I’ve always been inspired by BMX. The creativity, athleticism and beauty of the sport just sparks my imagination. One day I was on YouTube watching amazing flatlands riders and decided that I really wanted to shoot this sport. So I started working on developing an idea that could put my unique spin on things.
The first thing I did was look up flatlands BMX riders in Chicago. I found Matt Wilhelm and immediately fell in love with his work. This guy is an absolutely amazing rider, and he was local. That can sometimes be hard to find, even in a big city like Chicago. After getting a good sense for how he rides, I reached out to him to see if he would be interested in doing some work together. Once we got on the phone and started talking I could tell it was going to be a good fit. He has done some really creative things in the past on America’s Got Talent and was excited to do something new. So I told him I was going to come up with something great for us and I’d be back in touch in about a week, once I got all of the logistics worked out.
As I began critically looking at the landscape of BMX photography, i started to notice some trends. The main thing that stuck out to me was that everyone typically wears the same thing: jeans and a dark tshirt. So I started there. I thought about what we could do differently with the wardrobe that would separate us from the crowd. For some reason the idea of a suit jumped into my head and I really liked where that was taking me.
The next thing that I noticed was that the locations I was seeing were all rather similar. They were generally parking lots or on the street, which makes sense, but now that we were going to put Matt in a suit, that didn’t really match up. So I started thinking about where he would be wearing a suit.
My first thought was an office building. I still think that could be fun, but it didn’t feel special enough to me. Then I thought of a church. I felt like that was cool and something I hadn’t seen before, so I started thinking about churches that might work.
After brainstorming some ideas and starting to put together a list, all of a sudden a location that I had seen on instagram a while back popped into my head. It was an old abandoned church that I knew was near downtown. I started doing research and discovered that the name of the church was St. Boniface Catholic Church and it was only about a mile away from my apartment. The main thing that got me excited about the idea of this abandoned location was that if we could get it, I would finally be able to incorporate an idea that i’d wanted to do for a long time and combine smoke bombs with sports. I had experimented with this idea on a skateboarding shoot as a proof of concept, and this was going to be my opportunity to really blow it out.
I continued to research the church and discovered that it had shut its doors in 1990 and had subsequently fallen into disrepair. It had also recently been purchased by a developer, who had secured the building. I kept digging and found some notes from a city council meeting that said it was “still pending site plan approval.” I knew this meant that it was just sitting there empty, so I reached out to the developer.
Once I was able to get him on the phone, I pitched him my idea and talked about what we were hoping to create. He said he thought it sounded awesome and agreed to grant us access to the building, as long as we would all sign comprehensive liability waivers. I ran that by the team and everyone was more than willing to do it, so the project moved forward.
Something that people who work on large productions know, but a lot of other people may not realize, is that when you are putting together projects like this, something always goes wrong. Up until this point it had been pretty smooth sailing. I had secured my ideal subject and top choice of location without too much trouble. My team was assembled and excited and it looked like we were in great shape heading into the shoot 2 days out. That’s when we started to hit some bumps.
The first issue I ran into was that an extra battery I had ordered and paid to have rush shipped didn’t arrive. When I reached out to the company and UPS to discuss the issue they said that because it was a battery they wouldn’t honor the rush shipping and it would get there when it got there. I kept my fingers crossed, but it didn’t arrive in time for our shoot, so I had to dial back some of my lighting schematics to work with the batteries I already had.
The second issue popped up about 9pm the night before the shoot. I got a call from my producer saying that her friend in New York had gotten into a bad motorcycle accident and she was stuck there taking care of him. Fortunately her friend was OK, but part of the issue of her being stuck in New York was that she had the wardrobe in her car in Chicago and there was no way for anyone to access the vehicle. So starting at 9pm the night before I had to figure out what we were going to do about finding a new wardrobe.
After thinking about it for a few minutes, I called Matt and told him what was going on. I asked if he had any old suits that he didn’t wear anymore, because I didn’t want to risk ruining anything new. If he didn’t then I was going to try to run out first thing in the morning and find something for us. He said he would take a look and call me back. About 30 minutes later I got a call back and he said that he actually did have an old suit in storage that he didn’t mind potentially ruining, and I was able to breathe a big sigh of relief and get some sleep.
The next morning we all met at the church. I was very fortunate to have an amazing team come together to help me make this personal project a reality. Obviously, Matt Wilhelm was our talent. Matt Rossetti was shooting the behind the scenes for us, and when I arrived he was already there getting drone footage of the church and the city skyline. Elaine Miller served as our digital tech and she arrived fully ready to shoot in a powerless location. Frances Tsalas did a great job getting Matt camera ready. And my assistants, Greg Lloyd and Paul Clark were integral in getting everything set up and executed throughout the day.
We got into the church and Matt and I walked around and looked at the floor to see where he would be able to ride. Because the church was so run down, most of the floorboards were too warped for him to ride on. But the pulpit was still in halfway decent shape, so we decided that’s where he would perform and set about getting everything ready.
As you would imagine with an abandoned location, the floor was absolutely filthy, which makes it dangerous to ride on. Matt pitched in and used a big broom to get as much of the dirt off the pulpit as he could while we went to work setting up the lights and other equipment.
Once everything was up and going, we started shooting. We shot from a few different angles, with a few different lighting setups. Because there was only a small area that was actually suitable to ride on, our options were somewhat limited, but I think we were able to make the most of what we had. We also experimented with a number of different smoke bomb setups as well. We shot them strapped to his bike as well as in the background and I liked how both of those effects worked out.
But it wasn’t all smooth sailing, and right from the start we ran into some issues with the smoke bombs. Every time I had shot with these before, I had been outside. But because we were now shooting in an enclosed environment, the smoke didn’t disperse like it does when you are outdoors and it was creating some incredibly dense clouds in the space.
The first time we attempted to use a smoke bomb it had us all laughing because it was so thick we could barely see each other. Fortunately the big windows above the pulpit were busted out, so in between each run we would open the front door of the church to create a nice cross ventilation system and clear out the smoke before attempting the next setup.
Another issue was that once the smoke built up around where Matt was riding, I would completely lose him in the smoke. At first I was thinking the strobes might penetrate through the fog, but that didn’t work. After a few attempts, I figured out how to combat it and it actually ended up adding some nice atmospheric elements to the images as well. Any time he fell or had to restart a run, I would have him run off to the side and point the smoke bomb off into the background and wait. Then when I thought it looked clear enough to see him through the haze I’d yell out “GO!” and he’d come running back in for his next stunt.
For our final angle of the day, we were actually up on the pulpit with Matt, sitting on the back stairs. I shot these images with my wide angle lens, so it looks like he is a decent ways away, but it was really only a few feet. Afterwards, my BTS shooter Matt Rossetti was laughing and said to me, “Man, I can’t believe you never bailed out during that. I was standing behind you and I jumped out of the way several times!” Haha.
There were some pretty close calls, but Matt did an incredible job of avoiding the gear while he performed. I’m guessing all his time on TV got him used to working with those kinds of constraints!
Ultimately, everyone had a great time pulling this concept together. Every time I would turn around someone would have their phone out capturing the church and the beautiful environment we were fortunate enough to be spending the day in.
It wasn’t always easy and there were definitely some difficult moments, but I think that’s the value of having great people around you. We were able to tackle every issue that came up and create a series of work that I am very proud of and that completely lived up to my original vision for the project.
I’m also honored that this series has won some nice awards, including First Place in the Special Effects category of the International Photography Awards and Silver in the 2018 Graphis Photography Annual.
I hope you enjoyed hearing more about what went into the creation of this work, and you can see a couple of behind the scenes videos we put together below. I edited the first one to be under a minute for social media usage and the other one is more of a cinematic cut put together by Matt Rossetti. I will also include a selection of other images from the shoot, because there are way too many to include in the normal feed on my website. Finally, if you have a need for any creative photography for your brand or business, please don’t hesitate to reach out. Thanks for reading! Rob Gregory