The Machine Dreams And Analog Realism Of Photographer Bill Phelps.
Words Scott G. Toepfer Images Bill Phelps
In the late 1990s, St. Paul-based photographer Bill Phelps created a series of images that have proliferated across motorcycle and automotive blogs and social streams ever since. Inspired by Jean Cocteau’s 1946 film La Belle et la Bête (Beauty and the Beast), Phelps used an antique 8x10-inch rosewood-and-nickel camera and large-format Polaroid film to create a series of "beauties" coupled with various motorized "beasts" like the Vincent Black Shadow, Velocette KSS, Norton Manx, Harley-Davidson Knucklehead, and Morgan three-wheeler. The photographs carry a palpable sense of contemplation and wonder and balance mysticism with a traditional compositional structure. Each one pulls the viewer into a story precisely as Phelps intended.
"Working under the fabric hood, with locked focus, and one sheet of film at a time requires clarity of purpose," says Phelps. "It’s analog film, but Polaroid, so there’s an immediate satisfaction as well. The project was character-driven, but the lead role wasn’t always clear; sometimes bike, sometimes woman. I still see something new each time I look at this series. As there are no usable negatives to print from, each piece is an original piece of art — no darkroom, no manipulation, no Photoshop — a monoprint."
The "beasts" of these images ground the photograph in reality by building a compositional balance, but they also show off the elegance of high-end rides in a way a true enthusiast can appreciate. Phelps’ photographs offer that level of authorship that keeps viewers asking questions, while also giving the gearhead something to drool over. Whichever side of that fence you fall on, Phelps’ photographs are beloved by all and deserve a craftsman’s respect.