Looking Back at Danny Lyon's Iconic 1960s Photos of Bikers
Apr 16 2014
Last fall, while I was working as a book designer for the Aperture Foundation, the photography nonprofit, a first-edition copy of of Danny Lyon’s The Bikeriders from 1968 was placed on my desk in a plastic folder.
The Bikeriders is the first book by the now-legendary photographer; copies like the one I was given go for $700. I was asked to tear it apart, write on it, and otherwise mutilate it in order to find a way to create an exact facsimile of the book. I could hardly imagine unbinding the book, and I cringed at the thought of writing on it. But as I learned more about the book and about Lyon’s relationship with the project, I became convinced he wouldn’t mind me pulling his book apart in order to precisely recreate his original. Unlike many photographers, Lyon pays special attention to all the aspects of his books—the captions, the sequence, and the text are treated with the same acute focus as the images themselves. As I looked at his candid shots and casual recordings of conversations, the motorcycle gang members who were his subjects grew more and more alive to me. Staying true to the original means giving younger generations a way to rediscover how this book became iconic. Our new reproduction of Lyon’s original will appear on bookshelves around the world at the end of next month.
The project that became The Bikeriders began in 1963, when Lyon was just starting his career as a photographer. An educated son of the middle class who grew up in Queens, his work had only been published in one book, The Movement, which was about Civil Rights in the South. He was a 21-year old student at the University of Chicago at the time, and he worked for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. These political photographs laid the foundation for Lyon’s subsequent work—documenting the Chicago Outlaws motorcycle club seemed like an obvious next step for a photographer interested in those on the outskirts of American society. The Outlaws rode Harleys and Lyon rode a Triumph, but despite this fundamental difference, he was able to forge close relationships with members of the club.
Hugh Edwards, to whom Lyon dedicated The Bikeriders, was an extremely important figure for Lyon and his contemporaries. From 1959 to 1970, Edwards was an associate curator of prints and drawings at the Art Institute of Chicago, and Lyon would ride his motorcycle to show him new pictures. Edwards’s encouragement and support helped Lyon as he worked on The Bikeriders throughout the mid 60s.
At certain points, documenting the Outlaws' conversations seemed more important than taking their photographs. The book is filled with highly personal moments that reflect the violent and extreme lifestyle of the club. For instance, Funny Sonny, a former Hell’s Angel, described meeting the Outlaws for the first time, riding down a hill drunk, and seeing a rider fall off a cliff:
“So he goes over there and he takes about four good swallows of wine. And he gets sick right away, instant sickness. And he pukes it all out. But he makes it, he wipes his mouth off, shows a little class, wipes it on his pants. Little Honda guy, you know, helmet and everything. So down the hill he goes. So he’s comin’ up the hill and he’s goin’ good, he’s lookin’ good, he’s comin’ up like crazy... but he doesn’t realize something. His bike is headed in the wrong direction, he’s headed for a cliff. And he jumps on and gives the gas and over the cliff he goes, messed his whole bike and he’s gone. He never came back.”
Funny Sonny went on to describe swallowing a caterpillar a size of a pencil, and what happens afterwards:
“Now I swallow, the caterpillar is out of sight. Open my mouth, show everyone it’s gone. Then I know he’s crawling, I can feel him crawling back up my throat, see. So I got my mouth closed, and you know, it’s closed and everybody’s eating. And I’m at the table and everybody’s eating, we’re talking and I open my mouth just a little tiny bit and this little fuckin’ caterpillar comes crawling out of my mouth. About four people got sick, see. So then I yelled to everybody, I said, 'Ah, you ain’t gonna get away from me, caterpillar.' So I crunched my teeth down on him and chewed him up real good... Oh, Christ. That was good. That’s when I really met the Outlaws, really met ‘em good.”
The riders are painted as unforgiving and brutal. Over the course of the book, some members die on the road, some by suicide. But when you read between the lines, you can see love and respect underneath the violence. Johnny, the president of the Outlaws, said the club would buy huge floral pieces for each of the members' funerals: “We buy for all the club members that do get killed, or die, even if they’re not in the club if they were in good standing when they quit.”
Once Lyon felt the project was complete, he grew tired of the club’s lifestyle, and moved to New York. Finding a publisher for the work proved difficult, however, and his personality didn’t make up for his thin credentials: Lyon was, and still is, known as a stubborn photographer, and has voiced his dislike towards magazines and the brutal editing process involved with editorial work. Even the title of the book was disputed by copy editors who had not heard of the new term bikerider.
Finally, in 1968, his friend Alan Rizler managed to get the book published by the Macmillan company. Thousands of copies were printed and spread across America, but no images were reproduced in color due to the expense that would have been involved, and there was little fanfare and hardly any press attention when the book was released. After Lyon saw a copy of the book displayed in the front window of the East Village bookstore, he would ride his motorcycle past the shop simply to stare at it. Eventually, MacMillan asked him whether he wanted to buy the remaining copies for 60 cents apiece.
After completing The Bikeriders, Lyon was made an associate of the prestigious Magnum Photos cooperative, but in 1975, when other members noticed that he never attended any of the meetings, the group dropped him, though his work has remained in the Magnum archive ever since. He continued to photograph important and personal stories with integrity, from the demolition of downtown Manhattan to the brutal prison system in Texas.
The book is a seminal example of the practice called New Journalism, in which the writer or photographer is immersed in the scene he's documenting and is a participant in it. The rerelease of The Bikeriders is not only an homage to this movement, it reminds us to follow our instincts and react to the world as fearlessly as Lyon did.
Danny Lyon's The Bikeriders will be available May 30 from Aperture.
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