Flying High with Travis Mortz
A life in film photography
Text: Mike Blanchard | Photos courtesy: Travis Mortz
Arts-y | Like many people these days I am an avid Instagramer. One of the people I follow is a guy who goes by the handle of Killindreams who, it turns out, is one of the premier photographers of the sport of BMX. But more than that he is a very dedicated and serious photographer who specializes in film photography exclusively. His real name is Travis Mortz and Rust had a chance to interview him at his home in Forrest Hill, deep in the pines of the Sierra foothills.
We sat down in his darkroom, an out building next to his house, with his dog Leica wandering in and out. Mortz, 29, is an athletic fellow with piercing eyes and tattoos of a Rolleiflex and a Leica on his forearm, evidence of his commitment to film cameras. He uses all manner of cameras and the day we sat down had just received an Olympus Pen F half-frame camera in the mail which he held in his hands and manipulated the whole time we talked. Mortz has been known to use a 8x10 sheet film cameras to shoot BMX and was recently the subject of a feature in the Hasselblad magazine.
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Rust: How did you get into BMX?
Travis Mortz: I was always as a young kid, I was just a bike kid. I never owned a skateboard, never wanted a skateboard. Not for any reason other than the fact that I was never comfortable on one. I had been riding a bike since I was four-years-old. I was always into BMX in the nineties. BMX was huge in the nineties. That was a really good time to be a kid if you were into BMX. That’s when Dave Mirra was on top. Matt Hoffman was still winning contests, Ryan Nyquist, he still rides, There was a lot of money in BMX, it was on TV.
It was cool. You would compare your favorite BMXer to your favorite pro football player. When I was like 14-years-old a buddy left a BMX bike at my house. I started riding it to the skatepark and I just fell in love with it. It was just a cool thing to be able to go to a place that had jumps and I could just jump all day. And like get comfortable on those jumps to the point that I could get better at it. I liked that.
You have this parallel thing of photography going. How did that fall in?
Mortz: I would say that BMX was solely responsible. If it weren’t for one I would not have the other. When I was 15 I got some crappy point and shoot camera to do videos. When you’re getting better at BMX you want to see what you look like riding. You gotta kinda see how you’re doing. When I was 17…I was at Denios with my buddy and we came across a Nikon EM, which is sitting right there actually, and it was like sixty bucks with a couple lenses. My buddy was able to tell me “here is what you need to know.” So I bought the camera because I had this need to document my friends.
You shoot for various BMX publications.
Mortz: Some. I was going to get into it before we started recording but this is a great time to talk about it now. I have done a couple things. There is a BMX magazine in Europe called Endless Mag. These are the guys that get me the pass to go shoot the Vans Pro Cup in Huntington Beach. I work closely with Camp Woodward. It’s like an action sports summer camp. In the past it was more of a training facility for professionals. So it kind of has that tie in with BMX, it is, you know, the end all be all for skateparks.
The interesting thing about BMX publications right now, is that there really aren’t any.
So I mentioned Endless Magazine, the core of this magazine is a one man operation. It’s a nicely put together magazine. It’s excellent but it doesn’t “cover” BMX. It covers this guy’s reach of BMX. If I have a feature that’s great. It’s on issue five.
Then we have Dig MBX magazine which has had a constant role in BMX. They have been around since the ‘90s. It was a real BMX publication but they no longer do print. All their content is exclusive videos. But it’s definitely not a “magazine”, the magazine no longer exists.
Then most recently, this one happened about two months ago, Ride BMX magazine, they were the BMX media. They were owned by Transworld and Transworld just had a huge ownership change. They shut down a bunch of legs of their operation; the motocross, the snowboarding, the skateboarding, BMX. So we had this BMX publication that had a million likes on Facebook, had several hundred thousand followers. They were still a small operation with a couple guys, but they were covering BMX from an unbiased standpoint and they were really the BMX magazine. And they are done now.
The classic publication doesn’t exist. I think that’s weird.
Do you think it’s because the sport is becoming less popular or more narrowed down? Vintage BMX bikes and the gear are becoming super collectable.
Mortz: Good observation. That’s true I have noticed that as well… I don’t think it’s because BMX has become less popular. I think that video is king. You don’t need a magazine for that. You Youtube it. So the need for documenting this is gone because some guy will be there with his Instagram story anyway.
This sport is interesting because it’s still a sport run by kids. And it always will be. So what that ends up leaving you with is a bunch of salty old guys that are unhappy about the way it’s going because it’s always moving too fast. Now it’s like BMX is on Youtube don’tcha know? Our BMX used to come on DVDs that we got at the video store. The guy before me used to get BMX from a magazine that he used to send in the mail to get. It’s always: the last thing is the best thing.
It’s really a matter of the evolution of the media writ large. It’s analogous to how the role of art changed with the invention of photography. Prior to that art documented the world. Then you have photography come along and all of a sudden that’s not art’s job anymore. Art has a whole other job to do. So as a serious photographer, what do you see as the role of still photography within this whole world of BMX? Where do you see that going?
Mortz: Oh man! That’s awesome that you said that about art. I tell people that shit all the time. How before photography art was the most real shit you ever seen. People were drawing buildings with the most detail and then after photography we have Picasso and it’s like, “Oh no, you can put six eye balls on that shit. It’s tight.”
If you go back and look in old BMX magazines, the photography was so unique. The photographers that were making these images were trying new things because they knew someone would be flipping the page and looking at it. Now it seems like BMX photography as a whole has gotten dumbed down and simplified and it’s only here as a tool to see what the fuck the trick looked like. Everyone out there is shooting with their arms fully extended with a big fisheye and they are holding the button down.
I see a lot of guys out there and they are not even looking through the viewfinder.
Mortz: Absolutely. I’m shooting with the same lenses they are but I refuse to do that. You don’t have to shoot it like that. Or, if you want that angle lay on the deck. Because of that, the quality of BMX photography has gone down significantly.
The example of the photographer I’m talking about doing the artistic shoots is a real guy. He was the head photographer from Ride Magazine. And now he’s out there filming vlogs, out there shooting videos of the latest events. When you are filming a video you’re not shooting photos. When you get a clip of that crazy trick you never got a photo of it. That moment is gone now and that’s a photo that will never fucking exist.
So now this dude is going to all the events that I want to be at and this guy that would have been making the most amazing photos of these events has a video camera in his hands. So those photos are not going to exist. And that, like it fucking eats at me. It kills me. The photos are things that we look at later.
I’m not going to sit down and watch this ten-year-old video that’s dated and shitty quality. I have taken this opportunity to dive into BMX photography and do it that way that I grew up looking at.
One of the things that attracted me to what you were doing was that I just see more of a photographers eye in the work. In the best of your work these are photos that could be hung on a wall and stand by themselves as a work of photography that just happen to be of BMX.
Mortz: That’s what I am trying to do. I was that same spray and pray guy. Now it’s gotten to the point where it’s like: ” Hey I got one 8x10 sheet. Do you feel like doing this? Don’t fuck up. I need you to do something on this obstacle cause I see the shot there.”
I always tell students that I want them to frame up a photo of the obstacle that looks good without anyone in it.
Grant Brittain was on a whole thing a month ago about people shooting without looking through the viewfinder.
Mortz: I met Grant my first time at Woodward. I was the visiting photographer. The first time that this camp had ever had film photography. I brought all my shit. I brought a crate of stuff and I said I’m teaching these kids film and they are not even gonna know what hit em.
I go and Grant’s there, he’s the visiting pro that week. I met him with no knowledge of his legacy. Which is the best way to meet someone. It’s the best way. I got to interact with him as an equal.
I had all my film cameras there so he knew I wasn’t fucking around. He’s like oh, you got all your shit here. Your shooting a film Leica and I got my digital Leica but I respect you cause you obviously know what the hell is up. So I got to have some really deep conversations with Grant. Not as a fan. He showed me his Tony Hawk photos and it gave me chills.
How did you make such a commitment to film.
Mortz: I totally lost all faith in digital photography. It was like a revelation to me. I was at Woodward. They said Tony Hawk is coming today. He is going to work on this trick for his video. You know Birdhouse video? You see him on his mega ramp, well, he was a Woodward on Wednesday. He was trying a front side impossible just airing it out flipping the damn thing. No grab. He didn’t make it.
Cool! Fuck yea I’m down. So I go out there, and I’m still shooting digital at this point but I still had my Hasselblad with me. So Tony’s airing it out. I shoot a couple frames on the Hasselblad, I shoot a Polaroid to two. So I got my wide angle I’m gonna go hop on the deck and shoot some digital stuff.
Now I’m shooting stuff of Tony Hawk doing McTwists and just doing the most amazing things. Like, Tony Hawk and me, that’s it. I take the most amazing shit. I go back to the lab and I plug my card in and it says: card corrupt, cannot read. I’m like “what the fuck?” I plug it into a different computer, card corrupt. I plug it back into my camera, no photos. I am devastated.
Instant devastation because Tony Hawk is not skating any more. He just flew out of the sky 20 times. He’s done now. What the fuck. I had a series going where I would shoot a Polaroid of a pro and I would have them hold it and shoot their portrait holding their Polaroid and then I would take that shit back and say ”have a good day.” Ha!
I found Tony, I shot the photo and I’m all sad and shit and I’m like “yea all those photos I just shot of you are all totally gone.” Tony Hawk doesn’t give a fuck because he gets photos of him every time he’s in the air. He’s like “Aw bummer man. That happened to my kid one time. We got this software online and got his photos back. Maybe you could try that.”
I got the photos back. But I was changed after that. I can’t afford for that to happen. Then my hard drive crashed and I was done. I finally realized it. Hard drives don’t last. Your computer is going to change. Nobody is good at file management. None of us. Go find a file that you shot in 2000. No one can do it.
The film dedication was almost not a choice. I’m kind of bitter about it. I feel out of love. Now even if I try to shoot digital I kinda don’t enjoy it. If somebody said “Travis you want to borrow this digital Hasselblad for a week?” I can honestly and truly say no, I’m really not interested. Cause I don’t have a place for that image. I’m not going to show anyone that. I’m not going to get attached to it. I do it this way. So I know it’s different.
I no longer see the world in a way that can be photographed by digital.
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