1/1000 is the optimal shutter speed used in sports & action photography and a STEAK®S Stories interview series with sports photographers.
Our second interviewee in this series is Joe Mac – the photographer from Toronto Canada who has been shooting roller derby since 2009. He captured the image of Falcon Punch that we used in our neon orange posters this summer. But in his long photographer career, he has captured far more than that. Joe was kind enough to share stories and knowledge that he has accumulated during this time. It is a highly interesting read – an adventure story, so grab a cup of your favourite hot beverage, snuggle up and enjoy:
How did you start out as a photographer? What were the early days like?
The track is my studio.
The first time I saw Bonnie D. Stroir was in Ontario back in November 2011 at Tri-City Rollergirls, then she came back the following year to Fergus. Aside from sharks and seals, my takeaway and I paraphrase the quote as best I remember (as in the myth of turning coal into diamond): “There is a shinier version of you on the other side.”
My first time touching a camera was my dad’s Leica IIIf which is a supremely good rangefinder camera with the world’s sharpest lenses. My Journalism photography teacher told me as much while I was learning photography (still am!) and trying to shoot basketball and musicians. I actually took that camera to Stonehenge the first time I ever went to England. I would study the photography magazines from the 1950s which was the era of Leica, Rolleiflex, Hasselblad, Graflex and other classic cameras, trying to learn about f-stops, shutter speed and film.
My field experience and masterclasses became the clubs of Toronto, observing the stage lighting at The Rivoli or the Horseshoe where I spent thousands of nights with the crowd shooting countless punk bands or new wave guitarists in action in the Toronto music scene. The fashionistas in the after-hours dance clubs were willing camera models, whether on the dancefloor or sleeping til dawn when after locking up the doors, everybody would head over to the Mars restaurant or the McDonald’s (depending on whether you were at Twilight Zone or Voodoo) for breakfast then waiting for the subway to start operating.
The music was the driving force and “I’m with the band” didn’t even have to be said as I went through the door. Cowboy Junkies did a month of Tuesdays at the Diamond Club and I would be on the floor at the front photographing (with my first Nikon FM) Margo Timmins and her brother Michael and the original line-up on the low stage. There was barely anyone there in the first or second week, but the last concert at the end of the month was packed, and I was lucky to have a spot beside the leg of a table. It would be a major step up, I would be on magazine assignment photographing major bands at Molson Amphitheatre, alongside the likes of another photographer shooting for the record label itself, or Music Express or coming in from an assignment for Rolling Stone in some far-off land, even Australia. I still have the Nikon 35-70 f/2.8 macro lens (manual focus!) that I bought from one of the photographers.
It was with these people that we went to an Edgefest in Barrie, Ontario by limo. So travelling with the cameras and lenses and all the film was already becoming innate. By this time I had the Nikon FM and the MD10 motor drive and the N8080 which was one of Nikon’s first consumer autofocus film cameras. For lenses, I had spent a minor fortune on the 80-200 f/2.8, and some fixed lenses such as the 50 f/1.8, 85 f/2, 105 f/2.5 and even the beautiful 180 f/2.8 macro which came directly from the States. I learned quickly at the Alanis Morissette concert at Molson Park in Barrie, Ontario that autofocus did not work on constantly moving objects going from one end of the stage to the other, especially ones wearing all black and hunched over walking backwards.
We had the likes of U2 Bono staring straight at me during the Zoo TV tour, or The Rolling Stones’ Keith, David Bowie, The Who, Smashing Pumpkins, Foo Fighters, No Doubt, Green Day, Rancid, Soundgarden, Garbage, The Ramones, Tragically Hip. Those were just some of the acts in front of our lenses at the Edgefests, Lollapalooza, Summersaults, we all standing on the riser or from the photographer’s pit separated only by a fence barrier and a few security guards from thousands of sweaty teens in the mosh pits.
The transition to derby from shooting concerts wasn’t seamless, but serendipitous. Whip It! was debuting at the Toronto International Film Festival, and the skaters posing as TXRG Hurl Scouts were skating around Yonge Dundas Square, posing for photos with snakes. Shooting the derby experience wasn’t totally analogous but there were just as many costumes and weird looks as having Marilyn Manson spitting on you or Hole propped up on a stage riser. And just as always it was waiting for the moment with the same observant eye.
And then came roller derby photography! Tell us more about the beginnings.
Oh really? Chasing some more derby dreams?
(A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step)
In the beginning AKA passion/obsession.
It was the middle of the night on a solitary highway, the only illumination provided by the headlights of the car I was in taking me to an unknown destination in the middle of nowhere. The car made its turn-off and stopped on the shoulder. Ahead, another car hidden in the darkness blinks its lights in recognition. I got out of the car into the new one and with a transfer of baggage and sundry, the exchange was made. The cars went their separate ways, and I was on my way to the safe house. I was given formal introductions to my new handler and her daughter. In the morning, we were on our way to photographing my first ever D2 playoffs in Lansing.
Those were early days and four cameras and two sets of lights ago. Why do we do it to the point we have four working Nikon cameras, a cornucopia of pure Nikon lenses ranging from fisheye wide-angle to macro and almost the trinity of zoom lenses? It has to be the sport, exploring strange new worlds and leagues that allow you through their doors. Derby has been the excuse to find me running through airports, buying a World Series baseball cap in O’Hare in the Windy City the day the Cubs were to win the World Series, or hearing your name on the speaker for the last call and knocking on the glass at the gate on Icelandair in Keflavik.
Care to share some of your most memorable roller derby travel stories?
The first road trip was in 2010 to Kitchener-Waterloo to photograph the Thunder of Tri-City Rollergirls hosting the Queen City Rollergirls Lake Effect Furies from Buffalo, New York across the lake. I think it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship which encompassed both leagues as we have often hit the road to both leagues. Queen City was my first crossing into the USA was to see and photograph derby. (My second visited league would be the world of Detroit, then the fifth-ranked league in the North Central region.) Queen City had its own league with four original home teams in addition to the Furies All-Star team who were playing and practising in the old-style Rainbow Roller Rink, a wooden floor roller skating rink by day and derby on the weekends. The QCRG were coming into Ontario often, bouting in Hamilton, London or Kitchener-Waterloo along with Toronto and Montreal. Queen City was a second family, often hosting me overnight and taking me to see the sights of their hometown and attend Sunday practices before I headed back across the border on the Greyhound bus.
Lamington and pie time in New Zealand
Papercut from Pirate City Rollers emailed me from New Zealand for photos for publicizing the first ever Full Contact Convention derby training camp with some of the topnotch coaches of the game. They aimed at uniting and growing the New Zealand derby community. Somehow I talked myself into actually taking pictures at Trusts Arena in Auckland. This being my first trip to foreign electricity, all the worries were worried. Would my Einstein lights blow up? Foreign current plugs and adapters had to be found and bought. Recharging batteries and my Macbook. Where the likes of London Rollergirls Stefanie Mainey, Brawlin Angel, Raw Shark (referee), VRDL Tui Lyon,, Evil K Knevil. Lady Trample showed where Chicks in Bowls trained (before she was VRDL), Scald Eagle told me she built the trophy case for Rose City’s Hydra for the venue in Portland, on Superbowl Sunday Quadzilla was explaining the rules of American football to the ladies from VRDL and LRG.
During the rest of the week in Auckland, we were driven to a night scrimmage between Auckland’s other league ARDL and Pirate City Rollers B team. The site was actually a floor hockey rink on sports court. After the Full Convention and the Bent Track Vagina Regime tournament, there was a day to see the island of Waiheke. While Auckland is in the North Island, our trek to New Zealand finished in the south at Queenstown. On a bus ride through Wanaka, we discovered actual Tim Tams at a grocery store and because of Susy Pow rants we had to purchase some. Food, of course, is always important to survival so Ferburger and Devilburger is a must in Queenstown, NZ. And a meat pie from a corner shop while trying to catch a train in Auckland.
Pastry and Kaurismaki in Finland
For local fare Usvi Nataliella on the way to the first ever FINvitational tourney at Pasilan Urheiluhalli in Helsinki suggested the Karjalanpiirakka and Leipäjuusto and I was taken into the cinematic world and the actual Sirdie Bar seen in Aki Kaurismaki movies (The Man Without A Past, Leningrad Cowboys) which are shown on the screens of film festivals everywhere. Finland was the stepping stone into the biggest adventure. The resolute Rezista from Hammer Area Roller Derby happened to mention the team had been invited to play in Iceland and I may have casually mentioned I would photograph for the team in a heartbeat. The Golden Circle Girls had just adopted a photographer and the rest is history.
52 in 52 in 2015
It should go without saying that derby gets to the heart, the soul seekers in this sport do it for the love of the game. Travel is part and parcel of the experience. There is a George Clooney and Anna Kendrick movie Up In The Air that summarized the spirit of my travels in 2015 as we were doing the 52 in 52. Endeavouring to cover each of the D1 playoff rounds flying to both coasts. I hit the first D1 in 2015 with Tri-City Thunder in Tucson, Arizona on September 4-6. The following week Ohio Rollergirls were my league team at Dallas September 11-13, the next week to Jacksonville, Florida September 18-20 which featured ridiculous defences from London and Jacksonville. I should mention that between each tournament I was flying back to Toronto on the Monday to change into being a Canadian, then flying out again on the Thursday. There was a week break before Omaha, Nebraska October 2-4 where Gotham was defending champions from 2014 and seeded #1. Omaha was familiar territory for those who have seen the movie Up in the Air. Thanks to Whips and Punch for the drive to my hotel. Omaha for some reason was where the east coast teams from Montreal, Queen City and Toronto fell into the playoff pool. Even Boston was there. And some craziness from Helsinki Roller Derby. Familiar foes Queen City and Toronto had to fly all the way to Nebraska to face each other in the first round.
Joe has travelled the whole world in the name of roller derby and has been the team photographer of many teams, but there is one city and one team he feels connected to the most:
We are here for the OHIO Just when I thought I was out …
I have had the best of times with the various incarnations of Ohio through to the present. They have been kind enough to choose me as their team photographer through their playoff runs at the last of the regionals in 2012, their runs at D1, actually being at Championships in 2013, and D2 and its new incarnation as the various regional Continental Cups. Ohio has come up to Ontario a few times to play back to back doubleheader and hangover bouts starting in 2012, two tournaments in Ontario in 2013 and 2018. Suffice to say, I will go great distances to support the OHRG now the OHRD. I have taken the nearly 10-hour bus ride a few times or been driven to Columbus to see Ohio play and I have been picked up at 5 in the dead of morning after the bus made its stop by the dog park. I have photographed the All-Stars and the Gang Green play in front of their great fan base against the likes of Cincinnati, Naptown and Tri-City twice in their wonderful venue at the Ohio Expo Center. Plus they did land me a magazine cover for fiveonfive.
For playoffs, I was called in to cover their team at the last of the regionals in 2012 at Thrill of the Spill in Niagara Falls, NY (as opposed to the Canadian side) hosted by the Queen City Rollergirls from Buffalo, NY actually. In the year 2013 Ohio went from placing second during my debut at a D1 in Fort Wayne, Indiana — with all the craziness surrounding the first appearance of London Rollergirls and our first witnessing of Scald Eagle and a 49 point jam for Rose City — all the way to my first chance shooting D1 Championships in Milwaukee where we definitely saw derby on the edges. Ohio knocked out Rat City in the first round and as their reward they faced Gotham. Evansville, Indiana in 2014 was the start of the next go round in the playoffs. 2015 was that year’s edition of Midwest BrewHaHa and the D1 in Dallas. After being the green and white (and black)’s designated photographer again for their D2 playoffs appearance in Pittsburgh, PA in 2017, it was a good chance to get a respite away from the divisional circuit and all the airports.
After all, 2017 was the year of years with all the wonderful experiences of Iceland in March, hitting Detroit for Championships and their Star Wars bout, seeing Montreal travel to Queen City in their fabulous new home in Riverworks, then off in May and June to Stockholm for 10th year anniversary tournament and the Kallio FINvitational in Helsinki in June. Helsinki is just one of those modern and old cities, so easy to get around and so easy to get lost in, as in lost in the sights and the architecture. They may consider themselves a dour lot on the outside, but they do like their downtown party at night and Black Grill and Cafe burgers from the truck in the square hit the spot for a late night snack.
Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.
Ohio in their infinite wisdom came up to Ontario again in 2018 to play in a tournament and the connection was back on. So even though it had been a more than busy and fulfilling year with Miracle Whips boot camp in Kitchener-Waterloo, then straight off to World Cup in January and February 2018 to serve as team photographer for Team Iceland, there I was again trackside following the Ohio All-Stars and the Gang Green B team. When Ohio was invited to the first of the new Continental Cup format tournaments in Kalamazoo, Michigan, the Ohio league let me come on board again.
So why do I have this abiding attachment to the green team? Well, they do keep me in shirts that change year after year. Best Sport Ever may be my favourite shirt after Making It Reign. Plus Ohio logo hats. They also endeavour to keep this photographer fed at the tournaments which is a good thing in my books. When one is in all the madness of a long day of tournaments and playoff with their onslaught of scheduled games and the attendant exhaustion and the brevity of breaks in between to try to get to cameras recharged or process photos, food is always welcome. And this year the Ohio hoodie was accorded to me. On it is the logo Ohio ’Til I Die. That is exactly how I feel. They also are a funny bunch especially with the presence of Tri-City around, and underneath it, all is deep knowledge and a commitment to spirit, hard work and sweat. When Coach Marron was around, you just knew he was the one who was going to fight for every point for the team. There must be something in the green milk they drink in Ohio.
September saw me once again back in Reykjavik to shoot for Team Iceland as they had invited the Texas Rollergirls Honky Tonk Heartbreakers for a bout. It was so nice to see friendly Icelandic faces again and listen to the language which I will never be able to pronounce. I was taken to photograph practice as they got ready for Texas, and the rest of the days were spent recuperating from the afterparty, going to my favourite record stores in Reykjavik, seeing my favourite band at a club, and exploring more of the coasts of Iceland. And of course, the hot dogs and Appelsin! The best of both worlds.
Something tells me I will be back. To quote Tony Wilson of Factory Records and Joy Division, New Order fame: “Travel broadens the mind.”
Other than the connection with Ohio: what has kept you motivated throughout the years?
The affirmation comes from a serendipitous discovery of Philip Glass’s opera The Photographer on vinyl. Philip Glass wrote a three-act piece based on Muybridge’s life and trial for the murder of his wife’s lover. The inner liner notes from Glass can tell you more. The calm, then the chaos and frenzy in Act III express the emotional gamut of this photographer trying to capture those quiet and decisive moments on the track. It just sang to the feelings I have while photographing. It perfectly denotes to me that I am a photographer. (Eadweard Muybridge was a photographer of the West in the 19th century and known for his motion capture studies of animals.)
The acquisition of The Photographer on record was accompanied by the book of Ansel Adams in the Canadian Rockies photos taken during a trip with the Sierra Club in 1928 confirmed my commitment to the trip.
Then the messages come on the social network from friends and players asking for permission to use one of my actual photographs for their profile for a website, or a retiring or not player looking for a memory or mementoes from their playing days, or a league looking for publicity photos. Sometimes it is even an actual equipment or protective apparel (full disclosure: thanks STEAKS®!) . Very early on, I was shocked to find out that fiveonfive magazine’s editor had gone through some of my photos on one of my early web pages and wanted to actually use one of my photos of jammer Landshark from a Tri-City doubleheader with Toronto. Thus began the connection with my fiveonfive magazine editor Assaultin Pepa (who by the way blocks on Rocky Mountain and a star of the derby documentary Derby Baby) and subsequently four magazine covers and photos on the pages.
BIG ACHIEVEMENTS: The first Roller Derby World Cup 2011
Exciting things were happening in derby around the world and even in Toronto. The first Blood and Thunder Training Camp in Toronto on a snowy December 2010 weekend for four days at The Hangar, the playing venue for Toronto. (Blood and Thunder then was the magazine for Skaters from all over Ontario and Canada were registering for the training and scrimmages, the culmination of which was two All-Stars teams were being selected out of the best of the players by coaches for a black versus white bout. It marked the appearance of Nickel City Roller Derby, the league from Sudbury who were making their presences known, especially with their names adorned on the back of their team jackets. (This was not the Nickel City Knockouts from Queen City, to clarify.) The subsequent chain of events led to the first Blood and Thunder World Cup in 2011 and Toronto would be the host city at its new venue: the Bunker, pillars and all.
I was chosen as one of the photographers for Blood and Thunder magazine itself by Ziv Kruger who knew about derby and Texas. Ziv was just as proficient a photographer as he was a guide and editor. With his background shooting fashion, he knew about lighting hot, posing the model and all the rest. That night before the first day of the World Cup, teams were still strategizing and getting used to each other. Media were still being accredited. The Bunker, while almost nice to shoot at during daytime with the light coming through any windows, was a nightmare to photograph in by the time the sun set with its eery overhead lights that cast all manner of green on resultant pictures. To that end, Blood and Thunder rented its own lighting rigs for the two tracks.
The important lesson learned out of the World Cup was every picture tells a story. And you have to do it the best you can. It is a saying that I abide by to this very day. Seeing things on the edge requires commitment, borne out of inspiration by an engagement with what is in front of you on the track. The thrill of victory and the drama of defeat, or the winning within the defeat knowing everyone did their best. The stories within and outside the story. There were a lot of stories at the World Cup. A song lyric goes you should never meet your heroes. Nonetheless, there was the sensation of the Team USA Stars vs. Stripes exhibition, feeling the full force of the wind that blew as the teams simultaneously raced around the track at warm-up. For me, it was seeing Bonnie Thunders, Suzy Hotrod and Juke Boxx doing her thing on the edge of the track.
What do you concentrate on during a game? What is most important to you?
EYE ON THE PRIZE
What people have to realize about roller derby is roller derby is a full-on contact sport and it is blood on the track. It is beyond mesh and lace and the days of Joan Weston or Skinny Minny Miller. How many skaters were inspired by the fever of Whip It! or Rollergirls? Every picture tells a story, and your pictures are telling new stories about the players and the sport. Derby is either in your blood or it isn’t. Once you are in, you are all the way in.
A once upon a time comment on one of my pictures said I was a blocker’s dream photographer. She is right on that. For me, the key is Derby is a contact sport with hits, and blocks and schemes and scenarios. It demands your full concentration and an objective scrutinous eye. Stay sharp and stay focused. Expect the unexpected. Oh, how can I forget the unexpected? Derby proposals galore at playoffs including Rocky Mountain at the end of a game with Detroit in Montreal. The icing on the cake has been actual weddings, whether they be the perfect Lord of the Rings theme wedding in Hamilton, or at the Masonic Temple during half-time.
What do you want the roller derby world to understand about roller derby photographers?
What people may not realize is it is not just a matter of showing up and unloading and setting up my lights and finding electricity and calling it my style, but that style is work. It is a product of trial and error on the road and using the best camera equipment and lighting I could afford and transport at the time.
Recalling the days of film, what takes place in the proverbial darkroom is just as crucial as when you acted in that decisive moment. I pride myself in my post-processing and editing on the computer, to make each subject special. It is a craft in itself and comes with the experience.The other demand is turnover, a practice carried over from journalistic days and nights meeting deadlines. I do strive to get the shots out by the day after the bout, yet getting it right. Coming off the bus and lugging all the gear into the house, then finding cards and starting the computer process. It is just not a matter of dumping everything from your camera without touching them and placing them all online and saying here you go. Derby is a never-ending investment in cameras, the lenses and everything to deal with them including inevitable repairs and replacements. Plus there are lights, flashes, stands, battery packs, travelling to the city is out of your own pocket but it is nice when a league will take the time to pick you up at the bus or train station. For travel on the road or on the plane, the best Lowepro camera bag I have right now was bought in Helsinki at Verkkokaupa.com for almost 200 euros and I have taken a hard case on wheels down to Ohio which Chainsaw deadlifted into the bus stowaway for me when the bus driver wouldn’t. It proved to be eighty pounds in weight. The other matter is that photography is often a thankless task that can get taken for granted as the machine inhales and grinds on.
Another investment is in the fastest computer that can do the job of handling the post-processing task. After a single or double-header, I would typically take about 900 to 2000 shots and fill up one or two 128gb cards and depending on the camera that could be 24 MB sized photos or 45 MB photos with a RAW (or in the Nikon parlance .NEF) and jpeg version of each. The photos are copied onto 8TB drives connected to my MacBook Pro Retina.
You could say, life in and around the roller derby world has been a grand adventure. Out of it has come great friendships and memories of chasing waterfalls and far-off treks and tracks I would never have dared to dream of before.
The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.