BEHIND THE SHUTTER WITH MEL STOUTSENBERGER
The basis of this interview is purely selfish. As a child of 70’s BMX, I’ve been infatuated with the photos of Mel Stoutsenberger since I first laid eyes on them. His ability to capture not only action, but the atmosphere and electricity of the moment is uncanny. Background details, the weather, the motion, the attitude–it’s all there, in that sliver of time. I had to know more about the “how” and “why” of these photographs. I’ve met Mel, and in person, he’s a soft-spoken, kind individual, despite his towering height. Acting under the pseudonym “Rappensuncle” created some identity-confusion, as the “screen name vs. Real name” paradox blurs reality, but the real Mel is the real deal. Mel was there at the very beginning of Bicycle Motocross. He was a participant and observer, but more importantly, in a historical, soulful sense, he was able to capture the magic of the era with his photography. The following interview came graciously and openly. Mel’s contributions to “our world” can never be done justice in words, they must be viewed, studied and digested. Fortunately, Mel has done an incredible job of archiving his work.
State your name and where you are from?
My name is Mel Stoutsenberger and I am from San Gabriel, California. Hometown; Canoga Park, California.
When and how did you discover BMX?
My Dad bought me my Stingray for my 9th birthday in 1965. BMX wasn’t a thing yet. What I discovered was Motocross. I was a 12 year old boomer and I went to Columbus Junior high and my friends and I rode our Stingrays to school every day. We learned how to do short wheel stands, do jumps off curbs and stop fast by skidding – simple stuff like that. So we’re all hanging out down the street on our bikes after school and this dude comes rolling up the street and he’s doing a long-ass wheelie but he’s doing it with no hands! We were freaking! Then he starts spinning his bars around and around as he goes by! I knew the guy – older brother of one of my friends from church – so I jump on my bike and start following him. He notices me chasing him and immediately kicks it into high gear. I catch up to him so he hooks-it over to the curb and bunny-hops up it! “Later!”, he tells me. I’m thinking, what the hell did I just see?! I started practicing and learning all I could about motocross from that day forward.
So, you were a rider/racer in the very earliest days, long before BMX was a “thing”. How was it that you began taking photographs?
I started taking pictures at a young age. My parents both had cameras so I would ask them if I could take pictures for them at family events and vacations. I liked what I saw when the pictures were printed so I started asking to use their cameras more and more. My parents saw my growing interest in photography so they bought me a Kodak 126 Instamatic for Christmas when I was 12. I started shooting more and taking my camera with me all the time, but it didn’t work well for shooting fast moving objects. I started reading books about photography. The Time Life series was my go to back then. I learned how simple it was to develop black and white film, but the 126 film I was using came in cassette form. My Mom and Dad had 35mm cameras but my Dad lost his and my Mom’s Zeiss jammed-up. I had to get my hands on camera that shot 35mm film, so I saved my money and bought a Japan-made Sears 35mm SLR with a 55mm f/2.8 lens from a guy in school for 50 bucks. I was officially hooked! I took photography class as an elective my first year of high school so I could use their darkroom equipment. I was working it big time! I thought I had this shit down until I met Russ Okawa.
The familial influence and studying explains the basics of your photography, but the vision, composition and most of all, timing, is uncanny. There were so few existing examples of how this kind of action should be timed and framed back then. Keeping the terrain in the shot, the subject higher in the frame, the apex of the jump–these are things that are taken for granted now, but how were you able to pinpoint it all and capture it? Was it conscious, or do you just have the supertouch?
Good question! It was definitely a conscious visual perception and something I strive to do in every shot I take. The fact that I knew most of the guys riding and racing back then made it a lot easier for me to get the shot I wanted. I knew that certain riders were going to fly farther, go a lot faster, and take a certain line through a sweeper better than other riders. That helped me compose my frame and get the timing and focus dead-nuts before a race even started. I knew the tracks because I was racing on them, that way I knew the line variations and tricky sections to shoot when I’d circle-back with my camera. Composition trumps quality in the photographic world. I didn’t go to a school of design or work for one of the masters, so I did the next best thing; I studied the works of the masters. BMX was a new sport and there wasn’t swarms of photographers out there grabbing a piece of the action. There wasn’t much to look at as far as examples, but there was the sport of motocross and it was being well documented. I bought a subscription to Motocross Action Magazine and studied the masters of motography – the angles used, lens selection, what type of film and camera settings. Everybody knows what they like, but the real trick to a well composed image is the ability to guide the viewer in and tell a story. That’s what good composition is all about and what I try to achieve in my work.
What was your involvement with BMX racing? Where and when was the first organized race you attended?
The first time I ever raced at an organized bicycle motocross event was in the summer of ’72 at Indian Dunes Motocross Park in Valencia. The organizer was Ernie Alexander and this was the first sanctioned racing event of it’s kind that I know of. It was on a Friday night and the track was laid out on the inside of the site’s minibike track, so it had bright overhead lighting and plenty of parking for the 60 or so riders that came out that night. I was working part time at Canoga Cycle Center and my boss was Russ Okawa. The shop already had a large following of guys who were riding motocross on their bikes, so when Russ heard about the Dunes race he put a team together and took us all in his Dad’s station wagon. I still have the team roster that Russ typed to give to our parents so they had all of our contact info. We raced every Friday night that summer and brought home lots of trophies. Each Friday night the competition grew and so did our abilities. New parts were custom made for strength, we tried all kinds of knobby tires and gearing was changed to suit the different track layouts. Russ developed a two-speed clutch set-up out of a Sturmey Archer 3 speed coaster brake hub but it was protested and banned soon after. We also laced up a special fixed gear for John George – but that’s another story.
Regarding Russ Okawa, I feel like I’ve seen more of his photos in the past year than the previous 40. I know he was very involved in many facets of early BMX, but he was clearly understated as a photographer. What was his influence on you?
Yeah, I think that’s my fault. I have copies of Russ’s archives and I kind of shared them with some people. Russ was an amazing person and my best friend for years. When I met Russ, he was attending USC’s School of Cinematic Arts, studying to be director of photography. It was his dream to operate large format cine camera systems to produce major films and commercials. He was good at it, and his photography reflected his abilities to see well and get the shot. He taught me more about still photography in a month than I ever learned from years of reading books. I would go with him on assignment shoots and student film projects and I would work as a grip for the crews. I became part of the team and I was learning how to use all kinds of equipment and how to set-up shoots – it was insane! I had just turned 15 and about to start high school when I met him. I came into the bike shop to find out how to fix a flat on the back wheel of my Schwinn Continental, and we started talking. He let me build some stuff and then asked me if I would be interested in working part time. Hell yes! I showed Russ my Stingray that I set-up for moto and he asked me to show him what it was all about. He became very interested in the scene and started coming to the tracks and jumps that we had built around the area. He knew right away that we needed better equipment. One of my friends, Alan Johnson, asked me if it was possible to lace a ten-speed front hub to a 20″ Schwinn rear rim so I took his request to Russ. Sure enough, Russ found a 20″ x 36 hole Schwinn rim and calculated the spoke size and lace pattern. We took Alan’s hub and laced it to the new rim and the AJ Wheel was born! Once Alan hit the streets with that wheel everyone wanted one and the orders poured in at the shop. I was lacing and truing wheels for days and I still couldn’t keep up with the orders! Russ enlisted some of my friends to help and we started an assembly line. Russ also brought a guy in that he knew from his church to help, that’s when I met John George. These were all the guys that became part of Russ’ first racing team.This was just the beginning.
The bicycle motocross phenomenon exploded on this little bike shop in mega proportions. The owner, Burt Straub, bought a piece of land on busy Topanga Canyon Blvd. and had a full-blown Schwinn franchised concept shop built that we all helped him move-in to and set-up, complete with a motocross bike section with our race photos and trophies. I got my own service bench, tool kit and a nice raise! Russ graduated form USC and concentrated on the shop operations and managing the racing team. Team T-shirts were provided and Russ was writing checks at the races to cover entry fees. We were sponsored by Canoga Cycle Center, but everyone knew us as “The Schwinn Team” and we dominated where ever we raced.
Your early photos are littered with the “who’s who?” of early BMX: Thom Lund, Rick Twomey, John George, John Palfreyman, as well as many lesser known (outside of SoCal) riders. Were these guys your subjects more from geographical location or did you seek these guys out?
Geographical for sure. I was on the Canoga Cycle Center team with John George, most of the other riders were from my neighborhood, so naturally they became my subjects. I’d shoot them when we would go to the races and if we heard about a killer new launcher or downhill we would meet there after work to join in on the fun. I met a lot of people that way and they would share their hot spots with us. I met a lot of really fast guys racing the NBA tracks; Dave Clinton, Marvin Church and Thom Lund (just to name a few) were always at weekend races. The out of town guys came to SoCal to race in the national events, so I would shoot them but I didn’t really know who they were until later.
What is “Rappensuncle”(Mel’s screen name and long time alias)?
“Rappensuncle Thorch” was my pseudonym for any BMX related images published back then. I remember thinking that I wanted to keep my work shot at motocross events separate from the bicycle races. I ran that thought by Mark Kiel one day and he answered with a quick thumbs-up. Typical me, I got stuck on the name, so Mark throws out the first thing that pops into his head. We laughed so hard that it stuck. To this day he still doesn’t have an explanation as to where that name came from and why.
Were you able to maintain a living wage shooting BMX and MX?
Never. I’ve never made a living wage at anything related to photography. I worked for a little while in a darkroom printing other people’s negs but that got old really quick and didn’t pay well. I don’t know, I could have applied myself more back then to sell my work, but I didn’t. But I never stopped shooting.
How do you have all of these photos cataloged? Are your archives comprised of prints, proof-sheets or what?
My negs and slides are in Print File archive preservers and those are in categorized three-ring binders. The binders are tucked away in a cabinet so light doesn’t get to them. All of the master scans are stored on external hard drives. Edited masters that I want to keep get backed-up with the masters and also to a cloud storage service – I use Flickr.com. All of my BMX stuff is in a file named “BMX”. I lost some of my negs along the way and unfortunately, some of them were my early BMX shots. I did have some prints of those shots but only a small handful compared to what I originally recorded. Shit happens.
At what point and why did you fade away from BMX? Where did you go?
There were a few reasons; I was way too tall to be riding a bike that size. Not that it was “A kid’s bike/I’m an adult with a driver’s license/what the hell am I doing?” kind of thing. I never felt like I didn’t belong in BMX. I was just too damn tall! Then there was the Yamaha Gold Cup Series slap-down. What a bunch of crap! I couldn’t sign-up because I was going to turn 18 during the series! Myself and Ronnie Haase couldn’t race with the rest of the team and Russ couldn’t do anything about it. Bill Ford could have raced but he was so pissed-off about the whole thing that he quit the team. Butch was about to do the same, but we talked him out of it. The writing was on the wall; they didn’t want adults racing BMX. Ronnie was racing motocross anyway, so he left and didn’t think much about it, but we still rode together all the time. I left the team and raced now and then at the NBA tracks for Kiel’s Cycle Parts and then hooked-up with Rick Twomey and started riding with his team. Riding for Rick and Patti was the best! We traveled to NorCal, Las Vegas and Arizona, and Rick got me a job working for BMX Products during the beginning stages of the Mongoose production bike. We did most of the testing. Then the final slap in the face: Long story short; an opportunity to become an editor for a brand new BMX magazine was given to Rick and I felt betrayal. I was done that day – walked away from racing and never looked back. I started racing dirt bikes for the Kiel’s and shooting motocross events like there was no tomorrow. I customized another Schwinn Varsity so I could ride it like a BMX bike.
Photo attached…Check the custom forks – Thanks Ronnie!
You touched on something important. You said you “knew the tracks because you were racing on them”, which obviously gave you a perspective that a non-participant wouldn’t be able to simulate. Your ability to capture the entire scene, with secondary subjects in the background, is uncanny. You truly are a visual story-teller. In a shot of John Palfreyman you posted on Instagram recently, there is a ghostly image in the far distance of a rider pushing their bike up hill. Maybe this one instance was luck, but your photos are filled with such incredible background detail. How?
Yeah, some of that background stuff is just pure luck, plain and simple. I was concentrating on Johnny’s moves in that particular shot and he was moving fast so there was no time to check what was going on in the background. Back in those days, I didn’t have an auto-winder on my camera, so I only had one chance to get the shot. The only challenge at the races was finding the right place to stand for the best light and show as much of the terrain as possible. The rest kind of just fell into place. It’s much easier to tell the whole BMX racing story at the tracks because the background is filled with spectators and their gear. The best time to shoot a big racing event was at early practice when the guys were warming up and learning their lines. Plus, when the cameras came out, so did the radness.
The way you explain it now, in a “professor-to-student” like manner, all makes sense, but I don’t understand how you had such a clear vision at a young age? You have a remarkable gift–reminiscent of early Glen E. Friedman shots (although yours are earlier). Who are some of the masters of “motography” you speak of? And photographic influences (besides Russ Okawa)?
I think I was just in the right place at the right time. I was part of something in it’s beginning stage and I recorded it. Friedman’s images are remarkably raw and clearly capture the energy of the skater-punk scene. In the early 70’s there was this shooter named Craig Stecyk who got a lot of his black and white photos published in Surfer magazine. His images portrayed a small group of adolescent skaters from Venice and Santa Monica shredding storm channels and pools. His print work was sharp and gritty like the scenes he captured and his stories were killer. I wanted that same feel and energy in my shots. It’s from the street and it’s spontaneous and real. The motocross photographer I remember the best was Jim Gianatsis. Jim seemed to be at every race and was published more than any other shooter back then. My friends Mark Kiel and Scott Heidbrink, although just starting to know their way around a camera, were consistently turning-out amazing images portraying the motocross scene in southern California. I know that there was a lot more feeding my need to learn back then but I just can’t remember. If I could flip through an old Motocross Action Magazine it would come back to me.
I think it’s great that you’ve shared some of Russ’ photos. It’s a great way to honor him and his work. His influence as a an early innovator of equipment, teams and the core of BMX in general are huge, but his photography has gone unappreciated until recently. Thanks for enlightening us with the photos and now, this insight. Did you work with him in any other capacity after Canoga Cycle Center?
Thank you. Russ was a great photographer and cinematographer and a lot of people have never seen any of his work. It needed to be seen. I did work with him in one other capacity other than bike repair and BMX. When he was a film student at USC I would go with him to location shoots in various parts of LA. The film students worked in groups and they all had assigned tasks just like a regular production company shoots. Russ was always the DP so he would be on shoots for mass hours setting up camera angles and lighting. I was his helper, but it wasn’t really like work, I was soaking it all up like a sponge. He was also big into seeing movies, you know, to check-out how the masters create that on-screen magic, so me and John and sometimes Mike Frankavich would go with him. Then, Russ would give us his critique and ask us for feedback. Whenever On Any Sunday was playing he would take the whole team to see it.
The Craig Stecyk reference makes perfect sense! He was a visionary and somewhat of a prophet. Stecyk changed the way I looked at things. The whole Dogtown thing was pure unadulterated Photojournalism! I didn’t know what I was looking at back then, I just knew I liked what I saw and it inspired me.
John George is a subject of many of your photos, and you mention that he came from the same area and scene, so it all adds up, but what was he all about?
He won big races, then would just disappear, only to come back a year later and win another race. He worked at Mongoose for a long time, so he was still connected to BMX. Maybe it was too much for him? Or was he just “too good” and got bored? Some of the photos of him (from you and others) are iconic. Dude had style for days.
Up until 2016, John and I hadn’t spoken for about 39 years! Yep, the dude kicked ass on the tracks, especially the downhills. When we went to The Dunes in Russ’ Dad’s station wagon for the first motocross race for bicycles – John was there. When I raced my last National at Randall Ranch in ’76 – he was there. John was a very good friend of mine back in those days and we are still good friends. We worked together, rode together and raced together for years back then. A genuine sportsman in every sense of the word and a really devoted team member. I can’t tell you anything about the disappearing and reappearing for big races thing, but it doesn’t surprise me, the dude knew how to train for a race. We rode everywhere on bikes back then. But maybe he just shifted his attention away from racing towards work and family like a lot of us did – not sure. Maybe racing once a year in one of the big nationals was his way of having fun – like taking a break from day-to-day life and busting loose.
You have great photos from non-track locations, like ditches and jumps in the woods and things like the “killer new launcher or downhill” you mention. Did you bring your camera everywhere? At what point in a day did you put your bike down and start taking photos?
I took my camera almost everywhere, I didn’t take it to school every day, but if I was heading out on my bike, then it came with me. It was always ride first and shoot later. I had a small backpack I carried my gear in, usually my Minolta with a 55mm lens, a 28 to 135 zoom lens and a few rolls 36 exposure film. I would drop the pack and ride for a while then take a break and shoot. Sometimes one of my friends would grab my camera and shoot some of me. Butch Baum used to point the lens at me every once and a while and Bill Ford got into it a few times – even brought his own camera every once in a while. There was feedback from the guys too on camera angles and timing. So it was ride, shoot, ride some more, shoot some more, and use up all of the film so I could develop it that night.
Attachment; Photo of me taken by Bill Ford with his Kodak Instamatic.
Forgive me for not knowing, but did you have many photos published in the early magazines? Being from Canoga Park, the city where Challenge Publications, publisher of Minicycle Action (later Minicycle/BMX Action, then Super BMX), and your subjects being both of the motorized, as well as pedal-driven variety, it would make sense for you to connect with them? What was your involvement with the BMX and MX media?
No worries! I got some of my stuff published back then. The first time was in the Schwinn Reporter, a newsletter distributed to all Schwinn bicycle dealers, and my contribution was three BMX photos. Russ asked me if I was okay giving our shop’s Schwinn Rep the prints from our showcase and I agreed. The article was about a new policy limiting Schwinn’s guarantee on Stingray frames used for purposes they were not designed nor intended for – in other words; off-road riding. My photos were examples (bad examples) of the type of riding a bunch of kids in southern California were doing and how the frame breakage counts exceeded all other dealers in the country. Oh shit! No more life time guarantee and more new frames for us! The Schwinn factory called this new type of riding unsafe and dangerous! I was bummed at the time, but when I look back, Schwinn’s research targeted a specific location, the area where bicycle motocross started.
I was always shooting the races back then, both motocross and BMX, so my portfolio was growing fast. One day Mark Kiel told me that there was this dude who was interested in my photos, so we went to talk to him. Mark introduced me to Scott Heidbrink, who, at the time, was working for Southern California Motocross News. Scott was covering both motocross and BMX, but he wanted more photos of both for the weekly distribution. So, Mark and I went to work and provided him with prints. I became a regular there and had a great time learning how it all went together. Scott was the youngest editor running a publication of that magnitude, but he was dedicated and ran the whole show just like the best of them.
When Scott moved over to Challenge Publications to run Minicycle/BMX Action I was still covering races but I also started doing some of the new bike testing. Rick Twomey and I shot all the photos of the first Mongoose production bike over a one week span. My favorite test day was the Kawasaki/Yamaha shoot-out with test riders Steve Schmitz (RIP), Butch Baum and Johnny O’Mara. Me, Rick and Scott all shooting up on our home track in the hills of Chatsworth. All the photos looked great in the mag but I didn’t get my negs back. The great thing about hanging-out at Challenge was the bike rental, well not really a rental, they had all kinds of bikes there that had been tested but not picked-up by the factories yet. So we were allowed to take them to do out own testing for a few weeks. I rode Montessa, Ossa, Husky, a few different Yamaha’s, Suzuki RM’s, I even had a 250 CR Honda for about 6 months! I loved that Honda.
Who shot the photo of you blasting out of the ditch?
Rick Twomey shot that of me using my camera because he didn’t own one at the time.
The part about Schwinn using your photos to illustrate their “no stunt riding” warranty policy is just heartbreaking. It really speaks to their corporate stance, which was always their shortcoming in BMX. They just didn’t get it and were reluctant participants for the first few years of real BMX.
Ah, the Schwinn BMX thing. Yeah, Schwinn really screwed the pooch on that one. It didn’t hurt the shop though, we made our own “BMX” version of the Stingray with after market parts and sold the shit out of them for a couple of years. Christmas time was good at Canoga Cycle Center – we sold hundreds of those bikes! When the Scrambler came out it looked just like our version. Funny shit, huh? I guess I should add another thing to my list of reasons why I left the scene. BMX was a cut-throat business back then. People were stealing our ideas and we knew it. True story: John George and Russ added another valve stem to his wheels and told everyone that he was running two tubes in his tires for better traction. People went ape-shit trying to figure that one out and asking Russ where to get the tubes. I think they are still talking about that one on the BMX sites. Bwaahaahahahaha!!
Now that you’ve made the move to Instagram with your photos, a whole new generation of people are seeing them for the first time. It’s great to see all the feedback and interaction between you and these new fans. However, it’s somewhat ironic that these beautiful, tangible mechanical camera-to-film-to-paper prints are now being viewed on little phones. It’s a weird paradox, as most of these people probably wouldn’t see them at all, otherwise. How do you feel about all of this?
If people are seeing them and enjoying them, I’m happy. It doesn’t matter to me how they see them, but you are right, they do have more impact when viewed large, but at least they’re being seen. The whole reason I started posting them was so that people could see and know another piece of the sport’s history. It’s a small piece, but it’s important because of the time-frame. The early 70’s haven’t gotten the same attention as the later years. When I first started digitizing my film it was solely for archival purposes, but I posted some of them on my Flickr account in 2004. I wasn’t following the BMX scene and had no idea what was going on with the sport and I didn’t really care. I had a few comments – people explaining how much they enjoyed that time in their lives and how much they missed riding. It was cool! Some time went by and then I received an email from a dude named Rick Gaytan asking if it would be okay if he shared some of my pics on a website dedicated to BMX history. I didn’t know who this guys was! I asked Rick why anyone would give a shit about my pics and where in the hell he was coming from. He responded with a link to VintageBMX.com and told me that my images portrayed a time when the sport was just getting started and his people needed to see them. I was blown away by what I saw and read on that site, so I gave him a few pics to post. The response from his peers was unprecedented. I didn’t know what to think! People started asking questions about who, what and where, what kind of bike, and who took these? I signed-up at Vintage and got involved. Rick Twomey started posting, then Thom Lund, Perry Kramer and a lot of the guys I used to ride with! Rick Gaytan started another thread on BMXSociety.com and that’s when some of the best stories and pictures were posted. It was so insane! I became good friends with Rick Gaytan – it’s all because of him reaching out to me that I started scanning more of my photos, posting and getting involved with this sport again. It’s been a lot of fun and I have met some of nicest people.
Since you’ve never made a living from your photography, what do you do to pay the bills?
I’m a carpenter/custom home builder.
What are your favorite subjects to shoot nowadays?
My favorite subject to shoot? People. I love shooting people! It doesn’t matter what they are doing, or if they are doing anything at all, people are the most interesting subjects to me. I took a class about five years ago on how to shoot with speedlights (flash) the right way. I struggled for years trying to control them but it was always hit and miss. I saw the class on Meetup.com and the place was close to home so I signed up. The teacher was a retired commercial photographer with 20 years experience traveling the world, shooting people for ad agencies. He broke it down. Two things; 1) shoot manual and 2) do the math. It works so good, it’s almost like cheating. I’ve been doing the math ever since and it never fails me. Now I use my flash to shoot people and get much better results.
I still like shooting motocross when I can get to the tracks. Every Thanksgiving Mark, Scott and I go to the Day In The Dirt Grand Prix at Glen Helen Raceway. It has become a tradition for us to shoot together at that race. We see a lot of our motocross buddies and some of the BMX guys come out too! Dave Clinton and Bryan Curnel are a regulars there. Ernie Alexander is always there – his Son Kenny is the guy who puts it all together and last year was the 20th running.
If you have one take-away from your years behind the lens and on two wheels, what is it?
Riding bikes has always given me an amazing sense of freedom. I’ve been blessed, growing up when spending time outdoors was the norm, riding bikes was the ultimate activity, and essentially better when shared with friends. The closest thing I’ve found to the feeling I get when riding is surfing, albeit limited in one major aspect; it requires waves which are only found near a beach. Riding on two wheels is firmly embedded in my soul. It’s the perfect diversion from my daily life that keeps me on my game and my head clear.
Photography has been my creative outlet most of my life. The whole process is fascinating to me and I always try to keep up with the ever-changing technology. Although I was already making pictures before I started riding bikes in the dirt, the whole 70’s motocross scene was something so new and so epic I needed to record it all and share the product with my friends. This was the push I needed to learn how to shoot better pictures.
Check out Mel Stoutsenberger on Instagram here…
Article by Scott Towne!