Looking for Weird

“Clay Porter, guest filming a ‘Life Behind Bars’ segment at the jumps in Pine Valley, CA. This is Brandon Semenuk sending at last light, but Nico Vink and Brendan ‘Brendog’ Fairclough were also there. This was the very beginning of 2014, and I honestly couldn’t believe I was shooting these three guys just 45 minutes from my house. This shoot was the first time I’d worked with Brandon.”

Looking for Weird Creativity and a Collapsed Lung with Ian Collins

For lack of a better word, Ian Collins’ resume is weird.

The professional photographer started his first job at age 8, throwing hay bales on his family’s dairy farm in upstate New York. Next came a gig as a designer-shoe salesman at Nordstrom’s in San Diego, shortly after he moved to California in 2004. Then he headed north—way north—to work on a commercial fishing boat for three months in the Bering Sea. When he got home, he couldn’t open or close his hands fully for a month.

“It was definitely the gnarliest experience of my life,” Collins says. “I almost went overboard three different times.”

It may have been a path far from the world of mountain biking, but that’s where it would eventually lead. After his fishing job, Collins took a break from selling shoes, during which he began dabbling with a hand-me-down Nikon D70. It turned out he was good at shooting photos, and years later what started as a hobby turned into a career as one of freeride mountain biking’s premier photographers.

“Bas van Steenbergen at the 2015 Rampage outside of Virgin, UT. Bas had a really sick line that lent itself to his racy style, and it paid off with a top-10 finish. This was during morning practice, and I was about to head down the hill because the light was getting harsh. Still, I figured I’d give a snoop around in some of the dark spots—the Utah desert always makes for dramatic light.”
“The dirt at Cruz Fest, in Santa Cruz, CA, is this insane black clay—tough to work with, but it looks insane in photos. Although you can’t tell from the photo, there were probably 15 riders working on the landing shown here.”

Hailing from the football-centric town of Barneveld, NY, Collins had no interest in touchdowns or field goals—he did, however, love bikes. Thanks to the help of his supportive and hard-working family, he was able to bypass throwing pigskins in favor of racing XC, which led to his first national race at Mt. Snow, VT. Collins enjoyed the events, but remembers getting passed continually on the course’s climbs, then blowing past those same riders (and numerous others) on the way down.

“I’ve got asthma and I was born with a collapsed lung, so fuck cardio,” he says. “I just wanted to ride downhill.”

“I’ve got asthma and I was born with a collapsed lung, so fuck cardio. I just wanted to ride downhill.” —Ian Collins

So that’s what he did, entering New England’s local downhill circuit. Gravity was his forte, and he wanted to ride fall-line year-round. Unfortunately, that was impossible in New York’s cold winters, and at 21 years old he made the move to Ventura, CA. What he found was a nearly nonexistent downhill race scene, and an all-time network of trails.

“Brandon Semenuk during one of the nightly sessions at the Post Office jumps in Aptos, CA. This was one month after I’d moved to town, and exactly two months before the jumps were plowed over. I shot a lot of silhouettes at the Post Office jumps, as the riders loved sessioning until well after sunset, and Brandon’s tuck-no-handers are always unmistakable.”
“Ryan ‘R-Dog’ Howard and Tyler ‘T-Mac’ McCaul tearing down their childhood dreams, denying the opportunity to the inevitable bulldozer looming in the distance.”
“The day the Post Office jumps got plowed, a lot of the riders brought mason jars to fill up with dirt as a memento. Garrett Mechem, an insanely talented local grom, holds a piece of California history.”
“The Post Office was a sacred place, and no soccer field or baseball diamond will fill the void. I showed up late to the scene, but quickly understood the emotional attachment. There was just something about that place.”
“Brandon Semenuk, berm press/topside can while filming for RAW100 v2 at the old Supercross BMX track in Tehachapi, CA. I’m not big on trick shots like this, but we had some downtime to dabble as it was a bit too foggy to film. It was a bit breezy so the shot took a few attempts, but the fog made for nice, flat, diffused light in the puddle next to the berm.”

Collins eventually landed in the small town of Aptos, where he met filmmaker Clay Porter, who remains one of his lifelong friends. At the time, Collins was still a hobby photographer, until Porter invited him on a shoot to help schlep gear. Rather than sitting and watching, Collins dove into the action himself, working on his photo skills between moving boxes. Considering the quick pace of video shoots, it was a difficult task. A distracted helper can easily become a hindrance, but for Collins the time constraints became a catalyst for originality.   

“I worked with a lot of filmmakers who got pretty annoyed with photographers who slowed down the process, and who just took photos over the filmer’s shoulder,” Ian says. “I learned the best thing I could do is to not allow myself that option, and be forced to look for weird, alternative angles.”

Collins didn’t just focus on photo composition. He also worked to connect with the athletes, establishing himself as both a skilled photographer and an enjoyable person to bring on shoots. It was a reputation that served him well during his next big break, a profile story in California for the UK-based Dirt Magazine. Assigned by longtime editor Mike Rose, Collins ended up photographing Myles Rockwell, Missy Giove and Cam Zink—which led to his first Dirt cover shot, a banger image of Zink. “As a downhill racer kid, to me there was nothing more badass than a Dirt cover,” Collins says.

“Kyle Jameson had this crazy idea to scrub under this tree branch. I had a hard time conveying how truly gnarly it was in one image, but this gives you a pretty decent idea. We dragged a crusty mattress up the hill and strapped it to the branch with tie downs for his first few attempts—super sketchy in general.”
“Kyle Jameson, at a really cool spot above Mono Lake, near Mammoth, CA. Scott Secco and I were shooting Kyle for his 10-year anniversary edit with Scott Bikes. There’s loads of pumice and obsidian in this zone—it looks like a Martian landscape, and watching him ride was more like snowboarding than biking. These deep, swoopy, fresh tracks really show that feeling.”

In the years since, Collins has worked on countless projects and shoots, all while holding down the role of content manager at MTB-mag.com. He shot with Brandon Semenuk and Rupert Walker for their RAW 100 series, attended both the Fest Series’ Cruzfest events, and worked alongside Porter as the on-set photographer for the Death Grip movie. And while he handles a lot of race-scene content and brand imagery at MTB-mag.com, it’s not something he’s interested in himself.

“I fully respect the grind of the event photographers, but I’m really glad I don’t have to do it,” he says. “I think if I was covering all the World Cups or on retainer to shoot commercial jobs for a big brand all the time, I’d miss a lot of the cool stuff.”

Luckily for his resume and the sport, Collins hasn’t. Now, far from the football fields of New York and the shoe racks of San Diego, Ian continues to build on his list of accomplishments with a focused goal: “I’ve always wanted to do mountain biking justice.”