Peer POV: The Grand Poobah (part 1 / 3)
Just one week after the finale of the Tour de France on the Champs Élysées in Paris, I was strolling down Main Street in a little seaside town in Eastern Long Island as I ran into one of the local icons, a salty ole used book peddler, sitting on his stoop. He asked if I was just back from shooting the Tour and how it all shaped up in the end with the nighttime finish. We mused about the evolution of this great sporting spectacle, the Corsican topography, and the reigning champ, Chris Froome. The next words he uttered were “Well, as Graham Watson always says…”
And so goes the tale – a name had come up so synonymous with any and all Grand Tour bike racing that I didn’t even hear all that he was quoting. I merely smiled while I replayed all the images I have of Graham out there working these last five years and merely grasped at what would have been the previous decades’ worth of his legacy. A legacy so pervasive that someone without any discernible ties to the industry of cycling and sport used him as their barometer. That kind of legacy.
During the Vuelta a España, on a balmy night in Burgos, Spain, Jim and I sat down with Graham for what materialized into a four hour dinner. While that evening will be immortalized in my mind as one of the great highlights of cycling storytelling, the interview below merely dives into the surface of illuminating “Who is Graham Watson?”
Q: In person, you have a somewhat reserved and enigmatic persona; but on twitter, you often come across as quite outspoken. So, who is the real Graham Watson?
A: They’re both real. On twitter, I tend to respond to other people in quite a different way than the quiet, reserved person that you think I am… which I am. Twitter can be provocative. People provoke me and I can provoke them back. So, there’s a bit of aggression that comes through twitter – I can say a lot more in writing that I can in talking. I don’t say much [normally]. I don’t need to. Twitter I treat as a fun tool or way of entertaining people… without meaning to be provocative… but I also know I can be. Anyone can be. So, that’s the real me. And also the other real me, the one I prefer to be, the quiet one who sits in the corner, reads the paper, quiet restaurant, beautiful bottle of wine, food, where nobody bothers me. I like solitude. I’ve always been like that.
Q: Do you perceive yourself to be an icon in cycling photography?
A: I try not to. I do work that I do because I want to do it. I definitely don’t look for any adoration or applause or criticism. But obviously it’s there. I wouldn’t allow myself to even say it – that I’m iconic. I know people say all the time “Oh, I’ve seen your pictures since 1984.” And it really pleases me but it doesn’t go to my head. I’m happy with what I’ve done; I love what I’ve done. I’ve done it for myself, not for anybody else.
Q: Have you ever been a mentor to someone [looking to break into cycling photography]?
A: If anyone ever emails me, I always, always, always help; because years ago, if I could remember, people helped me. You never forget that. I’ve had people ask if they could work with me for a year, which is an honor if you like. And if I felt I could teach somebody, mentor somebody, I would. But, as you know, the logistics of just looking after yourself are so huge, I can’t imagine having to take care of somebody I don’t know – who you may not even get on with – in this business, on a motorbike everyday, there’s just no room to have someone tagging along. The only way to have someone tagging along is if they become you. But it’s still nice to be asked.
Q: Do the athletes inspire you and do other photographers inspire you?
A: Yes and yes. Cyclists always inspire me. I live off them [literally]. And also subconsciously they’re doing something I could never do or never managed to do. Which is race as a pro. So when you see somebody that is doing something you would have loved to have done, but wasn’t good enough, that forms the basis of your respect. And not just the champions but the people that are trying to be the champions. That’s part of the love of it. Seeing people that aren’t as good as the best ones but they are a million times better than you ever were.
About the other photographers – digital photography has brought in droves and droves and droves of photographers. Some people get all negative about it and say “Ah Jesus, everybody’s taking pictures these days!” Well I say it’s actually quite healthy. Unless you really are in love with yourself, you take the trouble to look at other people’s work. Because you learn from it. So if you see someone coming along who appears to be very good, you don’t close your eyes to it. You look at their work and you try to appreciate it – not as a threat – it’s like their keeping you on your toes. So photographers do inspire me as well.
Q: Did Lance [Armstrong] change the landscape of your profession?
A: Lance didn’t change it; he enhanced it. The key thing to being a successful photographer or journalist or whatever… is to have something to talk about or something to photograph. So you rely on that without realizing it – you knowing in advance – you rely on people like Sean Kelly, like Greg LeMond, and the whole lineage of cyclists who come out during your career. And Lance was always one of the best ones, for good or for bad.
Q: Are you still as inspired today as you were 10, 15, 20 years ago?
A: Yes. Yeah, definitely. What has inspired me all through my career as it does today is the determination to continue the lifestyle. Which sounds very simple. But it’s actually true. If you work well, if you sell enough pictures, if you get enough money in – you don’t need to get a proper job. You get to be a cycling photographer. And, as you know, which a lot of people don’t understand, that more than half of that enjoyment is the love of travel. The adventure. The logistics you have to overcome everyday; there must be at least 10 logistical things that confront you and you work your way around them. So, partly I love photography, I love cycling, I love to travel, and I love the [logistical] challenge. That inspiration will never go away.