Jeff Witthans and the Bakersfield Bubble


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“I’ve learned to go with the flow. It’ll figure itself out.”

 

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In these trying times, everyone is a photographer. Clicking and clicking away, shutterless camera bodies and tip-tapping iPhones fill crowded malls and beaches at sunset. For every fifteen fools out there setting up their IG pages with “DM for bookings!” there’s a dude like Jeff who quietly kills it for no other reason other than he loves it. His social media is modest: Rider tag, location, and a couple of necessary hashtags as to not get lost in the shuffle. You may have seen a picture or two from this upcoming set, but his lack of sensationalism might’ve had you scroll right by.

I met Jeff in 2018 at the Irving Theater in Indianapolis, during the Moto 10: The Movie US tour. In an effort to interview the film’s director’s, I found Jeff manning the merch booth at the front of the theater. I knew nobody else at the event, and after chatting up the MotoCo dudes I shot the breeze with Jeff about life in California and his beautiful CR250. He ended up being cordial and I explained that I was hoping to talk with his friend for my new website. He was intrigued and even took down my name and said he’d check it out on their drive to the next town.

Since then, I’ve known Jeff as a good dude and an even better photographer. I should’ve spoken with him sooner, but sometimes it takes awhile to get around to these things. I noticed Jeff started working at FedEx recently and wondered why he wasn’t drowning in photography contracts (you’ll soon learn why). Here’s to World of Echo’s first photographic subject: Jeff Witthans.

Discussion includes: Bakersfield life, poaching urban spots with Scott Kranyak and Jimmy Hill, favorite photographers, tech-talk (and why it does and doesn’t matter), and why he’s only been to one motocross race in his entire life, among other things…

 

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World of Echo: Have you ever shot commercially?

Jeff Witthans: The first time I ever got paid for shooting moto was for the movie This is MOTO. I am the worst businessman when it comes to photography. I do it for the love of it. That’s kind of corny or “cringe-y” to say, but I just like shooting photos. It’s hard for me to charge people for it. It’s weird for me to hit up a company and put a price on my photos. I’ve been trying to get better at that.

That’s crazy to me you don’t shoot commercially more often. You’re certainly talented enough.

Thanks man. The problem is that I don’t really leave “the bubble” very often. People talk shit about it from time to time, because I never leave my hometown of Bakersfield, California. It’s about two and-a-half or three hours from SoCal, where all of the industry is, but it’s just so far away to me. I hate having travel there, so I don’t leave Bakersfield very often. I only get to shoot stuff that’s going on here. I should go down south more often, but I never do.

Bakersfield seems like a nice compliment to SoCal.

Where I live, it’s pretty awesome because an hour and-a-half in each direction you either have the desert, the mountains, or the beach. It fits perfectly for wherever you want to go. It’s just a farm & oil town about two hours from LA, probably one of the biggest in the central valley. 600,000 people or something. It just happens to have one of the best freeriding spots in California. Right now, especially this time of the year, it’s all-time. Nothing but beautiful green mountains.

You’re probably wondering why people give you shit. Sounds like you wouldn’t want to go anywhere else.

Yeah man, I love it here.

 

“My Grandpa was in WWII [shooting] photos when he was on deployment in Japan.”

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Do you have any history of photography or art in your family?

My Grandpa was in WWII, and he always shot photos when he was on deployment in Japan. Growing up I’d see the photos my Grandpa took displayed at airshows and other memorial events. He did a lot of snapshots over there, still life.

I was a sophomore in high school when I took a photo class, and that year my Dad gave me my Grandpa’s Canon AE-1 35mm film camera. I still have it actually, the thing is good as new. I had that for a solid year and shot photos of my friends. That’s how I got into photography, my Dad handed me a box of my Grandpa’s camera stuff. Grandpa just tinkered with cameras a lot. My Dad never got into it, but I did.

What’s your setup like now?

I’m the worst dude when it comes to camera setup. Right now, I have a Canon 7D MK II, and a Canon 70-200mm f/2.8. Believe it or not, my only other lens is a cheap Chinese fisheye that was like $150 on Amazon. Before the 7D, I had a Canon T3i. I shot on that for six years. Gear matters, but I’ve always just shot with what I’ve had and what I could afford at the time. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

 

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Kris Foster x2, 2016.

 

Respect to the T3i, the Ti series were tanks. I understand you actually shot a lot of what we’re going to talk about on that camera, like this set here. Tell me about this sunset session.

That was December 2016, and that was the first time I got to meet a lot of those guys pictured. Chris Tedesco (Freestyle MX photographer) was there. Tyler Bereman, Tom Parsons, Kris Foster, and a couple other dudes like Skrany [Scott Kranyak] and Jimmy Hill were there as well. We were all just riding and hanging out.

That jump is the main jump that everyone rides when they visit the hills in Bakersfield. It’s perfect because the way the sun sets, it falls right over that set of jumps and you can get a really nice silhouette. I was just in the right place at the right time, messed with my settings a bit, and got it going. I’ve shot a lot of silhouette photos on that jump since, but for some reason the ones from that day remain my favorite.

Bereman describes the session on Instagram as “legendary,” which means it must’ve been a landmark evening.

It really was! Like I said, it was the first time I met most of those dudes, and one of the first times I got to shoot with riders of that caliber. My buddies Skrany, Dereck Beckering, and Jimmy Hill, those are the only three guys I’d ride and shoot photos with. Those dudes are crazy talented in their own right, but it’s just different. Those guy are my buddies and I hang out with them all of the time. When that session came around… I mean, Chris Tedesco is one of my favorite photographers. I was star struck that he was right next to me!

There’s actually a cool story about [that situation]. I shot a photo of [Kris] Foster doing a whip, but there’s a flash on it. He’s doing a whip over that jump with an offset strobe going off. Tedesco was with us all day but he didn’t shoot any photos until that last thirty minutes of light. He was trying to do what I was doing with the strobe, trying to capture the rider lit up with the sunset in the background. He kept popping his flash to test it, because it wasn’t firing when he wanted, and on one of the test pops Kris flew in the air and I just happened to catch the flash when it went off. Pure luck. I hit it perfectly. It’s probably one of my favorite photos I’ve ever shot.

I was all hyped… until I looked over and Tedesco was pissed because his lights weren’t working right. I quickly stopped celebrating and put my head down. I didn’t want him to get bent out of shape about it! My bad!

 

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Kris Foster, 2016.

 

How did all of those guys end up out there? Did they catch wind that there was a sick spot to hit?

My buddy Skrany (@Skrany235) and his Dad have been in the motocross industry a long time, so they know a lot of these dudes from way back. His Dad was co-owner of the San Manuel Yamaha team, Mike Kranyak is his name. I met Skrany through my friend Dereck Beckering. Skrany would just hit people up to go ride, and I’d get the invite along with everyone else to ride and shoot photos.

It looks like you’re riding on another planet. The colors really set the tone.

Those are probably my favorite set of photos, but it’s funny because every winter I try going out there and replicating that day, and I can’t. I can’t get it perfect. For whatever reason, those ones are sick. I can never re-create those.

You get that one shot and say, “How did I even do that?” I have no idea how I did that, but it’s cool. It worked.

 

“That’s another thing… I’m not the best businessman… I ride a lot!”

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Yep. That little bit of magic that sets it apart.

That’s how I go into any shoot, I just wing it. I try to plan things from time to time, but once I get out there it usually goes out the window and I just try figuring it out. I’ve learned to go with the flow. It’ll figure itself out.

Did you ride at all during that sunset session?

That’s another thing… I’m not the best businessman, and I’m not the best when it comes to balancing riding and shooting photos. I ride a lot! Mountain bikes or dirt bikes, doesn’t matter. I haven’t shot a lot of photos this season, and sometimes people are surprised to see me out there just riding. That session in particular I was more about photos, though. I hadn’t met those dudes and I just wanted to get content. I’ll have days where I just shoot photos, but I’m trying to work on separating the two worlds. I’ll have to tell myself I’m either shooting, or riding.

Who’s in your regular crew when you go ride?

This year in particular it hasn’t been that busy. A lot of people moved away, it’s just one of those things. Probably a year, year and-a-half ago the crew was me, Dereck, Jimmy Hill, and Skrany. The three of us would go around and ride. Now Jimmy moved to Oregon, Dereck is doing freestyle for a traveling circus, and Skrany broke his ankle really bad last winter. He got on the bike this last weekend, but that was the crew there for a few years.

 

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Tyler Bereman, 2016.

 

Were any of those guys in this photo of Bereman?

Yeah, all three of those guys are in there! There’s some others too, like Dustin Wacker of EraMoto Co. and a couple freestyle guys. That was on the same day as the sunset session, actually. That’s definitely one of my top ten favorite photos I’ve shot. Bereman just doing a huge turn-up whip… yeah. That’s sick.

That jump’s been around since the late 90’s, actually. It was in Moto XXX, On The Pipe… [Mike] Metzger did some tricks on it in 2006. It’s like a 200-foot jump. Colby Raha has some footage of it in his real moto part from this past year. It’s a popular jump because it’s so big that you can just pop off it and do huge whips.

Do people have to maintain the jump often?

It was really built properly with tractor’s back in the day, so the only thing that usually needs work is the runway. The runway gets really beat because you’re going so fast, and it gets a lot of speed bumps. That jump is gnarly, man. It’s probably the biggest jump out there, distance-wise. The landing is big, but you have to hit it so fast. It’s scary watching dudes run up to it.

What do you like about this photo specifically?

I think it just represents the vibe from that day, which is everyone out there having fun. A lot of those people weren’t that popular when that photo came out either, so it’s cool to see how everyone has progressed and come up in the industry. Bereman was still good back then, but to see where he is now compared to four years ago, it’s crazy. This was before he had any X Games medals or anything. Jimmy Hill is in there as well, he’s done so much stuff with Shift now.

You captured that familial essence really well, which I think is a difficult thing to do. Motocross is often represented as a solo endeavor, but we all know that riding with your friends is better than riding alone.

That’s why I love shooting freeriding. Growing up with my Dad, he wasn’t really into racing, but he would always watch the movie On Any Sunday. When the kid crosses up on his Sting Ray in the intro, that was exactly what my Dad did when he was a kid. Every time I ride now, I want it to be like On Any Sunday, riding in the hills with Steve McQueen and Malcolm Smith. A couple dudes just driving up to some green hills, unloading their Elsinore’s from the truck and going riding. To me, that’s the ultimate fun: Going out with your buddies and riding. Racing at the track is cool, but freeriding is what I love.

Do you think you benefit artistically from your experiences riding? Meaning, you might see things out in the hills that other photographers wouldn’t?

I grew up riding BMX, and that’s where I started shooting photos and where I really honed my intuition. It helps me with moto, because I look at riding in the hills in the same way I look at riding in the streets on my BMX bike, scoping out spots and using the environment to frame my perspective. If my buddy is doing a double-peg grind down a rail on his BMX, I need to get low and show how steep the rail is and capture what he’s doing. If someone is hitting a double that hips to the left out in the hills, maybe I’ll get some foreground in the shot and use that as a way to frame up the size of the jump. I think all those years shooting BMX really translated well into moto.

 

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RedBud MX, 2018.

 

With all of this knowledge and experience you have in motocross, I’m surprised to find that you’ve never been to a motocross or supercross event! Excluding this set from the 2018 MXoN at RedBud, you’ve never been to a race?

[laughs] No! Never. And I haven’t been to another one since! That was a trip, dude. I was with the MotoCo guys [Dominick Russo and Jason Plough] doing the premiere tour for Moto 10. I was listening to Pulp MX on the drive there and we were on our way to Morgantown, WV for a premiere, but we were looking at a low attendance rate due to a football game and the MXoN.

So, we decided to ditch the premiere, buy some tickets, and go to RedBud instead of Morgantown. It was a diversion that was completely unplanned, and it was a really cool experience, but I regret some of it because I tried so hard to get photos at the event that I didn’t really take it all in. I missed out on a lot of the festivities. I do remember everyone in the crowd rushed the track after the race though, and being able to walk on the track was gnarly.

 

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Scott Kranyak, 2017.

 

I want to get into this Urban Moto section with Jimmy Hill and Skrany. The parking lot bomb drop… I don’t even know where to start with this. This guy was walking around with a busted ACL and decided to huck himself out of a two story garage?

[laughs] The funny thing about Skrany, and something that everyone should know about him, is that he’s the most naturally talented person I’ve ever met. We got on SportsCenter one time because he caught a football from his neighbor while doing an Indian Larry on his bike. (An Indian Larry is when you stand on the seat with your arms spread out.) He was doing that down the street, caught a football, I filmed it, and we ended up on SportsCenter. That dude can get on anything and do something crazy. He can juggle while riding a dirt bike, run up to anything and do a backflip, that type of thing.

Our niche thing at the time was to poach spots in our town. When Skrany, Dereck, and I were bored we’d run around town and try to ride something. During that particular summer, Skrany asked Kyle Crabb (@kcrabb223) and I to start filming him for his “Street Part.” We had talked about that parking garage drop a few years before, and we thought it was sick but didn’t think anyone would actually do it. I didn’t think it would happen.

The day of the jump, we got to the parking garage and he had this sketchy self-built ramp, which was a piece of wood 6’x4’ wide propped up against an old work bench he had in his garage, and he just sent it. I thought he was fucking nuts. That’s a pretty gnarly drop to do and ride out perfectly. That whole day was interesting, actually… he jumped a pond at a golf course earlier in the day.

So you guys just enjoy terrorizing the town?

Basically, yeah. He did a wallride on a car wash once, it was nuts. He went back about a year ago and did a full street edit on an Alta, that was sick too. He jumped over an exit ramp on a freeway.

 

I like to imagine the security guard saw an empty parking space with a ramp and went, “What the hell?”

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How did you guys get the bike up to the second story of the garage?

That parking garage had security, but it wasn’t super gnarly. We drove a truck up there with the ramp, then he walked the bike up the entire parking garage. He started the bike right when he needed to, did the jump, and just took off. He even left the ramp up there, too. I like to imagine the security guard saw an empty parking space with a ramp and went, “What the hell?”

When he jumped over the pond at the golf course, he laid down three unopened bags of mulch and put a wooden kicker in front of it. He ripped through the course, popped a wheelie, hit that kicker and dipped into one of the neighborhoods. That ramp stayed there for a week after the fact, and I’d drive past it every day… an empty ramp and three bags of mulch. Some of his buddies actually worked at the golf course and told him it was sick, but their manager was pissed.

He had ACL surgery the day after all of that?

I think it was a few days after, I’m not sure.

Do you think the doctor heard any of those stories?

Oh, I’m sure. [laughs] That dude only knows one way: on or off. I don’t know if you know who Skooty Puff Jr. is, but he reminds me of him. Maybe a less hyped-up version of Skooty. He’s on the same vibe, though.

 

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Jimmy Hill, 2016.

 

I also wanted to ask you about Jimmy Hill on that destroyed hip-jump. What the hell happened there?

I don’t remember what exactly made the road crumble like that, but that was in a town called Santa Clarita, which is about an hour south of Bakersfield. Skrany hit me up and invited me out to shoot him and Jimmy jump this road gap. There had been skate and BMX photos before that, because everyone caught wind of this spot before it disappeared the next month, but we snuck in with the bikes and sent it.

This was when I was first getting to know Skrany and Jimmy. They did two quick runs each and we had to get out of there fast. Skrany was on a used Suzuki that was Chuck Carother’s old practice bike, so I didn’t really get any good photos of him. I showed Jimmy his photos and we were hyped, but then I showed Skrany his photos and they were bad. My angle sucked and Skrany was pissed at me.

I ended up posting Jimmy’s photo on Instagram, and it wound up being the most liked photo I had. A few hours after I posted it, I got a call from Skrany and he was blowing me out! He was threatening to kick my ass and what not. He thought I was just using him to get closer to Jimmy and get clout off of him. I felt bad, because my photos sucked, but ultimately it was funny because Skrany and I are cool now. At the time though, I thought this guy was going to kick my ass over some bad photos! [laughs] I was scared! I asked Jimmy to tell Skrany to chill out and it just made it worse! Thankfully it’s all good now and we can laugh about it.

 

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Utah, 2019.

 

Heated! Glad you made it out of the IG scuffle. I really like the landscape stuff you’ve done. Was this in Utah?

I think that one in particular was shot from inside of the van while we were driving to Caineville. When I worked with the MotoCo for their latest project, This is MOTO, we did a two-week trip into Utah. We hit this place called “Big Water” on the border of Utah and Arizona. It’s a really famous mountain bike park, not a lot of moto stuff has been filmed there. It’s got crazy terrain and it looks like Mars. That two weeks in Utah really changed my perspective on the state, as the landscape is just breathtaking. I was riding shotgun in the MotoCo van with my 70-200mm just popping shots off and I happened to catch that one.

There doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of landscape in your repertoire. What’s up with that?

I suck at landscape photos. Those are the best ones I’ve ever taken, for the most part. During this time of year I’ll get bored, hop in my truck, and get hyped on shooting some landscape, but ultimately I’ll come back every time and go, “Aw man, these suck!” [laughs] “I don’t know how to do this!” I love landscape, I’m just bad at it.

I suppose it’s hard to get as hyped on landscape as moto or BMX.

I don’t really have an eye for it like some people do. There’s landscape stuff that is crazy good, and I wish I was good at it, something like star-trail photography is what I wish I was good at. I’ve tried it a few times but they’re not the greatest. It’s easy, but that kind of photography is also heavily gear-dependent too. You need a camera that does really well with noise at high ISO. You need a lens that can stop down really low at an f/2.8 or lower. It’s gotta have a wide enough angle… I never have anything wide enough that goes to an f/2.8. It sucks trying to shoot at night at f/5.

It’s kind of hard to be busting out the $150 fisheye for star-trailing…

Um… I have actually! I definitely used it back in the day! I’m telling you dude, the $150 fisheye is the way to go. I’ve shot some of my favorite photos with that damn lens. It’s crazy that that crappy thing is so good. It’s sturdy, but to focus you have to be within 3.5 to 5mm spacing, and you can’t shoot it below f/5, or it will look terrible. It’s only good during the day, but it hits good. It hits different [laughs]. F/15 or f/20 you get that starred-out sun look. It’s good!

I feel a big Garth Milan presence in your photos. Big, wide open spaces. Crisp edges, clean framing. Who inspires you and who do you look up to in photography?

Not in any order, but my top three favorite photographers are Garth Milan, Mike Emery, and Chris Tedesco. Those are the three in moto that are my favorites. Dallas Dunn is another photographer I really like, but I’m more of a fan of his work from BMX. His landscape photos are some of the dopest landscape photos out there, too. Those guys are my favorites.

Garth Milan’s free ride photos are some of my favorite photos of all-time, but I have a lot of respect for his older stuff as well. Tedesco is crazy… The stuff he does with Tom Parsons is so sick. If I could become good friends with a rider like that and shoot all of their stuff, that’d be wild. Being able to bounce ideas off each other and do cool stuff.

I like to think I’m somewhat similar to Tedesco, which is weird to say but I’ve heard people mention it. He’d just hang out with freestyle dudes and shoot photos out in the hills, which is kind of my program too, you know? He’s a cool dude, one of the only guys I’ve met out of those names. And Mike Emery, dude, his Transworld stuff was so sick. Mike’s covers were crazy. The stuff he could do with lighting… he kills it.

 

Thanks Jeff. All photography by Jeff Witthans. Visit him on IG at @jeffwitthans.