I have long been interested in the connection between cycling and amateur self-portraiture. Anyone familiar with the world of bicyclists' image galleries is also familiar with the ubiquitous "panda shots," storefront reflections, snapshots of one's bike shadow. Taken quickly with tiny low-quality cameras, these provide spontaneous glimpses into how we move through the world, what we encounter along the way, and how we relate to our bicycles while doing so. Over the years it has become a distinct genre.
But why do it? Looking in from the outside, it is easy to interpret it as a contemporary obsession with documentation, a marking of territory, or in the case of "panda shots" (pictures of yourself taken while cycling) as a showing off of skill. And of course to some extent it is all that. But what makes it bike-specific? I have never encountered another group outside of the art world that is as prone to self-portraiture as cyclists. Joking around with bikeyface, we tried to start a trend for "walk pandas," but somehow pedestrian self-portraiture does not hold the same appeal.
Last year I wrote about bicycle blogs and exhibitionism - describing a culture among the blogs of beginner female cyclists where women communicate and encourage each other by showing pictures of themselves doing everyday bike-related activities. Outside of the intended audience (for example, when observed by experienced male cyclists), this is sometimes misinterpreted as exhibitionism. But for the intended audience it is in fact a "teaching by doing" sort of tool that can be more effective than any advocacy.
Still the trend for self-portraiture among cyclists is not limited to this alone. It is more widespread than that and encompasses a more diverse demographic. From racers to retrogrouches to randonneurs to pedaling fashionistas, cyclists just seem compelled to snap pictures of themselves on or next to their bikes.
It is possible that moving around by bicycle, particularly when we are new to it in adulthood, heightens our sense of self-awareness and it is this that inspires the self-portraiture. In a sense, the cyclist keeps a visual diary. And a true diary, be it written or visual, is more than just about what happens in one's environment; typically the diarist also focuses on themselves.
How well this works as an explanation, I don't know. But as a psychologist and a painter I am fascinated by the tradition of self-portraiture I've seen emerge as more and more cyclists share their images with the world. If you take pictures of yourself on or with your bike, why do you do it?