Brian Curtis and a life of challenging convention

I met Brian Curtis on the second day shooting a piece for Mountain Biking UK Magazine at Curtis Bikes in spring 2018. Scouring the internet beforehand for other interviews gave me a glimpse of a surly, and slightly scary man, whom I worried could be hard work to interview and photograph.

I’d done some preliminary shots with Brian’s main man Gary Woodhouse, who runs Curtis Bikes day-to-day with Brian now in semi-retirement, and had returned on a second day when Brian was available. So, with some trepidation, I entered the tiny Curtis workshop on a sunny day in May, to be met by Gary, Brian and a very interesting bike, even by Curtis’ standards.

As we got chatting Brian turned out to be genial, warm and very engaging. Not the ‘ogre’ portrayed in previous photographs I’d seen of him. His trademark scowl had worked on me beforehand and I had thought the image would match the man. I couldn’t have been more wrong. We got talking about this fascinating little bike that Brian had brought with him to show me; Brian’s totally custom design for young children with Dwarfism.

Brian Curtis’s bike for children with Dwarfism.

Brian Curtis’s bike for children with Dwarfism.

What struck me throughout my time chatting to Brian was his passion for all things two-wheeled, but especially motorcycles - which was where Curtis Bikes started as a result of Brian’s years racing motocross - and his lifelong desire to challenge perceived wisdom.

To cut a long story short and get to the point of this article, Brian had come across some generally accepted information that suggested that, due to their unique physiology (relatively long torso with short limbs), children with Dwarfism were unable to ride bicycles safely until around age 12. So, in his usual way Brian set about proving that wrong by designing and building a bike that would spread the joy of two wheels to children with Dwarfism earlier than science suggested should be the case. The bike you see here is the result.

Utterly bespoke, with the minimum of off-the-shelf components, this was the result of Brian’s determination to produce a viable bike for young children who, as a result of their condition, already had enough to deal with in life.

As a measure of his determination and ability to adapt, Brian needed reduced-diameter grips for children’s small hands and was unable to source them from established companies, so he engineered a solution that solved that issue while simultaneously reducing the reach to the brake levers. The levers that Brian sourced are adjustable, but not enough to address the smaller hands of children with Dwarfism. So he adapted the handlebars to reduce the reach while incorporating the slimmer grips he needed, all completely custom-engineered.

Bringing a new meaning to the word ‘custom’.

Bringing a new meaning to the word ‘custom’.

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Attention to detail didn’t stop there. Brian would have liked to spec lighter components but those available for children’s bikes typically tend to be cheaper and heavier than he wanted (remember Keith Bontrager’s maxim: cheap, light, strong; pick two). So he sourced the best he could outwith the parts he could manufacture himself, and made the bike lighter still with titanium bolts. The design was intended to specifically address the children’s specific physical characteristics, while being as light as possible and strong enough to be ridden off road (Curtis don’t do anything other than off road bicycles).

Bespoke chain guard and cranks.

Bespoke chain guard and cranks.

Manipulated tubing that provides a short seat tube, strength and mud clearance.

Manipulated tubing that provides a short seat tube, strength and mud clearance.

According to Keith Bontrager’s truism you’d be forgiven for thinking that a light and strong bespoke bicycle wouldn’t be cheap and you’d probably be right; I didn't enquire about the price. For me it wasn’t the point. But notably, Brian never made any profit from these bikes. He did it for the love of it and just because he could, and only priced them to cover his costs. The bikes have been shipped worldwide and Brian managed to make about one a month for a few years. Brian’s now stopped making these bikes as he wants to edge ever closer to retirement, and at 77 who could begrudge him that?

When I originally decided to write this piece after doing the wider Curtis article for MBUK, I asked Gary if Brian would agree to talk a little more and to some more photographs, but he didn’t want to; testament I believe, to his modesty and his desire to enjoy his imminent retirement. So there is a chance Brian wouldn’t have wanted me to write this blog article but he was aware I took the photographs (obviously) and that I had a real interest in what he achieved. I intended this article as a tribute to Brian’s work and to bring to a wider light the dedication of a man who likes to remain in the shadows, as it were, and let his work do the talking. I just wanted it to be heard. Thanks Brian.

Instagram. What's it all about and what's happened?

I opened an Instagram account in 2012 and it’s become absolutely HUGE in the years since (Instagram, not my account…) Back in 2012 Instagram was small, and very much a social app. What’s changed, and is it all good? A lot and I’m not sure, respectively.

I again preface this post with my disclaimer: I’m an authority on very little indeed, if anything. These are just my thoughts. And as ever (three posts in to my blog, natch) this will be very much a stream of consciousness vice a pithy dissection of an issue.

The maxim goes that to gain Instagram (IG) followers one has to be consistent in the subject matter posted. At this I fail. Frequently. My meagre follower count (compared to the more numerous ones) is testament to this. That said, I try to make sure I’m followed by real people, all of whom I appreciate tremendously, and if the people I follow (my following count is also small; if I follow you it’s because I like what you post) also follow me then I’m doubly happy. I’m impressing the people who impress me, as it were.

Mostly because I joined IG as it was a social app which used photographs as its medium. And I love photographs and being social with people who like the things I do. I learned - and still do - a huge amount from some of the people on there. I genuinely find joy in the work posted by many of the people I follow, and in the many interactions I have with them. I’ve met people from around the world through IG and it’s been fantastic.

But at some point the ‘businessification’ of IG happened and it became a bit more serious. The people there for a good time started to be drowned out by shouty types eager to build a following and ‘monetize [sic] their content’ (God I hate this sort of management wank-speak). Being social got more difficult. IG became a beast.

This all reached a crescendo and those of us not carefully weighing what we post and when, and how we ‘engage’ got left behind in follower count. And if we don’t have the followers then we don’t have any hope of ‘monetizing’ what we do. This was of interest to me starting out a second career in photography; my favourite social app could also make me money. Where do I sign up?! Could I get work via IG? Would I have to just post one type of content? Probably. And I’d have to learn how to ‘engage’ better. Problem was I just couldn't be arsed. One can, within seconds of searching, be inundated with YouTube videos by photographers telling you that a large follower base is only possible via consistent subject matter, among other things, but I’ve usually turned off by that point.

So my main account continues to be a photographic stream of consciousness, but I did open a second account, dedicated to pole, yoga and the aerial arts. Much of my work is in that area and while I also post it on my main account (I really do play fast and loose with The Rules!) that community typically don’t want to follow a mainly bike and stuff account so I give them what they want separately. I did this as logic and internet lore stated that an area in which one works needs a dedicated IG account, but I’m just not convinced it matters. More of that in a minute…

The resultant lack of uptake on my IG account may therefore have been a missed opportunity of my own making. Or it might have been just the way things are. What do I mean by that?

Well, lately, particularly following the implementation of The Algorithm and the loss of chronological feed, all of The Rules; their raison d’être and efficacy, seem to have been thrown somewhat into disarray. But we still hear the same mantras; consistency, engagement are king etc etc.

And there are so many Bot accounts, and Bot-assisted genuine accounts now it’s ridiculous. People pay money to have a virtual robot (there’s a term to ponder) do their commenting, liking, following etc. I assume the model is that the bot takes care of ‘engagement’ and as long as they follow The Consistency Rules then they’ll win at Instagram. Over the last week my follower count has gone up - and back down again - by almost 10%. Almost all bots. They’re really easy to spot. As are the bot comments. Everyone knows how to spot them; I genuinely cannot see why people pay good money for them, and I’ll come to why.

At least one professional photographer (maybe more but I can only remember who one of them was) I follow has declared that The Algorithm, and its ability to stop one’s followers actually seeing one’s posts, mean that consistency and the Golden Rules of Instagram, are now pretty much irrelevant in terms of getting work. Bit of an issue for effectively an online shop-window or ‘sub portfolio’ for photographers (those who are doing it ‘properly’ anyway). To reinforce the point, she also stated that she gets no work via IG now, potentially as a result of the changes. So now she doesn’t bother with consistency and posts what she wants. Which is kind of a full circle in terms of IG use.

Companies are starting to stop using ‘influencers’ on IG as they struggle to correlate the expense with any meaningful return. I tried to find a link to the article I read on this but am pretty sure it was through my membership of The Eskapee Collective (if you’re a mountain biker and you’re not a member what are you waiting for?!) And if you join you may be able to find the article I got this from.

Add to The Algorithm the preponderance of bot-assisted accounts and you have two algorithms, maybe more, deciding what to do with your account at any given time. Hardly a recipe for success, whatever that is. How do you know your content is reaching who it needs to? You don’t. In which case I can’t see why you’d spend money on it. Maybe it’d be better to place a bet; potentially an equal chance of return.

The work commissions I have received have not been via IG; all have been word-of-mouth or via networking the old-fashioned way; talking to people and going out of my way to meet them. In person and all that. Scary. The volume of my work is very small so statistically probably irrelevant, but it makes me wonder what’s going on and what’s going on with IG.

If The Algorithm means that no matter how strong one’s adherence to The Rules, one’s posts are no more guaranteed to find potential clients than my photos of my breakfast, then the whole reason behind the explosion of Instagram is at risk. And at this point I wonder about continuing with the faff of having two accounts. Potentially not for long.

So this possibly leaves a huge industry dedicated to increasing people’s follower counts on IG doing what? Potentially nothing! If people are starting to see the link between IG and income being broken then what’s the point of paying for something that doesn't get you anything but a larger number on a screen (and I don’t mean your bank account)? To me at least, there isn’t any. IG was ‘businessified’ as a means to an end, a tool for increasing business, but if increasing followers is now potentially an end in itself, which is meaningless except to the diehard narcissist, how long can it be before the bubble bursts? Have we, to (possibly mis-) quote Damian Breach, driving force behind The Eskapee, ‘reached peak me, me, me?

‘He’s just making excuses for not having many followers!’ I hear you shout. If anyone actually reads this of course. I’m really not. Like I say, it doesn't matter to me - I’m there for the photography - and evidence is starting to suggest it doesn't matter full stop/period. But if that’s what you want to think, crack on.

We’ll see what happens I suppose. This may all be a spectacular own-goal by FB/IG, or maybe not and the implosion of IG will never come to pass. But the folks that run the interwebs are clever people and it’s hard to imagine them making such a spectacular cock up. So maybe this apparent chaos is intentional. Maybe this is because photography is just an afterthought now and business of all types is the key; maybe photography business in itself is less compatible with the platform. That’d be ironic but not beyond the bounds of possibility I suppose. But maybe, just maybe the people who run IG have also grown tired of the shouty types, monetization etc and want a return to a simple social media platform, one driven by photographs. As it used to be. Just as with my collection of flares and shoes with square toes, everything goes full circle eventually. In the case of IG I doubt it but I really hope so.

What this blog is and isn't about

I don't intend my blog to be a resource for people; I don't consider myself experienced enough.  I do not intend it to be an example to people; I'm too far from perfect.  I don't intend for my blog to be a source of 'influence'.  It won't be a kit blog, though I will do occasional reviews if they're relevant to something I feel I should say.  It won't be a tutorial blog, though I may share things I've found helpful.

I do intend for this blog to be my thoughts and considerations on a range of matters, mostly photographical, or at least photography-related.  I will post behind-the-scenes (BTS) or background features from shoots I have done.  The blog will reflect my journey as I start a second career in photography, after being an amateur photographer for most of my life: my experiences, my lessons, acknowledgements, thanks and my inspirations.  While I won't necessarily deal with my development in a structured or formal manner, the blog's chronological nature will in effect make a record of it.

I'll post on social media when I add a new post so you can take a look if you fancy.  I'd welcome any comments or feedback, or just to chat about the wonderful art form that is photography.  Until then, bye for now.