The bicycle and the camera have long had a close relationship. Not only did the two technologies develop together in the mid-nineteenth century, but they both offered similar things — the possibility to see, and conceive of, landscapes in radically new ways. “The bicycle and photography changed our relationship to, and experience of, places” writes Kenneth Helphand.
What the bicycle and the camera—and specifically the new handheld cameras of the 1880s—had in common was a mobile optic. For cyclist enthusiasts, the camera enabled the ability to “capture” experiences as they moved out into the countryside, and for photographers, the bicycle enabled access to new subjects and scenes beyond the studio.
In his exciting new book on early photography technology, A Very Old Machine: The Many Origins of the Cinema in India, Sudhir Mahadevan discusses the camera-bicycle relationship in colonial India. In India, writes Mahadevan, the bicycle and photography came together with the help of new camera technology that allowed for instantaneous pictures and rapid snapshots. These convenient portable devices “ushered in leisure-and tourist-driven subcultures of ‘bicycle photographers'” (109).
It would make sense then that cycling and photography “became twinned passions for many including the amateur photographers in Calcutta” (110). Early twentieth century writers enamored with the camera-bicycle way of seeing space in India described “the thrill of ‘coasting’— as the hobby was called in Europe… on a bicycle downhill, letting the bicycle gain increasing velocity as it went ‘whizzing’ down the slope” (110).
The irony is that like the selfie-taking, GoPro helmet-mounted cyclists of today, early twentieth century cyclists-photographers also had to contend with curmudgeons. Lamenting the loss of “deliberative” photo-taking that handheld cameras enabled (especially its ability “to capture the unplanned moment” ), George Ewing, in the “Indian Amateur Photographer,” writes: “Train your hand and eye to secure pictures whenever they appear; regard purposeless exposure as the root of all evil” (quoted in Mahadevan 109).
Do check out Mahadevan’s book —
Kenneth Helphand “The Bicycle Kodak.” Environmental Review 4(3): 24-33, 1980.