Polaroid Paris-Roubaix

    Words and images by Marshall Kappel

    Paris-Roubaix is my favorite race. I was hooked at an early age after watching Sean Kelly sprint to victory down the streets of Roubaix in 1986 on CBS, scored by the deep, calm voice of John Tesh. I’ve since witnessed Roubaix — because that’s what you do, you don’t just watch it — many times since as a photograher, chasing like mad to document the dirt, grit and madness. This year, I wanted something different, something calmer and slower, so I decided to shoot the race on my old manual Polaroid camera.

    I’ve been collecting old cameras, particularly Polaroids, for the past 20 years and the most beautiful is the Polaroid is the 110b, made sometime between 1961-64. I had it converted to accept 4.25 x 3.25 pack film that was popular in the 1980s, though that film was discontinued in 1992 by Polaroid and recently by Fuji. I’ve been stocking up for years.

    The 110b is as manual as it gets and starts with unfolding the front standard, then bellows, opening the lens cover and cocking the shutter. Focusing is not precise via a 2-inch diameter knob on the bottom of the camera that simply slides the lens closer or further from the film plane; aperture and shutter speeds are similarly imprecise and also limited in the modern sense; they need to be set manually by moving a wheel and an indicator needle on top of the lens. Finally, an image is taken by actuating a large, flat metal plate on the side of the camera’s bellows. It’s more elegant than this sounds, but it is indeed a process.

    I mentioned to Cannondale-Drapac Communication Director Matt Beaudin that I was going to try and use the camera at the race and he proposed trying this concept: shoot the Cannondale riders before the start and at the finish in the velodrome. We kicked the idea around for about five minutes before it was determined that, yes, I should shoot Roubaix with a Polaroid. Matt likes experimenting with different ways of telling a story, and the team was open to making this happen.

    I shot the riders and staff early at the start outside the bus easily, and it was fun using a new/old method. Different smiles, perhaps.

    The finish, though? What once sounded reasonable and unique was swept away by the ever-increasing flood of photographers shooting 14-frames a second next to me, pushing and shoving to see who can capture the dirtiest race face. Needless to say, the Polaroid process, meant I had to work fast and had no time to take exposure readings or account for changing light conditions. That’s not something that works with this camera. Sorry, Ryan Mullen, but my exposure was off and you’re just a silhouette against the velodrome. Other guys I missed entirely.

    This photographic experiment didn’t work as we planned, but the social experiment and the act of taking the images made up for missing a few shots at the finish. As is often is the case, the method allowed me to meet and talk to people I would not otherwise have spoken with. Amid the torrent of digital noise and similar photos, we took a risk and we created something unique. I hope you enjoyed them.

    —MK