A goodbye to my friend Jessi Combs— educator, welder and fabricator, land speed record holder, motorcycle builder, TV show host, off-road racer, Queen of the Hammers, beautiful, bad ass, intelligent woman.
Interview: Ray Gordon, Photographer
Ever wanted to know a magician’s secrets? I’ll admit, seeing Ray Gordon’s photography over the years has often left me in a state of wonder. How, why, where?! What on earth came upon someone and compelled them to drive a Camaro off a cliff? I got the chance to ask him all these questions and more.
His project THROTTLED was most recently displayed at the fourth annual One Motorcycle Show in February (check out my review of the One Moto 2013 here) and helped set the tone for the entire event. Chances are you’ve seen his work before- like in the shot I posted of Tori and Amy riding a minibike on the beach, or on countless motorcycle and hotrod websites.
ML: Let’s start simple. While it might be obvious from looking at your work- what are your favorite things to shoot?
RG: I like shooting and gravitate toward any kind of lifestyle revolving around automotive, motorcycle or race culture. I really like being around people. It’s really odd because I think if I do have a niche, it’s people having fun with cars and motorcycles. Instead of just shooting cars and motorcycles. It’s more about the lifestyle, but for commercial work and to feed myself, jobs come where I do beauty shots of cars and motorcycles along with the lifestyle and fashion work. But what do I like to do? I much prefer to be around people.
This summer I had a dream job happen where Marlboro Black hired me to go on a two week shoot that was basically a road trip with hot rods and choppers… it was so fun, man. We traveled through Nevada, Utah, and Oregon… it was pretty incredible. If I could have every shoot be a shoot like that, you know- we got to go to Reno to shoot motorcycle road racing then to Bonneville to shoot hot rods on the Salt Flats then went down to Moab to shoot rock crawlers. It’s a little mix of both people and automotive.
ML: Clearly you have roots in hooliganism; fast cars, fast motorcycles. You mentioned that it’s almost like a white-trash secret life or what have you. Is that how you grew up?
RG: Yeah, I grew up in rural Ohio outside of Youngstown in a place called Lake Milton. I literally had cornfields around my house 360 degrees. We had dirtbikes, fourwheelers and threewheelers, and shotguns…
(ML) So how many bones have you broken?
Oh, I’m actually very lucky it’s only been a few fingers, toes, and my clavical. But stitches? I’ve got Frankenstein scars all over my body because for whatever reason I didn’t break the bones I just lacerated myself. But I mean my dad was a drag racer who built cars in the garage. He’s a big Pontiac guy. Now he builds engines and does these big professional competitions called the Engine Masters where these guys build crazy engines, put them on the Dyno and nerd out on who has the most horsepower within the same rules. The motors never go into cars. I was brought up around that and it’s funny how I was trying to fight that most my life. I don’t know, it’s funny when you let yourself be and use the tools you have. My mom worked at General Motors, my father, my uncles, grandfather- I come from the rust belts. There were always ten classic cars to keep three running. I’ve always had a car that I drive that’s reliable and then a hobby car. I’ve had that since I was 13 years old. To me that’s just what people do.
I think it’s funny sometimes when I talk to people and they’re like, “Why do you have so many cars?” My reply is, “Ch. You haven’t even seen my family. I have the minimum amount of vehicles right now to still be allowed at my family dinner. The very minimum.” My brother is the same way, he has like six vehicles right now.
ML: What did you do before photography, if anything?
RG: I worked in the snowboarding industry for a long time, when I got out of college my wife and I moved West with no idea where we were going to end up. We ran out of money in Colorado at Breckenridge and ended up working at the ski resorts. There was a small company there called Solid Manufacturing that had seven employees and within four years there were 170. My wife was the purchasing agent and I was the Production Manager. It actually ended up going out of business from bad financing but to this day it’s really strange how those formative years at that snowboard factory sealed a lot of my relationships that I still have today. Because a lot of people in snowboarding are right brained- they’re designers and photographers, writers, they own ad agencies or design firms. It’s just really crazy how still I have connections from that first decision I made after college. What am I going to do? I don’t know, fuck it- I’m going to run out West somewhere and settle down. Then I ended up making a halfway decent living for four or five years. That’s how I ended up in Oregon.
ML: Would you say Bonneville Speed Week and the BUB Motorcycle Speed Trials are important parts of American history and a huge part of both old time and modern day motor and gear heads?
RG: I think what’s really cool about both of those events is that they’re the last events where world records can be set. People like you and I can take a car or motorcycle out there and get a world record. You or I, no matter how much funding we got, they’re not going to let us run a NASCAR race. They’re not going to let us do NHRA racing. So it’s so cool that a semi-professional or a beginner can go out there and work hard, have an idea and fabricate something that for whatever reason be it mechanical or aerodynamic, they can walk away with a world title. It’s so cool for that, I think a lot of new ideas get made from that. “Why did this guy come out of nowhere and beat all of us?” Because he had a really cool idea, and then next thing you know three years later that’s in production at Honda.
And for people who haven’t been to that event, what I gravitate toward in Portland and the motorcycle culture is just like when you go to Bonneville, there’s zero ego. You can walk right into the pits, you can walk right up to some famous motorcycle that you’ve been looking at your whole life in a magazine and the guy hollers at to hand him a ¾ inch wrench from his toolbox. Bottles of water are priced at a dollar or what they should be, there’s no price gouging, no huge corporate sponsor. It’s just cool, it’s the last cool thing. I can’t think of anything else like it.
ML: Describe your Bonneville experience. Do you plan to go back this year?
RG: The first time I went to Bonneville, it was seriously one of those, for lack of better term, like a vision quest. You know like a bucket list thing I had to do in my life. It took forever for me to be able to arrange it. I was photographing one-off custom tires that Hurst Racing built for one of their clients. They hired me to shoot the tires and I mentioned I was going to Bonneville by myself and was going to sleep in my van. The owner of the company Cody is like, “I’ve never been either!” We didn’t know each other at the time and I was thinking, eh… he’s a client, I don’t know… that could be a disaster. Two grown men going on their first road trip. So I told him, “This is really special to me, and I need to go do this.” So he took no as an answer until about a week or two later when he calls me again. “Man, I’ve just been thinking about it nonstop. My friend Russ whose racing tires we shot backed out and isn’t racing this year so there’s a hotel room that they’ll give us.” So I’m all, okay… you know. Should I sweat my ass off in my van all night on the salt or be in air conditioning every night in a hotel room this dude’s going to hook me up with? So it could have went either way, it could have been the biggest disaster and it was not. It was the opposite- Cody and I bonded and became super great friends and had an incredible time.
It was just a religious experience. The coolest thing I got from it was that my whole life I’ve been looking at it magazines and Time Life books and it’s this quiet, peaceful, beautiful, serene thing.
Then you get there and it’s not. It’s this visceral, violent, amazing- I’m getting goosebumps right now talking about it. It was so cool that at age 43- I love that there are still surprises. You know, cause it’s quiet in a magazine, it’s quiet in a book. But then you get there and blown nitro injected Keith Black hemi is one of the most violent things you’ll ever hear. And to hear something coming from seven miles away at 500 miles an hour is just incredible. There are no words for it, you know. You have to do it, you have to see it. I’ll definitely be going back as many times as I can go back, you know? There’s nothing like it.
ML: What do you ride these days?
RG: I have a 2003 Triumph Bonneville Centennial, which I love. They made 1,061 of them, it’s one of the last carbureted ones. It’s made it England, and there’s only about a thousand of them in the world, and I just love that bike. It’s got a cool look, it’s patterned off one of the 60’s Bonnevilles, hand painted tank. I also have a 1960’s BSA 650 that Thor from See See is going to be building whenever a slot in the queue opens up. It’s a hard tail frame and we’re making a really early 1940’s inspired board tracker out of it. Those are my two bikes, but I’m gearing up to get the whole family into dirt biking.
ML: How long have you been riding?
RG: I’ve had a motorcycle since I can remember. Honda Z50 from the 60’s.
ML: Do you consider yourself a hooligan on the roads, or more of a tempered rider?
RG: My wife calls me “Safety Ray”, that’s a little pet name she has for me. I’m not a big risk taker to bodily injury. I’ve had my bell rung so many times that I’ve slowed it down. I’m somewhere in the middle, I mean I go on group rides and I’m definitely not in the front of the back, and I’m definitely not in the back of the pack. I like to ride and I like to ride hard, but it’s in wide open spaces where I can see… I’m just not a big chance taker. I ride with guys who just race to wherever they’re going and I can keep up with them, but I make sure I’m in the safest place I can be.
ML: Do you feel like the internet made you famous?
RG: The internet made me famous, hm. I would like to think I made myself famous, and I don’t think I’m famous. Am I famous? I mean, I don’t know. I feel like people know me for a certain thing that I do, but um… yes. Before the internet when I was working you’d just send out portfolios and 5×7 mailers and you’d hope that you’d get a campaign that you shoot that everyone sees in every magazine they pick up. Then the internet happened and you do a photo series that gets blogged and blogged and reblogged, blogged and reblogged you know? If you had have googled my name pre THROTTLED show, it would have been minute hits. But that, for whatever reason, tapped into a thing that was happening and a scene that was happening, and a resurgence of some vintage and nostalgic stuff of American heritage that was booming and happening. It got blogged and reblogged to death, so I don’t know if it’s famous but a lot of people saw it. So, yeah definitely… that was all free marketing. I didn’t have to pay for the 50 million- I don’t know how many hits it’s gotten but yeah- I didn’t have to pay for those hits. That was all free marketing. Which is yes, priceless. If my name is known, then yes the internet helped for sure.
ML: Recently I had the honor of meeting JP from The Selvedge Yard. Since I’ve actually been personally following his blog for over five years, that’s where I first saw some of your work. It wasn’t until later that I found out you were in the Pacific Northwest. How did he find your photography?
RG: It was funny because just this last One Moto Show was the first time I ever physically shook JP’s hand. I wanted to, you know, and I think I did… I probably mugged him and hugged him. Because it’s a weirdly interesting- I could tell the whole story, you know
I followed his blog for a long time, obviously it’s a huge blog, he’s really smart with what he chooses to show and it really hits home with me. When I had my very first THROTTLED show I sent him an invitation. It was basically a cold call, you know, a cold email. “Hey man, I’m doing this thing and here are some samples. If you’re going to be anywhere near Portland, come by.” He looked at my website after that and then asked me if I had any sample images and then he posted something… and it was INSANE. I got like 35,000 hits or something crazy within two days. There’s a lot of coincidences that happened all at the same time, you know… there are all these sayings about sitting still long enough and doing the same thing in life so luck knows where to find you. It was just one of those cases where by him doing that, Wieden + Kennedy got a Dodge/Chrysler account right at the same time, you know. All this cool shit just suddenly started happening. But I definitely feel like JP gave me the magic touch or something by liking what he saw and putting it out there for no gain, really. Just helpin’ a brother out. So when I did get to meet him it was an honor and a pleasure. I got to have some drinks with him, we had a really good time… I think we’ll be friends for life. He’s my kind of people. He’s like the Andy Warhol of American Heritage, he’s got something going on. He’s tapped into it for sure. Other people do it, but he digs really deep and he gets shit you haven’t seen before.
ML: Not to get all pro-Portland, but how do you feel about the motorcycle scene here? Is it all it’s hyped up to be?
RG: Yeah, I mean I love Portland. It’s such.. I mean, I have a theory about Oregon in general. I think that it must have been so hard for the settlers of the West in this state to get here, survive here, and set up life here. They needed each other and had to help each other over the fence, so to speak. You weren’t going to get through the winter without your neighbor, you needed your neighbor to help you put up some fence posts or whatever… take care of your family while you went out and did whatever.
Yes, community! It’s incredible. I grew up in the midwest where you can go to the same bar every night and sit next to the same dude. That dude will never look over at you and say hi. There’s some chip, there’s just some weird Eastern… everyone’s cut throat. You come out here and if you sit next to anybody at a bar or a restaurant you’re going to be friends before you leave the place. So all the posing and the cliques and the, “We ride this kind of motorcycle versus that kind of motorcycle…” it just seems not to exist here. Like some stinky social stigma. It’s a really cool big community.
I mean, I felt really intimidated when I started riding here and trying to meet people. I was surprised right away at how like, it almost seems like the bigger the group the friendlier the people. Every other experience I’ve had in any thing it seems like the opposite. Yeah, Portland is an incredible place.
It’s not just motorcycling, I mean that’s why I choose to live here. It’s so friendly that when I my parents visit they have a hard time with the friendliness. They’re from Youngstown, Ohio- and I wouldn’t say they have a problem, but I think it’s a little bit of a culture shock. Like, “Why are people talking to us? Do they want something? Why did this guy just sit here, do you know this person?” I get that all the time from my parents. I’m like, “They saw two people having fun and they wanted to buy them a drink. Be a part of a father son experience and they sent a pitcher over, you know?” My dad’s like, “Why did he do that? Is this poison?” People are really nice here, and it makes it so much better that way. Because then you’re not only promoting or taking care of yourself, you have a bigger thing to look after than yourself and it feels more rewarding.
ML: From your experience, do you think the Portland motorcycle culture is very different from other places?
RG: In my experience, yeah. I don’t know what it is, maybe it’s the people I ride with, or the group I hang out with… which I think is all inclusive. I have a limited experience of other places, but I just don’t know of anywhere that people of all walks of motorcycles get together and enjoy riding. It’s funny for me to ride with sport bikes, Harleys, vintage and dirt bikes all in the same group. I’ve just never done that.
And no one talks shit- no one’s trying to out-corner each other or in the straight-aways kill each other. There’s no weird Alpha-Male pushing or shoving in packs of motorcycles. I’ve ridden with complete strangers on big day rides where it’s just been a brilliant, fun, mellow nice ride. Some of those SFRC rides where it’s just everybody- I’ve never been around anything like that before.
The men and women riding together is completely equal, too. I’ve never experienced it before but it just seems like it’s weird that there are all male or female motorcycle clubs because, why? Why wouldn’t you all just ride together? So yeah, Portland is cool.
ML: Do you have favorite blogs, motorcycle related or otherwise?
RG: I’m a little late to the blog reading game. I have my own tumblr thing going so I’m starting how to figure out how to follow and pay attention to people. I think obviously the MotoLady blog is something I read, it’s really cool. I just met Sasha from Cafe Racer XXX and I’ve been following her. Of course The Selvedge Yard and The Iron & Resin guys have a really cool blog. Iron & Air, you know? Tori Tuesday, I love all her stuff that pops up. So, I’ve just been hitting “like” and maybe just within the last year seeking out blogs so I get up in the morning and have my coffee I can check out what’s going on.
As a photographer I like to be inspired and I tend to follow things that inspire me visually. So I’m not doing a whole lot of reading but I like people that are pulling together a bunch of imagery. It’s just great, it’s like getting up and looking at tear sheets every morning from a bunch of different rad people. It starts nesting inside my brain and gives me ideas. It’s just inspiration, it’s cool.
ML: Photography from your project THROTTLED was all over the One Motorcycle Show this year. How did that come to be?
RG: So what had happened is you know, I live in the Pacific Northwest, I’m a photographer trying to make a living and I’ve got a rep in LA… I’m following this commercial path and I hadn’t really found my footing. I was making a living but it just wasn’t I was hoping life was going to turn out to be like. I just wasn’t enjoying doing my job, was what was going on, it’s how this all started. I just was about was damn near ready to give up and look for something else you know, a revocation. Wieden + Kennedy out of nowhere approached me to do an art show in their lobby and it terrified me. I didn’t at the time consider myself an artist, I still don’t really consider myself an artist. I didn’t have a big body of work with something to say, you know what I mean? They were also very clear they didn’t just want a retrospective of my portfolio hanging on the wall, either. I had two choices, one to turn it down, or two to dig really deep.
My wife and I were talking and she says, “Well you know, just show all your car stuff.” And I was like, “Man, no one wants to see that. I’ve been doing that my whole life, that’s like my private white-trash… MY thing.” I never ever ever thought to marry my work with that. I’m out there shooting sports shoots for Nike and stuff, I was about ready to hang myself at the end of a shoot, it’s not my thing. So I dug deep and got my shit together. I had this cool body of work that revolved around bikes and cars since I started shooting in the 80s. But for a show I was going to need to tie it all together into a cohesive thought. So I put together a produced shoot with a bunch of friends from car clubs and a bunch of models over at See See’s original space. Hot rod clubs and bike clubs came out, we just had a cool, fun day. Doing the shoot was really cool because I then could pick in editing exactly just how to tie it all together. It became this authentic look inside the culture that we live. Before the Wieden + Kennedy show the car stuff was just a hobby outside my work. Which is funny because I guess when you hit rock bottom you see the light again. I didn’t think anybody was going to show up to that show- I hung it and it was an incredible turn out. The gallery was packed, It was insane. They told me that it was by far the best turn out that they had to date. Dan Wieden and John Jay came down from the sixth floor… so many of their executives came over and made comments. We had permitted the street in front of the agency, filled it up with friends bikes and hot rods. Like a mini car show. It was a culture clash of people that ride motorcycles, build cars, fabricators, and then the first thursday art crowd. Boom- right in the middle of Wieden + Kennedy. It was just… it was funny how I’m standing there going, “Fuck, I’m on to something.” These two cultures getting together is happening right before my eyes, there’s something here. I got a few jobs directly after that shooting with their client Dodge, and then Marlboro. When I went on that cool Marlboro shoot it was the dream job, “Just do what you do and we’ll follow you around the country.” So on that shoot I was like, this is perfect… art has finally met commerce. So when I did the second THROTTLED it was never planned. I found a seam, I found a ripple somewhere… where I can be happy and do what I do with my craft. This has all happened in the last four or five years and it’s really cool to find because for fifteen years before that I was going down a way different path.
ML: Can you pick one favorite photo from THROTTLED?
RG: It’s funny how I look at them all and people will say things like, “We don’t have to show them all, you can just pick four or five of them.” To me THROTTLED is one paragraph, you know what I mean? So if I’m taking four or five images… it’s the same to me as four or five words randomly pulled out of a paragraph hanging on the wall. But if I have to pick one- the one that kind of became the hood ornament was the jumping Camaro. Just because it’s so ridiculous, people want to search for how it’s photoshopped. My friend who’s a great director, Whitey, was shooting some stuff for one of his films and we took a ‘75 Camaro and we put a 2×4 between the gas pedal and the seat and launched it off a cliff. One of my favorite quotes from that whole thing is somebody asked, “How did you guys permit that?” Whitey stands up and goes, “You can’t permit awesome!” That to me was the whole spirit of the show. THROTTLED is not an original word by any means but for me it means broken, wasted… full throttle. So there was just one word for me that encompassed living it from inside out. Sprinkled throughout the THROTTLED series it wasn’t just cars, it was people and party shots. Just a little glimpse into the life and our culture, you know?
You can see more of Ray’s work on his website raygordon.com | photographs © Ray Gordon.
Photographs of Ray by Alicia Mariah Elfving © themotolady.com.