Shutter Life | BMX Photographer Windy Osborn’s Life Behind The Lens

The influential action sports photographer tells us the stories behind her career-defining shots

“You’ll have to forgive me,” Windy Osborn says. “But this is a long story, and one that’s interwoven with tales of family, love, success and, of course, BMX. My story is my family’s story, and it’s one we had a heck of a lot of fun living through.”

Windy Osborn, legendary BMX photographer, and inductee into the BMX Hall of Fame, is talking from her home in Oceanside, California, having just opened up her photographic archives for us. This isn’t your average hulking stick-‘em-down tome from the attic, but a priceless snapshot of extreme sports history, from a time when BMX was at its most primal, its most explosive, its most rebellious and its purest. It’s a collection bursting with glowing hazy tones and stark black and white stills, action-packed motion blurs and imaginative angles. What’s most noticeable, though, is just how up-close, personal and in-your-face she dared to get, with her subject’s faces and bike frames alike.

“This is where it all started”

“This is where it all started,” she tells me, offering a black-and-white photo of a rider rocketing through the air at the famous Yarnell Street BMX track, back in 1974. “My parents divorced in the late 1960s. When we visited my dad [Bob Osborn] he would ensure our time together was constructive and fun. Amongst plenty of other things, he was into racing dirt bikes, so when we weren’t at the Indian Dunes motocross track, he’d often take us to races at a local bicycle motocross track in Redondo Beach, a little closer to where we lived. My brother would race, dad would be the race starter, and, so I wouldn’t be bored, I’d take photos. Dad was also a keen photographer, so I’d borrow his Minolta 35mm and develop my photos at home in his darkroom. That room became a sort of sanctuary to me for many years.”

As Windy racked up the tracks and the snaps, her and her family became further ingrained in the burgeoning sport of bicycle motocross, which would later become known as BMX. So much so, that in September 1976, with a $10,000 loan from his sister, a whole lot of faith that this new extreme sport would someday be massive and absolutely zero experience in publishing, Windy’s father created Bicycle Motocross Action Magazine. He didn’t have to look far for a photograph to stick on his first front cover, that December.

“That room became a sort of sanctuary to me”

“The first issue had a shot of mine on the cover – a panning shot of Brian Lewis. It was the start of something huge. By 1985, we had five magazines under our publishing company, Wizard Publications Inc, and had become a $10million per year business. I was head photographer of three of those titles – BMXA, freestyle title Freestylin’, and youth lifestyle mag, Homeboy.”

Here, Windy pulls out the photos that best define not only her career at the leading BMX magazine at the time, but her time at the forefront of the most exciting period in BMX history, and gives us their awesome backstories…

The ‘Where It All Began’ One

Thom Lund, Yarnell Street BMX Track, California, 1974

Credit: Windy Osborn

“On top of dirt bike racing, cabinet making, welding, and growing bonsai trees, my dad was really into photography. He always said ‘great subjects make great photographs’ – it was a piece of advice I took, along with my borrowed Minolta 35mm, to the BMX tracks he was the race-starter at, and where my brother would compete. I found myself attracted to photographing those who were flamboyant and on the edge of crazy.

“My dad was really into photography. He always said ‘great subjects make great photographs’”

“Thom Lund ticked those boxes. He was wild on the track, would get these super big airs, and, as to prove my father correct, a really great subject. Here, he’s on his iconic mono-shock BMX at Yarnell – a downhill track that would separate the kids from the young men and bring out the insanity of all those who dared race it. It often incited out-of-control speeds that would fire you right out of the berm, and see packs of elbows all fighting for positioning on the open straightaways, often with clouds of dust chasing up close behind.

“In fact, Yarnell was the site of many of the classic and old-school BMX images from this era. And this one, from there, was the first photo I ever had published. I sent it to Dirt Bike Magazine – a magazine we always had at home – and they accepted. I was stoked. And I was immediately addicted.”

The First Cover One

Brian Lewis, BMX Action Magazine, 1977

Credit: Windy Osborn

“As the magazines grew at warp speed, so did the sports of BMX and freestyle, which were hugely benefitting from the international circulation.  My father eventually resigned from his job as a fireman as the success of the magazines drew him in full-time. My brother’s career in BMX and freestyle went nuts as well, as did my photography.  

“Panning was one of the first effects I experimented with”

“This was my first ever cover, of Brian Lewis. Panning was one of the first effects I experimented with, which involved shooting at about a 60th of a second and tracking through with the racer. I always pushed to enhance the experience of what I was seeing, and highlight how the rider was going beyond their comfort zone. For that, I will always have the greatest admiration for riders, racers, freestylers and skaters, and anyone else who entertains viewers with their fearless addictions to these crazy sports.”

The Brother Cover One

RL Osborn, BMX Action Magazine, 1985

Credit: Windy Osborn

“My brother, RL, was definitely my favourite subject. He worked his butt off through his career in BMX, and in every photoshoot we did together. This is a BMX Action cover from 1985, of him during a bike test. I enjoyed the oh-so classic tight style of BMXers, crouching and tucking, and with logos absolutely everywhere.

“This is just a grand example of pure, clean race style. I remember the shoot being a great day with some seriously crappy weather. I always seemed to have a way with the weather when it was time to shoot. This image kinda represents what I mean. With the storm in the background and sun hitting RL, it was always going to be a dramatic image.”

The Exhausting One

Toby Henderson, 1986

Credit: Windy Osborn

“Kodachrome 64 was my favourite colour film to use – it made everything look so warm and… yummy.  Panning shots like this never happened in just one or two passes, and as such, I was known for working my subjects to exhaustion. But that’s how we got it done! Looking back on photos like this one – which, to me, is just classic BMX – I truly wonder how I achieved such nice exposures without knowing what I’d actually shot until the film was processed.”

The Painful One

Todd Anderson, El Toro Air Force Base In California, 1986

Credit: Windy Osborn

“This was on a real hot Southern California day. Shooting comps or exhibitions, I’d need to position myself on top of the ramps. However, quarter pipes and half pipes back then were designed for riding, not climbing, and never had ladders attached to them. To get up there, I had to run up the face, whilst wearing my shorts, and in front of a crowd of people – mostly boys. Not only would I be worried about the challenge of reaching the top, but also about someone seeing up my shorts, too.

“Yeah, that really hurt”

“It was not something I enjoyed, but I had to be on top for the best shots. At this particular ramp, I landed my hands on the steel coping, which, it turned out, had been cooking in the sun for half the day. Yeah, that really hurt. Climbing halfpipes used to really freak me out, and thinking back now, I don’t know how I did it. But then again, I was a head-strong 5’4” gal, I definitely had an attitude, and I was determined to never let anything get in the way of the best shot possible.

“The biggest challenge I had to face was following the boys on their bikes, with 30lbs of equipment on my shoulder, and to their secret ramps in the middle of a forest of poison oak, or over a fence to an abandoned pool, or hiking out to a sewer pipe in the middle of nowhere. It was all super fun stuff.”

The Accidentally Awesome One

Joe Johnson, Ohio, 1986

Credit: Windy Osborn

“Some of my favourite images are less to do with the rider’s tricks, and more to do with the telling of the BMX story. This one of Joe Johnson is more about how reluctant parents across the nation were surrendering their backyards to obsessed kids and the plywood structures they’d ride day and night, and the neighbours who’d protest about the breaches of privacy in their backyards next door, as kids on bicycles rhythmically popped above the dividing fence lines.

“It was an expanding cult, a growing lifestyle addiction”

“Neighbours thoughts the parents were out of their minds, parents thought the kids crazy, and yet it was an expanding cult, a growing lifestyle addiction. While going for a super close-up to try and catch the energy of the moment, I coincidentally captured the opposite side of the ramp (which was built at Joe’s house) and the spectators looking on as he flies.”

The Plain Fun One

Ceppie Maes’ ‘Stubble Duck’, 1987

Credit: Windy Osborn

“[Freestyle BMXer] Ceppie Maes was a really fun rider to shoot. He was flamboyant and innovative. I think more than just being a difficult shot to get, or reflective of a great photographic skill, this image is simply the by-product of imagination and creativity – get down low, pop him out of the horizon, a little flash lighting. To me it feels almost cartoon-like. But Ceppie was animated that way.”

The Switch-It-Up One

Craig Johnson, Nude Bowl in Joshua Tree, 1987

Credit: Windy Osborn

“After photographing BMX and freestyle for a decade or so, I was aching to shoot skateboarding. This is one of my favourite skate shots and reminds me of a great time as well.  We’d hiked out at Joshua Tree to what was called the Nude Bowl – I guess an old nudist colony used to hang out there. It’s where all the heavy-duty skaters would gather, bring their ladies, their kids, BBQs and music systems. We’re not talking iTunes and Bluetooth speakers – we’re talking concert sound system speakers, 5ft tall. It was a crowd that could throw a party and skate like there was no tomorrow.

“We’d hiked out at Joshua Tree to what was called the Nude Bowl – I guess an old nudist colony used to hang out there”

“I find this shot interesting, not only for the expression on Craig’s face, but because his expression sums up the pit in the coping that he’s about to hit. Yikes! It’s really representative of a style I used to play with too. I liked to push my subjects to extremes, in terms of composition. I’d crop in tight, get up closer, really get into the energy of the moment and catch it. It’s a reminder that it’s okay to break the rules, as long as you know what the rules are.”


The One Filled With Pioneers

Bryan Blyther at the Enchanted Ramp in San Diego, 1987

Credit: Windy Osborn

“This is another classic snapshot from a time when freestyle was growing, and going crazy. Ron Wilkerson, who rode for Haro Bikes, built this ramp – which was named the Enchanted Ramp after the tree in the background – in his front yard in Leucadia, San Diego.

That’s Brian Blyther, Mr. Air, taking flight during the King Of Vert competition with the equally talented Matt Hoffman and Todd Anderson watching on, respecting ‘The Bird’ as he flies. It’s not my wide-angle lens making him look high – note the crowd and the way they’re looking up to him. This, of course, massively pre-dates The X-Games. Back then, we had no idea what was to come for BMX, after the foundations were laid by these pioneers of the sport.”

The One In The Iconic Location

Martin Aparijo in Venice Beach, 1986

Credit: Windy Osborn

“Martin is one of the industry’s sweetest human beings.  He was always a pleasure to work with, fun, positive and one of the best ground freestylers from back in the day. He would ride right up to me and snap his trick in my face, before riding away. I must have used a 17mm lens to shoot this, from down on the ground, in Venice Beach, California.”

The One That’s Up-Close and Personal

Chris ‘Mad Dog’ Moeller, 1987

Credit: Windy Osborn

“Chris Moeller, now owner S&M Bikes, used to ride for our BMX test team. He was flat-out crazy, had no fear and was super funny. On top of that, he would do anything for a great shot. ‘Mad Dog’ never disappointed. As you can see, I loved to push the limits of proximity when shooting a rider.

“I only got pegged once”

“In my 17 years of shooting, I only got pegged once – at a BMX race with a gigantic downhill out of the gate and that ended in a tight berm.  I liked to be where the action peaked, which for the race in question was at the exit of  particular berm. Some kid, who I did not know, overshot and T-boned me. Funny thing – you see that guy laughing in the background? That’s my dad.”

Credit: Windy Osborn

To see more of Windy’s work, check out her Instagram.

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