Behind The Scenes - 1949 Survivor Panhead Shoot

I got to shoot a Harley-Davidson this past weekend in the Ford building at Camp North End (CNE). I’m nervous about this photo set because it’s a pretty far departure from my usual style of shooting. I’m typically not very attracted to artificially lit motorcycle photos on cyc walls or, like this set, where the background is so expansive it just goes black because the strobes have no hope of lighting the entire space. The method really separates the bike from reality and removes all context, offering only the subject - which is exactly why I don’t like to shoot that way.

I like the context of the background. I love hunting for interesting backgrounds, full of color and light. I’m usually searching for a background with a specific color palette that will compliment the subject.

Not with this bike. 

This bike is a survivor from the ’60s; a 1949 panhead with aged paint and very small amounts of surface rust here and there. 

While I shot, a stranger walked over to me who wondered what I was doing and had a few photography questions. He then asked about the bike, “What’s special about this old crappy motorcycle?” 

I realized a person not privy to this niche of the motorcycle world may not understand the significance of not only this bike, but other survivors like it.

I chuckled before I answered because the first time I saw guys my age riding these old things, I asked the same question. As I described the paint, seat, sissy bar, front end and those crazy bars, the significance hit me as if it were the first time I understood. 

The aftermarket parts on this bike were probably bought over the phone from a catalog or maybe even placed through the mail. Not to mention, the buyer most likely had a 6-8 week shipping time. Granted, there are a few things on the bike that its new owner, Jake, incorporated: Vintage Cloth Covered 16g Electrical Wire, a period correct American Motorcyclist Association (A.M.A.) sticker and a #1 billiard ball. Both of which are a nod to the old A.M.A days in which Harley had a racing team called The Wrecking Crew. In those days, the yearly national winner was allowed to run the coveted #1 plate the following year and it was usually on a Harley-Davidson. Apart from those tasteful additions and typical maintenance items, everything here was installed while Kennedy was president.

I didn’t like this bike the first time I saw it. I was iffy on the paint color and the bars were a little much for me. But, the more I described the bike to this stranger, the more I realized, it’s not about whether or not I like it. It’s about preserving what the original owner built. This bike is one man’s art from a period I’ll only ever read about and as I spend time around it, watching it kick over and roar to life, I fell in love with it and all its quirky attributes. From spikes all over the place to the primary green and yellow paint, I realized just how cool it all is and how lucky I am to capture a piece of the ’60s in the historic Ford building at CNE - a facility in which the Ford Model T was manufactured. 

That historical significance is why these things matter to us. Since Jake bought this bike and kept it all period correct, now future generations can also enjoy this ’60s time capsule (hopefully along with everything we’re building too). 

So, for the very same reasons I gave to the stranger as to why this bike is interesting, I decided to shoot the bike in the style I never shoot. The background usually plays a big part, if not the biggest part, of my process - pairing the bike with a background that really compliments the shapes and colors.

But, this time around, I didn’t want any distractions from the subject. My goal was to isolate the bike while incorporating a ton of contrast to enhance the varying textures, colors, twists, bends and shapes of the bike.

Because I never shoot with artificial light, I’m nervous that I could’ve lit the bike better with different light modifiers instead of the grid inserts I used. Or, maybe I should’ve shot with three lights instead of two. But, nit-picky photo nerd stuff aside, I hope this photo set accomplished its goal which is to highlight a piece of American History with its neat details while avoiding any potential distractions that a naturally lit background could’ve introduced. 

Note: My knee jerk reaction was to eliminate the background all together, using Photoshop to get rid of the subtle Ford building presence in the background like the lights and old windows to the left. But, I decided to leave those details in so that a keen eye may realize where this was shot and have an opportunity to appreciate the significance of this historical bike propped up inside of this iconic Charlotte landmark.

Words and photos by Matt Best

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