Paul d’Orléans and Susan McLaughlin travel on Two Lanes, using a Sprinter van as a mobile darkroom, as they capture wet plate-style photos of motorcycles and their owners.
Wet plate photography is an art that’s as old as the state of California. That’s where Susan McLaughlin, a tintype photographer, met Paul d’Orléans, a motorcycle culture expert, author, and rider, in the 1990s, not knowing that one day their two specialties would unite, and discover new ways of picturing biker culture.
“Susan and I have known each other for over 20 years, but I didn’t know she was a wet plate photographer,” explains Paul. “In fact I didn’t know anything about wet plate before 2010, when I saw an exhibit of original 1800s photographic portraits by ‘Nadar’ in Paris, and was deeply moved. These were original 8″x10″ glass plates, and the detail was incredible! It was as if these amazing people were still in the room, even though they were long gone. I mentioned the show to Susan, who explained the wet plate process, as she’d been using it for a few years already.”
Inspired by the remarkable preserved images of those long-ago French faces, Paul began thinking about his community of bikers back in the States. As a veteran rider, bike blog contributor, author of three books, and founder of The Vintagent (a media company dedicated to vintage motorcycles and biker culture), he knew he could portray motorcyclists through photography in a way that had not been seen before. He had storytelling skills from his career as a motorcycle writer but needed a partner with expertise in the tintype style that had so captured his imagination. His vision would only work if his Susan agreed to join him in this new venture. She said “Yes!” and MotoTintype was established in 2012.
For the past six years, Paul, Susan, and their Sprinter van have been attending vintage motorcycle events nationwide – at Bonneville, El Mirage, and the Motorcycle Cannonball – capturing portraits of bikers and their rides using the antique wet plate method. The thing is, it’s called wet plate because you must develop the photos immediately, while the chemistry on the glass or metal plates is still wet. To accommodate that, they transformed the back of their van into a mobile darkroom, allowing them to process their photos on site, and share the prints with their subjects right away. Paul converted the Sprinter just before participating in the 2012 Motorcycle Cannonball, the most difficult antique motorcycle endurance run in the world.
Having been a member of the vintage motorcycle scene since the 1980s, Paul is close to most of the riders they shoot at these events. Being part of the culture and creating the close bonds with riders that allowed them to document the unique details of their individual styles made it possible for Susan and him to build their portfolio. Photographs of these riders and their machines preserve their personal footprints – or tire prints – capturing distinct moments for all time.
“These riders and I have been on the same journey together for years, but the community was new to Susan,” explains Paul. “She has an incredible presence that makes our subjects feel comfortable, which is important because Cannonball riders come in all types — from rough riders who sleep on the ground to riders with elaborate semi-trailers with machine tools and professional mechanics servicing one or two bikes. Everyone is riding the same 4,000-mile race and I make no judgments, I only want to capture their unique character.”
MotoTintype prefers the wet plate process because of its magical qualities. It’s a true chemistry experiment with silver nitrate, requiring precise execution to develop the perfect photo. (Remember Lindsey Ross and the abandoned gold mines of Telluride?) The process can create unusual light, swirls, and spots that add to the effect, and which are totally unpredictable. Paul jokingly calls them “Victorian Polaroids”.
“The instant gratification is amazing,” he says. “One of our favorite parts of what we do is bringing the biker into the van to watch the development process. You never know what you’ll get, as the ‘wet plate’ process is sensitive only to ultraviolet light. While it can be unpredictable, the detail is remarkable. Not only are we able to capture surface features like scars and wrinkles, we’re also able to see what’s below the skin, like defects and pigmentation, all which appear darker once developed. There’s nowhere to hide on a tintype, which is what drew me to the style all those years ago. It’s so personal. To look at a portrait of a rider and see every distinct detail representing years of exposure to the elements, allows Susan and I to help tell their story without words.”
There are many faces, ages, and tastes in biker culture. When motorcycle lovers come together the crowd spans generations and includes all walks of life. Many appreciate the classic design of antique bikes and how with some maintenance, they’re still able to function just like they did in their glory days. They love a bike built with ancient iron that squirts oil and growls. Others may be more interested in a reliable brand new custom bike created just for them. The one thing they can all agree on is that to feed your soul, there is nothing like miles passing under two wheels.
When he’s not in the darkroom or behind the lens, Pauls likes to reunite with his brotherhood of bikers for a back road cruise on his own vintage ride: a 1933 Brough Superior v-twin. Ask him why he has lived and documented the biker culture for the past 30 years and he’ll say it’s all about the people.
“Motorcycle culture is like a hologram,” explains Paul. “If you break it down, and look at any individual part, you can see the whole picture – politics, industry, finance, design, art, passion, competition, and even the darker human tendencies. It’s all there. I invented a job for myself that allows me to do what I’m most passionate about…. telling the stories of these men and women who love the freedom of the road, and roaming the landscape on two wheels.”