On the record ...with Josh Kurpius
GENOA – After graduating from Genoa-Kingston High School, Josh Kurpius studied art at Kishwaukee College, but he never owned a camera before his third year of college.
“Drawing, painting, all the arts – I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” Kurpius said. “I just went to Kish to take every art class I could take, and finally I landed on photography.”
He went on to Columbia College in Chicago to get a BFA in photography at about the same time he developed an interest in motorcycles. He has spent most of his time since college riding his motorcycle – handmade from a 1977 Harley-Davidson Sportster in his dad’s garage in Genoa – around the country and taking thousands of photographs to document the road trips.
His chopper, along with a selection of his photographs, are part of an exhibit, “Living Lost,” that opened at the Harley-Davidson museum in Milwaukee on Jan. 17 and continues through May 18. Kurpius is hosting an exhibit opening party at the museum on Feb. 1, and the photos from the exhibit can be viewed on his website at www.joshkurpius.com.
Kurpius sat down with MidWeek reporter Curtis Clegg to discuss the long journey that brought him to this point in his career.
MidWeek: How did this exhibit of your photographs become a reality?
Kurpius: It’s more than 30 rather large images. Harley approached me on it and asked me if I wanted to do an exhibit there. They are focusing on the American Road Trip, and they knew I had traveled a lot. ...They are also having my bike on display at the museum. It will be sitting in front of one of my images that’s about 15-foot-by-20-foot right when you walk into the museum.
MW: What kind of feedback did you get from people who attended?
JK: There was a city-wide art walk that day, so a lot of the galleries were open. There were people there looking at the images on the wall and they didn’t know who I was, so just walking through was kind of interesting to hear people talk about the images. I think they said that more than 70 percent of the people who go into the Harley museum don’t own bikes and they’re not bikers. ...Every image has a story and we went back and forth whether to give the full story or just to give a clue. We decided to just make titles that give a little clue about what the photo is about.
MW: How did you decide which ones to display?
JK: Surprisingly, everything you see on the wall was my decision. I figured coming into it that Harley would say, “Oh we want that one, that one, and that one” but it really wasn’t that way. It forced me to sit down and go through my archives of stuff that I hadn’t seen for years, or ever seen because I shoot so many images that sometimes some get lost in the mix and you never see them. ...Basically, I did a sweep through and I got together with the curators at the museum and we all liked these (that he had selected) and we were pretty stoked. ...It is a real and unedited look into how I live my life because you don’t see me in the photos but I’m doing things as much as they are. ...This exhibit is focused on one group of friends from Chicago and we’re all about riding and having a family element to where, “Oh, it’s Otto’s first birthday in Bloomington, Ind. That’s a good reason to ride,” or “There’s an event going on in California.” ...A lot of the images are not my best images. If I had to pick an image to stand alone to hang on a wall, not all of those images would work that way, but all the images as a whole show the whole story.
MW: How long have you been into photography?
JK: It wasn’t until my third year of college until I got a camera. I was doing metalworking and jewelry before that. ...Then I got a camera and started doing that, and right about that time is when I got into riding as well. My dad had bikes so he put me on one of his, so about the time I was learning to shoot I was learning to ride, so they always went hand-in-hand. That was in about 2003.
MW: Did you study any other forms of art?
JK: I have turned what I learned in my jewelry class into building bikes. I put a lot of little detail into my bikes that you don’t necessarily notice when you are riding by on the street but when you look at it closely there’s a lot of detail. I have done a lot of engraving on the engine parts. I basically make everything. ...At one time it was music, playing guitar. That was my life.
MW: What kind of cameras do you use?
JK: I have always used the Canon 5D series. I don’t have a special bag or anything for my camera so whatever element I’m riding in, that’s what the camera sees. If it’s raining, it’s getting wet. It seems like just about the time the next generation (of camera) comes out I have ruined the camera and I’ll get the newer one. I’m on the 5D Mark III right now. I wore the whole corner off one of them because it was rubbing on the tire of my bike.
MW: Have you had your work published?
JK: Oh yeah, but in the publishing game there’s no money now. They don’t want to pay. Everybody is a photographer now, and you have all these people with their 9-to-5 jobs giving their stuff away. They want nothing more than to see their work published in a magazine, so the editors rely on that. ...I shoot for a lot of magazines in Europe still. They still have a lot of respect (for photographers), and their print quality is really nice.
MW: Do you have plans for other exhibits or a book of your photographs?
JK: No, I don’t typically do exhibits. Now that I have gone through all my images I definitely have plans to put out a book. It’s something I should have done a long time ago. The book will probably be a spinoff of this show.
MW: What can you tell me about your chopper?
JK: It’s a Harley-Davidson 1977 Sportster. It is what it is because I didn’t have a penny to my name and I didn’t have the knowledge to build it and then it became my goal to build the entire bike by myself without any help. What that did is it opened up the door for when I’m out on the road, if something happens, well, “I built it, I’ll fix it.” I know every nut and bolt on that bike. ...The appeal of a chopper is that it’s an extension of yourself. ...I’ll take a stock gas tank, I’ll cut it in half, I’ll narrow it, I’ll dish sections of it and reshape it, I’ll take a fender and add some ribbing around it, I’ll take a frame and cut all the gussets and mounts out of it and make my own. If it’s stock, I have to make it my own. My bike came out of not having a penny to my name when I built it. It was, “Well, I have this frame. It’s not exactly what I want but there’s this front end that my dad’s not going to use because you can’t fit a front brake on it.” It was a 70s long-frame chopper, which was the exact opposite of what I wanted at the time, but I just made it work. A friend had a gas tank that he had cut in half but it wouldn’t hold fuel, so he whipped it across the shop and said I could have it. I made it work. I made the sissy bar, and a friend gave me a fender. I think I paid two bucks for it. I made the oil tank from scratch and the handlebars were given to me by a friend.
MW: How many miles a year do you put on it?
JK: I couldn’t tell you. I don’t have an odometer. Most of the miles come from everyday riding, and you can’t really calculate those in your head. I ride every day. ...Just this year, I went to Louisville and back, I went to Sturgis, I did a ride from San Francisco to Brooklyn, I rode back to Chicago by myself, then I immediately rode around Lake Michigan. I don’t know how many miles that is. That was a month of riding every day.
MW: How do you decide when and where to ride?
JK: I’m a very indecisive person, so I can’t ever commit to anything because I know something could come up tomorrow and I’ll be in California. All of this travel mainly has to do with jobs, and I think people don’t realize that. ...I do work for Harley-Davidson, and that’s how I have been able to let go of the magazine and publishing stuff. I’ll test-ride bikes for Harley, or they will fly me out to California to pick up a bike and ride it. One of them was a ride from Seattle to Sturgis. The trip across the U.S. was for a documentary movie but I don’t know when that will come out. People ask me to shoot weddings and stuff, but I can’t commit to a wedding a year in advance. I don’t know what’s going to come up.
MW: Do you camp when you’re on the road, or do you sleep in hotels?
JK: It’s all different. The stuff you’ll see in the museum, that’s all with my close group of friends and those weren’t for jobs. Those were just us doing what we do. In those cases, we sleep wherever. There are photos of us sleeping behind an abandoned farm. We always look for a water source because that’s where we bathe and wash off. We don’t stay in campgrounds or hotels. ...We travel a lot so we know people all over the U.S. so there’s always somebody within a couple hundred miles who will take us in and feed us for the night. The flip side of it is, I could be sleeping in some famous person’s mansion one night and sleeping in a ditch the next. Those rich and famous people love motorcycles too. ...I’ll never pay for a hotel. If it’s part of a job and someone else is paying, that’s what I’ll do. One time Harley told me they were paying $500 a night for a hotel and I was like, “Are you kidding me? I’ll sleep in the bushes outside the hotel and you can give me that $500.”
MW: Is it part of Harley’s corporate culture to support the arts and use creative people like you to sell their motorcycles?
JK: The guy I have been dealing with, I met him years ago. He came up to me and said, “Man, I have been following your blog for years and I have been taking photos off of it and telling our ad agency, ‘This is how we need our ads to look.’ But then they hire somebody else to copy your photos to do the ads – somebody the ad agency already has.” I have friends who have been on those shoots as makeup (artists) or stylists or models and they’ll tell me, “They’ve got a semi trailer with your pictures plastered all up inside of it.” They reference them, and they copy them, but they won’t hire me to do the ad. They see something they like and they don’t understand it, but they’re like, “That’s cool,” and then they’ll copy it and put their own twist on it, and it is usually cheesy and dumb.
MW: What is life on the road like?
JK: When I started doing it, it was because of a (bad) thing that happened in my life and I just needed to go. I didn’t know anybody and I didn’t have a penny to my name. But if you’re a kind person, people take kindly to you and you get what you give. I’m just trying to be a good person as much as I can.
MW: Being a good person seems counter to a lot of peoples’ perceptions of biker culture.
JK: It’s the people outside the culture that look at it that way. It’s not the people on bikes. ...I moved to Cherry Valley a couple years ago and I didn’t know anybody there, and I travel so much I’m never there. In the winter months I’ll go to a bar, and people will say, “Oh there’s a biker bar over there.” That’s the last place I want to go. I don’t want to go to a biker bar. I want to go where there are open-minded people hanging out – the artists and freaks and hipsters and weirdos. I would wear a leather jacket and I’d sit there and drink whiskey and no one would talk to me. If I changed into a denim jacket, all of a sudden people thought, “Hey, that guy isn’t so bad.”
MW: Do you have any plans for this riding season yet?
JK: I never have a plan. I have been so focused on this exhibit that I haven’t thought about anything else.