A 45-year story from both sides of the camera lens
There’s an old saying that it takes two people to create history: one to make it and one to record it. This is the story of someone who spent most of his time behind the camera lens but every so often built some history of his own. Running the time machine backward, we arrive around 1970. The first big wave in the chopper motorcycle craze is gaining momentum. The internet is almost a quarter century off, so specialty magazines are the killer app of that day to find out the who, the what, and the how of almost any subject you could choose.
And it’s not long before pioneering Southern California publishers and a cadre of photographers, writers, and editors make possible and execute the inevitable: chopper magazines. Blazing the trail was Tom Mcmullen and his magazine Street Chopper. Not far behind was Easyriders, the combined effort of design genius Lou Kimzey, Joe Teresi, and Mil Blair. These publications came at the subject from totally different directions. But to a great extent, they both made the chopper and custom motorcycle world what it is today.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, a future bike photog and writer had just gotten his undergrad degree in English and writing. Even in those days that was pretty much a guarantee of unemployment. It took about a year for that to sink in. So what to do?
What this young man had kind of minored in, however, was…motorcycles. At 18, he cut his teeth on a rare Zundapp and then in college came across a Vincent that struck his fancy. Neither brand was exactly the thing you could tool on down to your local Harley shop for parts or service. So the bikes’ mechanics became a self-taught skill for him.
About the same time his uncle was cleaning out the attic. Did nephew want a surplus press camera? And some big-format, freezer- kept color film! Ya think?!
It didn’t happen overnight, but steadily this lowly lensman of the future learned the craft of custom motorcycle photography. Credit goes to Jim Clark, editor of Street Chopper, and the late Lou Kimzey, editorial honcho at Easyriders, for some kind and patient constructive criticism exactly when it was needed. From Lou it was advice like, “Feature the bike, not some crap in the background.” And Jim pulled the kimono back on the art of using flash to fill in black shadows on a sunny day. Ironically, a competing photographer, the late and great Carl Caiati, lent much sage advice and encouragement to this still- green youngster.
Of course there was and still is one further and crucial ingredient: the builders whose talent made the bike articles, the how-to stories, the eye-popping paint-job photos possible. Without the magic of East and Midwest custom crafters of that day— like Kelsey Martin, Steve Stone, Dave Perewitz, Yosemite Sam Radoff, Gary Desantis, Woody, among many others— there wouldn’t have been anything for this budding photog to shoot.
It all came together in the spring of 1971. It seems like it took months to get a good sunny Sunday. But there it was: Kelsey’s fabulous early Triumph chopper, the Ghost, parked in the middle of a green Beverly, Massachusetts, graveyard, perfectly picture ready. It was a big chance to take. The cameraman was wet behind the ears and untried. But credit goes to Kelsey for giving the greenhorn a chance.
“Feature the bike, not some crap in the background.” And Jim pulled the kimono back on the art of using flash to fill in black shadows on a sunny day.
The shutter on that big press camera clicked, the color film got processed, and the results looked pretty good. But now what? The answer to that was Laconia.
Kelsey took the fully chromed and spectacularly painted Ghost to the big Laconia, New Hampshire, run. The bike cut a wide swath and attracted the attention of one Tom Mcmullen. Remember him, the founding father of Street Chopper? Could we run it in the magazine, Tom asked Kelsey. Yes, came the answer, but only if you use this newbie photog’s work. One can only imagine the heartburn at Street Chopper, wondering what kind of photos those would be. Could they maybe bury them postage-stamp small on some back page?
Quite the opposite. Because, lo and behold, on the cover and centerspread of Street Chopper, October 1971 there appears the Ghost at graveside, and the crystal- clear photo work that was this newcomer’s experiment but would soon become his high standard.
From there it was pretty much off to the races. Our photographer quickly learned that editors loved his big press- camera photos. But even more they liked that he could pen a halfway decent story to go along with them. Remember that early bike mechanic experience and writing sheepskin? Seemed useless then but not at all now.
Also, those California magazines wanted to appeal to a nationwide audience, so this Easterner found his Right Coast material helped toward that goal. They loved local
bikes from Bay State-based Kelsey’s Kustoms and Perewitz. And he began to stray from just Massachusetts, traveling as far as Wisconsin and Maryland. He spent time in central Connecticut taking pictures of Woody-painted bikes and at Radoff’s Detroit shop.
From those beginnings, the now pro photog worked both in freelance and staff positions. He cruised to California and back a few times. The roster included still- existing and long- gone publications alike: Street Chopper, Hot Bike, Cycle Guide, Custom Chopper, Easyriders, Big Bike, Special Choppers, Supercycle, The Horse, Vintage Bike, and even the establishment, Cycle.
In the mid-1970s, he finally designed, built, and photographed a chopper of his own. The result was the Mystery Sled, appearing in Easyriders. Later, he focused on mechanics and created many Tech Tips in that magazine. The editors were adamant but appreciative. Say it in 700 word or less, they told him. He did.
As the decades passed, he freelanced off and on. More bikes were commissioned and built. His health began to go south, so talented friends and builders helped out. It was an eclectic collection: an 1,120cc Musket V-twin by Aniket Vardhan, a Feuling W3 bobber by Stone’s Motorcycle Co., a restoration of another screwy Zundapp by Ken Owen, and even a Vincent chopper. He wandered into the world of web design and built Kelseyskustoms.com and a tribute to his late bike photog buddy: Carl- Caiati.com.
So now we come to the final and touchy chapter of this novella. Exactly who is this man? He is reluctant about that. He has always felt that focus should be on the builder, the painter, the subject— but not him. However, four-plus decades of shooting, writing, and sometimes building certainly merits some acknowledgment, we got him to admit grudgingly.
If you cruise through the now-yellowed pages of vintage chopper and custom bike magazines, you have probably seen the credit lines for the likes of Sandy Roca, Sid Roundtree, Marv Hewson, Ted Conejo, and others. In dusty old Easyriders you can find photos and stories shot and written by Jake, Mathew Brady, Ol’ Coot, Fearless Fotog, and Sniveler. And in the 21st century, there is an Instagram feed by Sandy, a.k.a. Jake. All these motley crew are pen names of one man. Let’s leave it at that! Or not. Sandy Roca, a.k.a. Jake, a.k.a. a million other aliases, is also a vintage aircraft buff. You can read his work on the subject at rareplanes.com. SC
He has always felt that focus should be on the builder, the painter, the subject—but not him.
And then there’s Sandy the builder. His two favorites that he’s made: this silver Shovelhead he did in ’ 78 ( right) and the Vincent chopper he just finished with Steve Stone’s help. “The Vincent is probably going to offend many,” Roca says. “I mean, how can you chop a sacred Vinnie?”
Two masters, one bike: Sandy Roca’s excellent photography does justice to Sam Radoff’s paint in all of these choppers he shot in the early 1970s.
November 1978 cover of Street Chopper magazine