Text by Tetsuhiko Endo; Photographs courtesy of Brett Beyer
Photographer Brett Beyer has shot everything from still lifes in tiny studios in Manhattan to landscapes in California. It should come as no surprise, then, that he jumped at the chance to photograph the emerging activity of urban free running, or parkour, as it is known in its native France.
“When I first saw parkour on television, my visceral reaction was that it was really cool. But on a deeper level, I was intrigued by the way that they reinvented the urban landscape,” he explains. “I am very interested in how people interact with their environments – especially urban ones. For me, a bus stop is a place where I wait for the bus, but for a traceur [the preferred moniker of parkour participants, literally “one who traces”] it is a launch pad for different kinds of movement.
ADVENTURE recently sat down with Brett look at photos and talk about his new book, NY Parkour, and how he captured the young traceurs of the urban jungle in their natural environment. Through a combination of light manipulation and the natural dynamism of his subjects, he creates images that both freeze and evoke the passage of time – what he calls “movies that last a single frame.”
“Almost everything they do is improvisational, so as I photographed them, I tried to be that way as well,” he says, referring to the spontaneous approach he took to shooting. “I definitely set up some of the shots, but a lot of the best ones came from the traceurs seeing some feature like a big ledge or stair set, then just moving freely over it as I snapped away in the background.” He is the first to admit that with action photography things don’t always go according to plan – flashes misfire, colors bleed, wrists twitch — but insists that these kinds of gaffes often produce the best photos. “Sometimes innovation is born of chance and luck.”
Take a look at the following photos then read the captions to see Brett’s insights on parkour, the art of photography, and where the buy the best rope lights in New York city. You can download Brett’s book for free at his website.
This is a composite shot, which is a technique that I picked up from working with still life photographers. The basic idea is that you put your camera on a tripod and photograph everything at different times then put it all together on a computer. In this case, I shot the background, then had him do the same jump three different times. Finally I took all the pictures back to the computer and combined them into one. You can see a strobe in his left hand. It was supposed to go off but for whatever reason malfunctioned. Far from ruining the shot, I was very pleased with how it turned out without it.
We call these miniature, automatic flashbulbs that the traceur is holding “slaves.” They can be frustrating to work with because they don’t always fire when you want them to, but even when they don’t work the results can be interesting.
I really like this shot because of the ghosting effect I was able to achieve by using a technique called “shutter drag.” When the traceur reached the midpoint of his jump I snapped the shot while a remote flash fired at the same time. Then I left the shudder open as he kept falling. The open shudder combined with the fading ambient light created the ghostly transparent effect that you see at his back. Any part that the flash doesn’t hit as much appears more “ghostly” or transparent.
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There is something very punk rock about parkour and I think this photo speaks to that. The majority of the young men involved in it roll around town looking for different spots to practice in on these long boards. To them, it’s all about fun and the freedom of movement. They don’t call it a sport, they call it an activity and they never say they are doing tricks – instead, they say “movements.”
This is a type of photography that I like to call “light sculptures” or “light paintings” and it is achieved, once again by using long exposures. By leaving the shudder open through the entire jump and then firing a mounted flash when he reaches the point where I want him to appear in the picture I can make it look like the light in his left hand is actually shooting off ahead of him. In truth, he his body is with the light the entire time you just can’t see it due to the lack of light without the flash.
This is another long exposure light sculpture. I go to Chinatown in order to get rope lights like you see at Christmas time. In this photo I got a red rope light, attached it to a battery pack and wound it around the traceur’s torso. I like how the waves of red light seem to trace his past and future trajectory.
I like this photo because, once again, not everything went according to plan. My wrist moved slightly as I was taking the picture and threw the end product slightly out of focus. However, I think the blur adds a certain sense of dynamism to the image and gives the viewer a better feel for how fast the traceur was moving through the air.