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An interview with motorcycle photographer Yve Assad

Dec 10, 2019

I meet Yve Assad when when I was living in East Nashville. Even if that name doesn’t sound familiar, chances are you would recognize her work if you saw it. That’s because Yve’s iconic images have been used by Triumph, Harley-Davidson, and Alpinestars. Her photos have graced the covers of Iron & Air and Motorcyclist magazines. And her subjects range from the widely famous to the relatively unknown.

I became familiar with her photography while I was working at the Triumph dealership in town. So when she and her husband moved into the house at the end of the block and parked a bunch of vintage motorcycles in the driveway, I couldn’t have been more excited to introduce myself.

Fast forward to me driving a giant moving truck down the street and Yve was out walking her two dogs. I decided to pull over and just blurt out, "Hey. Oh, I know you. You're Yve Assad." The one thing you should know about photographers, who spend most of their time behind the lens, is that they’re rarely recognized in public.

If Yve was taken aback by my blundering approach at an introduction, she didn’t show it and we began chatting about motorcycles, photography, and the best Mexican restaurants on the east side of town.

We stayed in touch, and when our team decided to revamp Season Two of our Highside/Lowside podcast I figured Yve would be a motorcycle personality worth reaching out to. For those of you who are not familiar, we’re now including an interview and viewer comments segment in the podcast. To make sure you don’t miss it, type in “RevZilla” to Apple iTunes or your favorite podcasting app and subscribe to our Highside/Lowside podcast. The following is an excerpt of the interview with Yve from the upcoming Episode Four of Season Two.

Yve Assad Motorcycle Photography
Yve on the other side of the lens. Photo by Yve Assad.

Spurgeon Dunbar: Before we dive into motorcycles, I want to start off by nerding out on cameras and photography. And how old were you when you got your first camera?

Yve Assad: I think I was about 16 or 17. I started tinkering around with my dad's old camera gear. It had been collecting dust for a while, so he was like, "Just take it. Do what you want with it. Here's a couple of rolls of film." And that was that.

I got much more serious about it in college. I took a class and that was kind of like the big introduction for me into the world of photography. I always thought that being creative was being able to paint or draw a figure well. And I could never do either. So I was really excited when I was introduced to photography.

SD: So when you got out of school, your first job was as a staff photographer for a newspaper in Athens, Georgia. Were you primarily taking photos or were you writing articles for the newspaper, as well?

YA: I was not doing any writing. I mainly took the pictures. I did some kind of behind the scenes production, some graphic design and layout work. It wasn't anything super creative or artsy. But I was a staff photographer and it was really fun. It was exciting. I got to cover a lot of different beats and shot everything from the local rodeo to fires, to all kinds of random things going on in the town. 

I actually ended up working for another newspaper briefly in Denver. And then I think it was just kind of to the point where I wasn't really feeling super inspired anymore. And honestly, it was a hard way to make a living. The newspaper jobs, especially the photography jobs at newspapers, were becoming few and far between. And so, I was just kind of at this point where I said, "I want a change." And I started doing some freelance gigs and getting into more of fine art-type stuff, if you will.

Yve Assad Motorcycle Photography
Yve's images make you feel like you're along for the ride. Photo by Yve Assad.

I had a client who actually introduced me to aerial photography, which ended up being a big, long-term project and something that I was just super passionate about for several years. I actually was working on a project then and he had a plane, and he offered to let me go up on the plane with him. And I was able to see a whole new perspective. And I was living in Charleston, South Carolina at the time. The coastline is beautiful from an aerial perspective and I got really into doing landscape, aerial landscape work. 

SD: How old were you when you were introduced to motorcycles?

YA: Well, funny enough, in photojournalism school, I was introduced to Danny Lyon's work. And he did a book, a whole project called "The Bikeriders." It's just a really classic, really beautiful, kind of submersive work that he did with outlaw riders back in the '60s. And that work really spoke to me. Even as a young person, I found that extremely exciting.

I had never even been around motorcycles at all in my life because my parents were adamantly against them. And I never had a chance to even get on one or be around one. And so, in college I was introduced to this whole new subculture.

Yve Assad Motorcycle Photography
Working with the Black Bird Motorcycle Club. Photo by Yve Assad.

SD: So your first time being exposed to motorcycling was actually through photography?

YA: Yeah, exactly. Basically Danny just submerged himself into their culture and became one of them. And he photographed them for many years. And it was just this really cool, interesting, different type of world that I had never really seen before. And I was just so curious about it, and I wanted to know more, I wanted to get involved with it. So I decided to do my senior project in college on motorcyclists.

SD: So, you're a young 20, 21-year-old woman in the South, and you just start showing up at biker bars with your camera, being like, "Hey, guys, can I take your photo?"

YA: Exactly! (laughing) Probably, looking back, not the safest or the wisest thing to do. But yeah, that's what I did. I think I was a much braver person when I was younger.

Yve Assad Motorcycle Photography
Yve got into riding via her husband Will's passenger seat. Photo by Yve Assad.

SD: So when you met your husband was it the fact that he had a motorcycle that sparked the interest? 

YA: Yeah, so when I met my husband, he had a motorcycle. He was really into motorcycling and motorsports, and would watch MotoGP and World Superbike religiously. And I was able to ride on the back of his motorcycle with him. And it sparked the interest to try to learn how to ride myself because I've always been on a bicycle. So, he ended up teaching me how to ride on his older Monster. And I loved it. I fell in love with it. And I ended up getting my license.

Yve Assad Motorcycle Photography
Yve with her "wedding ring" equivalent. Photo by Yve Assad.

SD: So, you got your license. What was your first motorcycle?

YA: My first motorcycle was a 1976 BMW R90/6. 

SD: Well, that's not your typical first bike.

YA: Why do you say that?

SD: I don't know too many people who start off on a vintage BMW. Usually, folks start off with a Honda Rebel, and then they wreck it. It just sounds like you began with something a little bit classier.

Yve Assad Photography
A solo camping trip up into Canada on her 1976 BMW R90/6. Photo by Yve Assad.

YA: Will, my husband, was working at a dealership called Motorworks up in Chicago and at the time they specialized in vintage BMWs. And I had just been around those bikes. So, I started looking at the Beemers. I just loved the whole aesthetic of them, they're so beautiful to me. And I took a ride on one, and it felt right, I just felt really connected to it. And so it was what I ended up going with.

Actually, my husband proposed to me with it. It was my ring. I didn't get a ring, I got a motorcycle. He told me that the bike wasn't ready. And we were about to leave to go back to Charleston because we were just there living in Chicago for the season, I was shooting the flat-track series at the time. And the night before we left he surprised me with the bike and proposed to me. So I can't ever sell that bike.

Yve Assad Photography
Yve does a good job of tying in her career as a landscape photographer with her work as a motorcyclist photographer. Photo by Yve Assad.

SD: Getting back into your work, how did you parlay shooting landscape photography into motorcycles? 

YA: Will and I went on the road in 2009 and he took me to my first MotoGP race. He was like, "I really want to take you to Indianapolis to see the races, we have to go see the Indy Mile beforehand." And so, we went to the Indy Mile and I basically just like walked down to the track and into the pit and had my camera, and I started shooting.
Randomly, Willie G. Davidson and his wife were standing right beside me and we were talking and laughing. I had no idea who I was standing next to at the time. We came back and I was looking through the pictures, and looking back now, those pictures weren't that cool, but at the time I was really pumped about them.

I started looking online. I tried to see if there were any pictures or information about flat track. And I couldn't find anything. And so I said to Will, "Why don't we go on the road and start covering flat track? " It was really off the cuff. And we decided to move to Chicago like two months later. And we covered the whole season that year. We just dove in headfirst.

SD: So it wasn't like Triumph or Harley or Alpinestars came to you and said, "Hey, we want to hire you to cover this." You just said, "You know what, I'm gonna go do this and we'll see if we can sell the photos later on”?

YA: Yeah. I don't even know if I thought about selling the photos. It was just something that felt right. It felt like something that I wanted to be doing. I didn't have anything tying me down. Will and I were kind of just like, "Let's just do it."

Yve Assad Motorcycle Photography
Yve's career in photographing motorcycles started with Flat Track racing. Photo by Yve Assad.

So we just hit the road and essentially created kind of an online magazine dedicated to the sport. Eventually, we started getting some inquiries from other online publishers. I think "MotorcycleUSA" was our first paycheck. We were getting like 500 bucks for pictures and a quick write-up of the race for each event. That helped fuel our travel and got us from race to race. And it just kind of all worked out. I mean, we were really, really poor for a few years and didn't have any money to do anything. But it was exhilarating. We loved the sport and the people became a second family. It was great.

SD: It sounds like motorcycles gave you access to some pretty impressive people. Folks like Dan Auerbach from The Black Keys and Mike Wolfe from "American Pickers." There was also a shoot I remember you doing with "Native Magazine" on the Black Bird Motorcycle Club. What's it like working with so many different types of riders?

YA: It's really great just to be able to meet a lot of different people who have a passion for motorcycles. Everybody is so different with such different backgrounds. Some people have been racing motorcycles since they were three years old. I didn't start riding until I was much older. I just like to hear and see everybody's different backgrounds and know also that we have this link between us all. It is really cool. And so I think whether you're famous or not, I think one thing is for sure, riding a motorcycle gives you a sense of a way of life that nothing else does.

Yve Assad Photography
No Smoking. Photo by Yve Assad.

SD: Yve, through your work, you've become a huge influence on an entire generation of motorcyclists, along with aspiring motorcyclists. If you could offer one piece of advice for a new rider or someone who's looking to get into riding, or perhaps even taking photos, what would your advice be?

YA: I'm going to speak as a woman here, and I don't like to pull the female card in every situation because I think we're all equal. But, as a woman, I think entering into the world of motorcycles can be pretty intimidating, especially shooting photos as a woman. There aren't many of us in the automotive and motorcycle industry. So just get in there and do it. Don't be nervous. Ask for help when you need it. Whether you're riding or you're shooting, I think it's really important to dive in and know that you're going to end up with something that's going to really change your life.