If this is your first visit here, you may have come expecting nice relaxing landscapes, or exciting mountain pictures. My regular reader (hi there, pal!) will recall, however, that I gave myself permission from the outset to stray into stuff like “cityscapes” and that sort of thing. This shot fits under my definition of “that sort of thing”. It’s a photo I love and which I am currently celebrating.

I’ll tell you the story.

In July 2011 I was fortunate to be able to go as a competitor and trackside photographer to the World Masters Athletics Championships in Sacramento, California. The visit very nearly coincided exactly with our 30th wedding anniversary, so my wife and I put an extra week onto the trip specifically to spend in San Francisco. Never been before. We both loved it.

Like we do whenever we visit a city, we explored almost entirely on foot. The exceptions in San Fran were the occasional and obligatory rides on the streetcars, and joining the Sunday thousands in cycling over the Golden Gate Bridge. Now, a photographer for many decades I may have been, but I’ve never got into what they call “street photography” these days. To me, it’s just too “in your face”, and to be frank, I also don’t find a lot of it very interesting or attractive. Nevertheless, I have to concede (big of me, I know) that several people I’d claim as influences on some of my photographic work over the years include Parisians Robert Doisneau and Eugene Atget , and fellow Brit Martin Parr , each of whom have their own take on “street photography”.

For the purposes of appreciating my attachment to this photo, it’ll help you also to know that I’ve been a motorbike rider since 1970, and I like many of the things that a life travelling mostly on two wheels implies.

So, when, coming to the end of an exhausting Saturday in central San Francisco, a bit lost, and dying for a beer, this guy on a bike pulls up in front of us as we waited to cross the street, how could I resist, given I had a ready primed camera in my hand? As with all bikes of this vintage (this is a near immaculate Vincent 500cc Comet from the 1950s, by the way, not the 1000cc Black Shadow version I originally thought it might have been) the noise was unmistakable. I grabbed three frames, vaguely took in the authentic-looking “pudding basin” helmet and the biceps. I missed the flip-flops! I ask you? Flip-flops? I’d not even want to ride my ultra-comfortable modern bike in sandals. This guy was on an original fire-breathing dragon!

As soon as he’d ridden up, and briefly stopped for lights, he was gone, leaving a vague scent of Castrol R racing oil and two pedestrians gawping. We never saw him again during our stay.

And that was nearly it. Almost literally. I downloaded my photos from the trip to the States when I got home, spent weeks working on the shots from the World Masters Championships, and rather forgot my San Francisco images. Then, a few months later, when I went to retrieve them from my hard drive, they were nowhere to be found. Like really nowhere. I estimated the range of the file numbers and searched for them. Nothing. I tried everything I knew, including a utility to recover deleted material. Nada.

For more than two years, I mourned the loss of those photos. Then, searching one day for something else, there was the folder “San Francisco 2011”, smiling back at me from the screen. I’d done nothing to the computer recently. The folder just wasn’t there, and then suddenly it was. One of those mysteries.

Printed up in black and white – something I don’t do often, but which only seemed right in this case – the shot has quickly become one of my favourites. There is, to my mind, just a hint of the famous Marlon Brando The Wild One about it.

Except, of course, for the flip flops.

This photo will be on display in my Exhibition “Tom Phillips – The Bigger Picture”, which runs in Maidstone, Kent throughout February 2014. You can read a bit more about the show in a blog from a couple of months back, here.


About tomsprints

I am a Masters athlete and freelance photographer living in Kent, in Great Britain. I'm a sprinter. As well as competing, my camera and I work regularly for the British Masters Athletics Federation and the European and World Masters Athletics organisations. For pleasure, I'm (principally) a landscape photographer. I have been blessed with the chance of spending quite a lot of time in the European Alps in the last 30 years. My web site is a vehicle for a my photographic work, and is at I run two blogs. One is about what it's like to be an older athlete ( ) and the other is basically about my photography ( ), although they often overlap.
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3 Responses to Vincent

  1. Glenn Wood says:

    “Can we handle that much torque?” As a non-motorcyclist I’m afraid I can’t hear the Black Shadow mentioned without thinking immediately of the exploits of Dr Gonzo in Las Vegas (even though I believe it can’t have been an original Vincent that he was referring to).

    Whatever the merits of the bike itself, it’s a wonderfully evocative name (as is the Black Lightning, immortalised in song by the other great Thompson, Richard).

  2. graham says:

    It’s actually a Vincent Comet, single cylinder 500cc, not a Black Shadow.

    • tomsprints says:

      Thanks. Didn’t get a long-enough look at it to tell properly. If it’s a 500, that might explain how he got to kick-start it in flip-flops, of course. Will alter the blog.

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