Oi Polloi

Interview: Windy Osborn — BMX Photographer

Published: Wed Oct 08 2014

This was published in August last year, but seeing as we’re in the midst of a ‘slow news week’, we thought we may as well knock it back under your nose for a while.

There’s no best and worst when it comes to photography, but some people are just better than others — Windy Osborn is definitely one of these people. Shooting BMXers in the 70s and 80s, her up-close, high-zoot shots captured BMX with a dose of straight-up rawness rarely seen in ‘action-sports photography’. Here she discusses how she got started, her own attempts at riding and her time working with a young Spike Jonze.

First of all, how’s it going?

Great, thanks for asking. I’ve finally had a chance, this last year, to focus on converting the best of the classic shots of mine from back in the 80’s to digital, and uploading them to my website. I still have some stragglers, but the best of the best are now up and purchasable, for the serious collectors.

How did you get started taking BMX photos?

When we first began going to the BMX races in like 1973, my father would be the race starter and RL would race (Editor’s note: Windy’s brother and freestyle pioneer). My father lent me his Minolta SLR to take pictures, so I would have something to do for fun. Because my father was a photography enthusiast he had his own darkroom set up at home. He processed my first roll, shot at 13, and said that I had a good eye. I thought he was just being the encouraging father he was supposed to be. As we became active deeper in BMX, we came across a newspaper, Bicycle Motocross News, published by Elaine Holt. My father became a contributing writer/photographer, reporting on California BMX racing, and eventually I contributed my works and ended up being a staff photographer for the paper, first published at 14.

Your brother R.L. was one of the first people to really push ‘freestyle’ riding in the 80s. Did you ever ride yourself?

No, no, no — my only attempt behind the bars was way back in 73, when I entered a side-hack race with my trusty girlfriend, Theresa Grenke, as my monkey. This was at the Redondo Beach track, which was actually a great little local track, built on the side of a hill. So… nice downhill from the start, big jump and then into a berm — scared the s#@t out of me! And I realized at that point it was a lot safer behind the camera than the bars! Besides, being the photog’ had its advantages for being able to meet boys. Where I was shy normally, the camera was a handy tool in many ways.

You shot the cover of the first issue of BMX Action when you were sixteen, did you think anything of it at the time?

It was cool. I know my dad and I used to kinda compete for the cover, so there was always this friendly rivalry between us. He didn’t like that I could take such good pics with such ease. He said he had to work at it, whereas it was natural for me.

Even nowadays, BMX is fairly male-orientated; did you feel any sort of animosity being a girl taking photos at BMX competitions, or do you think it helped you get the shots?

There’s something very self-driving when you find yourself in a situation where the odds appear to be stacked against oneself, so I enjoyed being in the “what’s a girl doing that for?” situation. All I wanted to do was show them I could, and better than anyone else. More than anything, I was into shooting for the art and the opportunity to speak loudly and communicate my vision, of what I was experiencing. Men look at things very differently than a woman. The men who shot, looked at it as journalism and documenting, I looked at it as “OMG!!! Look at what these kids are doing!” I was so blown away and impressed; I wanted to make them bigger than life, through my vision.

Shot with a fish-eye lens and often with a lot of motion blur, your photos weren’t really like anyone else’s. What were you looking at for inspiration back then?

I wanted to show the insides of their heart and souls, I wanted people to be able to taste the excitement. That’s why I got so close, and closer and closer…and I found that when you crop in, you change the perspective of viewing to being more involved in the action, rather than standing back safely and viewing from a distance.

You took Spike Jonze under your wing when he was a teenager. What was it like working with him?

Comical. His advantage was hanging with the guys, as to where I didn’t necessarily fit in to hang with them… so I wanted to make my art and then get out of their way. Remember, I WAS shy at heart.

When was the last time you shot a BMX photo? Is it something you’d like to come back to?

‘89, I believe at the Oklahoma Grand Nationals… and YES! I’ve been wanting to get my hands on the 14-24 Nikon lens and then go up to Santa Cruz and shoot Wilkerson… we have a standing date. I’m anxious to find out how the digital camera works with my style of shooting. Digital is so awesome because of its instantaneousness and convenience, even though I use it old school style. I am looking forward to that moment…soon.

See more of Windy’s photographs here, or scroll down for a few personal favourites.