Friday, November 11, 2016

Bicycle couriers, 1990

Jeff, Parkdale, March 1990

I STILL FIND IT HARD TO COMPREHEND THAT SOME OF MY OLD PHOTOS ARE HISTORY. But it's true - I've been at this long enough that the people and events I've photographed are relics, snapshots of times and circumstances that have gone away. I might still remember the moment I took a photo as vividly as if it were yesterday (or I might not) but that doesn't change the fact that, for many people looking at my work, it's a product of a time they can't possible remember, either because they were too young, or not even born yet.

After posting my latest portrait series from Talladega last week, I went back and dug out the first one I ever did, on assignment for NOW magazine back at the turn of the '90s. Being a right-on, progressive urban publication, NOW regularly published a special cycling supplement, and I was assigned to provide the cover art. I was feeling ambitious, and asked my editor if I could do a group of studio portraits of bicycle couriers. They were a group known for their swaggering, almost piratical public image, and had been the subject of news stories, complaining about their reckless riding while on the job. Irene agreed, and I got to work.

Irving Penn, Hell's Angels, San Francisco, 1968

My inspiration was obvious. I was, as I so often did back then (and probably even now) ripping off Irving Penn, who had been doing August Sander-esque studio portraits of people in their working uniforms since the '50s. Specifically, though, I had in mind a series of portraits he did on assignment for LOOK magazine in the late '60s, of members of the Hell's Angels motorcycle gang.

With this in mind I got out a nice big softbox for my strobes, bought a pile of film and rented a painted muslin backdrop. Getting subjects was easy enough; Toronto's business district was full of bike couriers, and helpfully they all used to hang out at a sandwich shop on Temperance Street called Breadspreads. I went by and talked to a few of them, then drew up a flier and put it on the bulletin board by the front door, giving directions to my studio and a time at the end of the business day. I bought a case of beer and waited.

From the top: Timothy, Justin, Peter and Scotty, Parkdale, March 1990

The first ones came before office hours were done, their shifts over for the day. They began arriving thick and fast after that, and it was obvious after a half hour that my two-four of beer wouldn't be enough. Cheerfully a few of them offered to do a beer run, and by the time they came back my living room outside the bedroom/studio where I'd set up was full of couriers, their bikes piled up in drifts in the hallway outside my loft.

I called them in one at a time, insisting that they have on their full gear, walkie-talkies, bags and everything. Some insisted on being shot in groups, others with their buddies. There was even a couple who everyone told me I had to shoot together. I barely left the studio, and when I did I tried not to think about what kind of mess they might have been making of our living room. At some point I think my roommate Sally came home to quite a shock.

From the top: Sovereign Crew, Pat, Mike and Gary, Parkdale, March 1990

With Penn still in the forefront of my mind, I tried to avoid mugging and gurning, and encouraged the couriers who walked into the studio (there were others just there for the party who never got their portrait taken) to find some kind of dignified or iconic pose. I was very new to this sort of intense churn of subjects passing in front of my camera, and I remember that I felt both anxious and elated while I worked.

At some point, as the sun was going down outside my window, I'd shot everyone who wanted to be photographed, and within what seemed like a few minutes, they were all gone, leaving behind a huge pile of empties in a tower of cases in our kitchen, which became a welcome cash windfall when I got a buddy to drive me to the beer store to turn them in for the deposit.

From the top: Laurens, Craig & Jane, Nick and Roy, Parkdale, March 1990

You don't see a lot of bike couriers anymore; the job has been a casualty of e-mail, like a lot of other ones. Breadspreads is long gone, and whenever I'm downtown I'm surprised when I see even a single bike courier racing between the cars on their way from one office tower to another, carrying something that obviously resists digitization, whatever that might be.

This recent British news feature about the few remaining couriers riding the streets of London evoked that now-vanished time when a corporate lawyer or millionaire trader would have his receptionist call for the delivery of a vital document, something upon which fortunes or careers might depend, and hand it to a hungover, possibly stoned 28-year-old guy with a lip ring and a Carcass t-shirt, riding a mud-covered bike put together from spare parts, nursing a fractured knee he got after colliding with a distracted bond trader's BMW.

One particular passage stood out for me:
Back in the golden days of the early 1990s, or so I’m told, couriers were urban superheroes, riding for 12 hours a day because the work never stopped piling up, taking home £500 a week, or more. Adrian Knight took up couriering in Sydney in 1992, earning up to A$1,500 a week. When he returned to the circuit at the turn of the century, after a few years travelling, he was unpleasantly surprised to find that his paycheque had shrunk to an average of AU$600. It’s a story that’s repeated in cities across the world, by old men with dodgy backs and dicky knees, still riding because after 20 years, no other job will have them, struggling to earn half of what they did before, warning newcomers like me to get out while the going’s good.
Frankly, his situation is wholly familiar to me, as I returned to freelancing eight years ago to discover that rates were a fraction of what they used to be for work that was far more scarce. I might not have ruined my knees delivering contracts or divorce settlements, but I'm definitely the old guy with a bad back doing what I do because I can't really do much else, warning young people to keep their day job. The photos in this post are a bit of history; then again, so am I.

(ADDENDUM: Here are Trevor Hughes' street portraits of Toronto bike couriers from around the same time as my shots, many of them shot just outside Breadspreads.)


  1. The 'Unknown Courier' in the second to last shot is Nicolas.

  2. Nice work, Mr. McGinnis. Thanks for sharing these memorable shots from the the golden age of Toronto's active transportation resurgence.

  3. Hey, this is very cool. I have no recollection of this, but I'm the guy with the mohawk in the Sovereign Crew.

    1. Your name wouldn't be Greg by chance, would it? You look exactly like a Newfie I used to know.

  4. These were my people. This was my time. Thanks for putting these out there.

  5. Great work thank you for putting my brothers and sisters up. Too many of our kind lost to tragedy

  6. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  7. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  8. Thank you so much! This brought back so many many memories from a wonderful time in my life. I stopped being a courier in 88, but knew a lot of these people. 69-Gary, what a beautiful, kind person! I've remembered his kindness for decades. Photographers... Bless you! "Like tears in rain"