotional connection to the people and that time of my life.

  9. Hi Trevor,

    Good stuff – I really enjoy this type of people photography, candid shots of genuine characters. I can totally understand carrying a zone focus camera on your bike, I managed to misalign my rangefinders more than once on bike packing trips. Now I have a cute little Yashica 35 MC (I think its called) and it never lets me down.

    1. Trevor Hughes

      Thanks Dan for your comments. The Yashica Electro 35 MC looks like a sweet camera, I’m a big fan of the 40mm lens perspective.



    1. Trevor Hughes

      Hi Andrew, thanks for commenting. This photo series was definitely one in which I saw only in black & white.

    1. Trevor Hughes

      Thanks George for commenting. On the subject of fashion, the British fashion designer Martine Rose mentioned my messenger series as inspiration for her spring 2018 collection.

  11. Pingback: Monday Missive — March 22, 2021 | Nature, Fine Art and Conservation Photography

  12. Hey! Not sure if you’ll see this but did you use any filters on your Rollei for B/W work? Did you trust the in-camera meter or used a handheld? These are absolutely beautiful photos and I’m so glad I found them. Very inspiring for me to pick up my Rollei 35 and go shoot this weekend with it.

    1. Hi Rob, thanks for the comment. I used an uv filter to protect the lens and used the in-camera metering to keep equipment to the minimum (plus my handheld light meter was a Minolta Flash Meter iii which was twice the size of the Rollei).I hope you are able to get out and have some fun with the Rollei 35.

  13. Jackson Kollmorgen

    Great photos. My brother used to work as a Bike Messenger in NYC and I’ll definitely be sending this to him. I’d also be super interested in a zine/book made from this series if you ever decide to pursue that.

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