ZOOMING OUT WITH JOHN RYAN HEBERT
Words by Seth Richards | Photography by Jack Antal
I don’t really know if I can put it into words,” John Ryan Hebert says when asked about his creative vision.
If a picture is worth a thousand words, as the cliché goes, then it follows that the man behind the camera has little use for them.
Hebert is VAHNA’s senior photographer who also freelances for many of the major motorcycle and automotive manufacturers, including Triumph, Ducati, Harley-Davidson, Toyota and Maserati.
“I stumble over how to describe my style,” Hebert says. “I really just rely on intuition.”
Where words fail him, his photographs carry the mantle. Though he often sees the world through a tiny viewfinder, Hebert’s intuition makes him constantly aware of the world on the other side of it, attuned to the moments before and after the snap of the shutter, and appreciative of a world in which he’s not the center.
Long before he picked up a camera, Hebert fell in love with art, music and skateboarding. In his own way, he was a prototypical Los Angeles kid. Except he lived in Detroit. For a kid freezing his ass off waiting for the school bus in the dark of a Midwest winter’s morning, the image of LA as it exists in skate videos – eternally sunny and happening – is a powerful force. After college, he scoured the LA job market until he found a position with an advertising agency.
After selling his car to afford the move, he found an apartment close enough to his office so that he could ride a bicycle to work every morning.
“That got old,” Hebert says. “I ended up upgrading to a moped I bought off craigslist. I bought it as a transportation tool, but the first time I rode it, I was like, ‘this is so fun.’ I ended up using it to explore the city, and it was a really cool way to see LA: smelling the taco stands and feeling the air. I fell in love with riding it. I was taking the backstreets to Long Beach to see my friends, which was like a 30-mile trip.”
Riding a motorcycle was never anything he’d considered, but he soon realized that his two-wheeled journey from bicycle to moped would end with a motorcycle. After taking the Motorcycle Safety Foundation course to get his license, he bought a Honda Rebel 250 before quickly moving up to a Triumph Bonneville T100.
“I bought the Triumph, and that’s when I really fell in love with motorcycling,” he says. “It had enough power for me to really take it on excursions. I started going to the desert by myself and just exploring with it and doing things that I couldn’t do on a moped or on a little 250. I felt like I could go anywhere with the thing. That’s really what started it.”
Since then, the Bonnie has clocked over 100,000 miles, and Hebert has transformed it variously into a café racer, a tracker and a desert sled. He’s even raced it in events such as the Biltwell 100 and the Pioche Grand Prix.
After he first got the Bonnie, Hebert would throw a camera in his backpack on the weekends, disappear into the desert and track down a view worth snaring.
“I always had a camera with me,” he says. “I was riding my bike to go out and shoot photos. And I was shooting photos to go out and ride my bike. They just went hand in hand. I’d always find something interesting, like places in the desert that felt desolate and evoked some sort of emotion.”
Hebert has had an interest in photography since high school, but the alchemy of a Triumph Twin and the California desert really ignited his passion.
“I realized how much time I was spending photographing and how much effort I was putting into learning as much as I could,” he says. “I didn’t feel that [same motivation] when I was at work where I had to force myself to do stuff.”
A sense of disillusionment with his life’s trajectory was beginning to seep through the cracks of his consciousness. He had moved to Los Angeles to fulfill a childhood dream, but adulthood realities were carrying him further from his past self and further from the things he loved.
“I did everything that I thought I was supposed to do,” he says. “I think, especially growing up in the Midwest, you just go to school and get a job and then start this other life and leave your youth behind. I was walking down that path, and it wasn’t me. I felt like I was losing who I was as a kid. I had a very specific way that I lived and specific things I was interested in. I think the motorcycle thing woke that up.”
But photography was about to turn into something more than a hobby. Out of the blue, helmet visor brand The Equilibrialist hired him for his first paid gig. From there, the jobs kept coming in. Soon, he was working every weekend, traveling for shoots and putting in long days, only to wake up Monday mornings to the mundane duties of his full-time job. As gratifying as it was, he had never considered that photography would ever amount to anything more than a side hustle. Nor could he have anticipated that there’d be a time when he’d have to grapple with risking the stability and security of a nine-to-five in order to discover just how far his passion could take him.
Then a fork in the road appeared: Triumph approached him for a six-day shoot.
“I couldn’t take the time off work to accept the job,” he remembers. “I had to decide if I was going to quit my job to take it. In the back of my head, I was like, ‘If I say no to this, they’re never going to ask me again.’ I had to do it. I felt like it was one of those once-in-a-lifetime chances.”
“I remember writing my resignation letter for my job, sitting in the parking lot in the morning and not knowing what to do. I had no savings. I had no backup plan. Finally, I went in and handed them my resignation,” he adds. “At that point, I made a promise to myself that I’d try as hard as I could. If I was going to do this, I wasn’t going to half-ass it.”
The Triumph shoot was a success, and more work followed. Hebert hasn’t looked back since.
In the same way that motorcyclists often talk about how riding forces them to be in the moment and to exercise their ability to be vigilantly aware, Hebert describes his life as a photographer as requiring similar focus.
“You know how you have peripheral vision, where you can see something coming next to you, but you can’t see it clearly yet?” he asks. “It’s like you have this peripheral vision of what’s going on around you. Even if you’re on the bike, you have this sense of what’s coming around the corner. Or if you’re with a group of people, you can sense when those moments are starting to happen. It’s hard to describe in words. I think it really just requires an active participation in your surroundings. It’s almost like you’re anticipating things, and you’re waiting for moments. I think photographers look at the world differently in that way. They’re always paying attention to things.”
For Hebert, this hyperawareness anchors him in the present. The present moment, more than his camera and editing software, serves as his paintbrush and palette. But photography is an act of the present only for the one clicking the shutter button. For everyone else, a photograph is a document of the past: Its relationship with memory is always implicit.
What separates a photograph from a memory is perspective. In memory, a three-dimensional object can be yanked around and viewed from any angle, so athletic is the mind’s maneuverings, but a photograph is, if not purer or truer, then certainly more forthright in its two-dimensionality. Its perspective, unless intended to mislead, is a straight-on, static look at a moment.
For Hebert, the importance of perspective in photography isn’t merely in his treatment of spatial relationships within the image, but in the way he aspires to relate to the larger world, to the real world.
Hebert says: “One of the memories that influences me photographically is when I was a kid, my grandparents had a farm in Northern Michigan. It sat on a huge swath of land that was hilly and felt so open. You could look out and see for miles and miles. I think that as a kid, the farm made the world seem so huge. I still remember that feeling of remoteness it gave me and how it made me feel small. That feeling is what I’m after in photography.”
He adds, “I just like to put things in perspective. I like to be reminded that not everything’s about you. You’re a participant in this world. This isn’t your world. It makes me feel like I’m part of something, instead of like it’s my movie that I’m living in.”
More than just wide-angle or zoomed-out perspectives, motorcycle and automotive photography profits from its own kind of perspective: movement. Just as our minds fill in the gaps between the still frames of a motion picture to fabricate motion, when we view a lone frame of captured movement, our minds are inclined to fill in the surrounding moments.
So, when we say a photograph is worth a thousand words, really what we mean is that a photograph is a wordless story. The single frame itself is the denouement, but the other sides of it, the beginning and end, are often equally important. It’s in those spaces beyond the frame where we’re reminded of our own position as viewers – as reality creators, as voyeurs of time, as memory-making machines. As Hebert turns the camera’s focal length ring, he invites us to see beyond ourselves to a world where none of us, despite our unique power to create realities in our heads, is the center.
In Hebert’s stories, there’s action and drama, light and dark, fast cars and fast motorcycles. And that’s only in a single frame. Outside the frame? Well, it’s difficult to express in words.