group of messengers setting in a line
Photos & Projects

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

February 25, 2021

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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55 Comments

  • Reply
    Martin
    February 25, 2021 at 10:11 am

    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.

    • Reply
      Trevor Hughes
      February 25, 2021 at 1:32 pm

      Thanks Martin. A few of the messengers are still working 25+ years…lifers.

    • Reply
      Leonard Jacobson
      March 5, 2021 at 11:20 pm

      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

      • Reply
        Trevor Hughes
        March 6, 2021 at 1:23 am

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

  • Reply
    Marcel
    February 25, 2021 at 10:23 am

    Wonderful. Like a time machine.

    • Reply
      Trevor Hughes
      February 25, 2021 at 1:34 pm

      Thanks Marcel

  • Reply
    Richard Carr
    February 25, 2021 at 10:26 am

    These are absolutely beautiful … a wonderful record and full of a magical feeling

    • Reply
      Trevor Hughes
      February 25, 2021 at 1:37 pm

      Thanks Richard for the kind comment

  • Reply
    Peter Wright
    February 25, 2021 at 10:32 am

    Brilliant images and story, thanks for sharing Trevor. This would make a great zine / book.

    • Reply
      Trevor Hughes
      February 25, 2021 at 1:46 pm

      Thanks Peter, I’m pondering the zine/book idea

  • Reply
    thorsten wulff
    February 25, 2021 at 12:11 pm

    Amazing work, Trevor!
    I shot some messengers pictures between 1987 and 1996 in NY and SF, but nothing that systematic.

    • Reply
      Trevor Hughes
      February 25, 2021 at 1:53 pm

      Thanks Thorsten, I did get a little obsessed

  • Reply
    anil mistry
    February 25, 2021 at 12:40 pm

    wonderful shots!

    • Reply
      Trevor Hughes
      February 25, 2021 at 1:55 pm

      Thanks Anil

  • Reply
    Adam Smith
    February 25, 2021 at 12:45 pm

    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!

    • Reply
      Trevor Hughes
      February 25, 2021 at 2:02 pm

      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.

  • Reply
    Fernando Martins
    February 25, 2021 at 12:46 pm

    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!

    • Reply
      Trevor Hughes
      February 25, 2021 at 2:21 pm

      Thanks very much Fernando for the positive comments

  • Reply
    Chris Pattison
    February 25, 2021 at 12:57 pm

    Great work Trevor. Thank you.

    • Reply
      Trevor Hughes
      February 25, 2021 at 2:21 pm

      Thanks Chris

  • Reply
    Brian Nicholls
    February 25, 2021 at 1:49 pm

    I love themes and this is a superb body of work. Great quality images too, well done!

    • Reply
      Trevor Hughes
      February 25, 2021 at 2:25 pm

      Thanks very much Brian

  • Reply
    Steve Brooke
    February 25, 2021 at 1:52 pm

    Very nice and can just imagine those small frame HP5 negs as 11X14’s … 👍

    • Reply
      Trevor Hughes
      February 25, 2021 at 2:28 pm

      Thanks Steve. I did darkroom prints up to 16×20 using a wonderful Leitz Focomat 1c enlarger.

  • Reply
    Eric Norris
    February 25, 2021 at 3:57 pm

    Excellent photos. If you haven’t already, you should watch “Red Light Go,” a 2002 documentary about NYC bike messengers: https://youtu.be/yMl7rbRCWsM

    • Reply
      Trevor Hughes
      February 25, 2021 at 5:37 pm

      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.

  • Reply
    HUSS
    February 25, 2021 at 5:20 pm

    Really great project, and what memories!
    Things have really changed now with companies using products like Docusign etc

    • Reply
      Trevor Hughes
      February 25, 2021 at 6:16 pm

      Thanks Huss. Many messengers have now switched to food delivery, work less hours and make more money.

  • Reply
    Fred Nelson
    February 25, 2021 at 6:38 pm

    WOW Nice! San Francisco was the same!

    • Reply
      Trevor Hughes
      February 25, 2021 at 9:25 pm

      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.

  • Reply
    adventurepdx
    February 25, 2021 at 8:21 pm

    Great series, Trevor! I remember coming across the photos on flickr several years back and digging it. Good to read the backstory.

    And I agree: a book/zine would be great!

    • Reply
      Trevor Hughes
      February 25, 2021 at 9:32 pm

      Thanks Shawn and thanks for the encouragement on a book/zine.

  • Reply
    Albert Smith
    February 25, 2021 at 8:57 pm

    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.

    • Reply
      Trevor Hughes
      February 25, 2021 at 9:35 pm

      Thanks Albert I’m glad you liked the series

  • Reply
    Rob
    February 26, 2021 at 2:25 am

    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?

    • Reply
      Trevor Hughes
      February 26, 2021 at 3:05 pm

      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.

      • Reply
        Rob Perez
        February 26, 2021 at 8:44 pm

        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!

  • Reply
    Graeme
    February 26, 2021 at 12:25 pm

    A really good set of images. Thanks for sharing.

    • Reply
      Trevor Hughes
      February 26, 2021 at 2:48 pm

      You are most welcomed Graeme

  • Reply
    Floyd Takeuchi
    February 26, 2021 at 12:52 pm

    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.

    • Reply
      Trevor Hughes
      February 26, 2021 at 2:56 pm

      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.

  • Reply
    Karl Hamilton
    February 26, 2021 at 1:18 pm

    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

    • Reply
      Trevor Hughes
      February 26, 2021 at 3:19 pm

      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.

  • Reply
    cody
    February 26, 2021 at 8:04 pm

    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.

    • Reply
      Trevor Hughes
      February 26, 2021 at 9:33 pm

      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).

  • Reply
    Brad Carson214
    March 2, 2021 at 11:58 am

    We where so lucky to have you as a friend & to document such a special time in all our lives, friendships that have stood the test of time, stay well & bee safe

    • Reply
      Trevor Hughes
      March 2, 2021 at 4:30 pm

      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.

  • Reply
    Dan
    March 2, 2021 at 5:38 pm

    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.

    • Reply
      Trevor Hughes
      March 2, 2021 at 9:25 pm

      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.

  • Reply
    ANDREW BENNETT
    March 2, 2021 at 10:09 pm

    I LOVE THE STYLE OF SHOOTING, I THINK B+W FOR PEOPLE SAYS SO MUCH MORE THAN COLOUR. A COUPLE OF FRAMED PRINTS WOULD MAKE EXCELLENT PRESENTS IN THE FUTURE ???

    • Reply
      Trevor Hughes
      March 3, 2021 at 1:33 am

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

  • Reply
    George
    March 5, 2021 at 7:19 pm

    So wonderful. Insane functional fashion! I love these photos. (Age 79, “utility photographer.”)

    • Reply
      Trevor Hughes
      March 5, 2021 at 9:27 pm

      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.

  • Reply
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  • Reply
    el Gandul
    March 29, 2021 at 9:00 pm

    Amazing portraits.

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