This article originally appeared on VICE France
In the 1970s, photographer Yan Morvan spent almost three years hanging out with Parisian bikers – documenting the rides, the binge drinking and the fights between rival gangs. Four decades later, after having worked notably with one of the most notorious serial killers in France and having covered a number of conflicts around the world, Morvan is getting ready to publish a book about that first experience.
"It all began in 1975," explains Yan Morvan, who at the time was fascinated by Hunter S. Thompson's work on Hells Angels as well as Bike Riders by the American photographer Danny Lyon. "I was 21, I was a student and a bit of a rebel at university in Vincennes," he continues. "At the same time I was taking photos of current affairs for an agency. One day in June I saw my first biker – or 'Blouson Noir' (Black Jacket) – while I was walking around Place du Tertre. He was dressed in a pair of flared jeans and an imitation Perfecto jacket studded with badges. I quite shyly followed him around for a while before approaching him."
After having convinced him to pose, Yan saw that same Blouson Noir again at the Clignancourt flea market a few weeks later with his friends. This time, he asked if he could follow them as they went about their daily life. They loved the idea, and that was the start of the project that turned Morvan into a professional photographer.
Paris in the 1970s was teeming with different subcultures but Yan was the only French journalist to show any interest in them. "They all had their codes and different rituals," he explains. "I saw this immersion into the biker group as a first journey into the world of urban tribes."
The Blousons Noirs were mostly of Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Polish, North African or Caribbean origin – their parents had come to France in the interwar period to work. "Many of those young bikers lived in council estates in the suburbs of Paris with their parents," Yan recounts. "They would get together on Saturday nights and drive up the Champs-Elysées or around Bastille. Their weekend activities boiled down to drinking litres of booze, strutting around with guitars that were covered in stickers of rock groups and chasing people from other subcultures around the city armed with bike chains, electrical wire and switch blades."
One of the Blousons, Johnny from Montreuil, made a particular impression on Yan. "He was a sort of spiritual leader, as magnetic as he was tragic," Morvan remembers. Morvan had a moped, which he took to hang around concert halls and dingy bars with Johnny. "He would drive really fast and I found it hard to keep up with him – although he'd have to get off his bike to get over any hills."
The two of them would often meet up in a squatted abandoned factory in Boulogne-Billancourt, where so called "BFF parties" (beer, fuck, fight) were held. The Blousons would meet up there at the end of the week and there would be a lot of "drinking, Nazi chanting, ritual mating and canned cassoulet," Yan summarises. "The group basically came together to wallow in their self-loathing and their loathing of others. They wore swastikas on their clothing, demonstrated a virulent xenophobia and antisemitism and were armed with a whole arsenal of "knives, rifles and nunchucks yet a lot of them were ignorant of the real meaning of their actions," according to Yan.
After being given a new motorbike by his girlfriend – a Norton Commando 850 to which he added a roadster fuel tank and a red light on the back in the shape of an eagle – the photographer got close to another group of bikers: the Hells Angels of the République area. "There where two types of Hells Angels there at the time," he recalls. "Those who worked to pay for their motorbike and really believed in the power of the Harley-Davidson – and those who would hang around them, shady types who dealt and took a lot of drugs. Their slogan was: "Live fast, die young and make a beautiful corpse".
The Hells Angels of the République area were the sworn enemies of those from the Crimée area in Paris, and the two clans fought each other regularly. One of the most violent fights Morvan witnessed involved about 50 guys, during a meeting between the two groups in a bar on Boulevard Voltaire in Paris. Parked on the other side of the road from the bar, he witnessed two gunshots and windows shattering into pieces. The whole group came running out of the bar to take the fight to the street. One of the Crimée gang saw Morvan and came for him with a pick axe. Just as Morvan was trying to start his engine, the guy grabbed his arm before skidding and crashing to the ground, thrown by Morvan's unexpected movement. "I turned around and I realised he wasn't getting up."
Morvan would end up leaving the scene behind soon afterwards but not before joining the Hells Angels on a weekend in the country. There, according to Morvan, "heroin addicts fucked in the grass" and "a girl devoted to the group was given as an initiation to one member nicknamed 'the Pig', who according to the others had an enormous penis". Although he doesn't know what's become of the group since, he thinks it's likely that "most of them didn't see old age because of their lifestyle and their excessive drinking and drug use".
Yan Morvan's photo project on the Blousons and the Angels was terribly received by the papers, who didn't buy into the idea of this – what one paper called – "bad trip in the suburbs". His own photo agency told him that the pictures wouldn't sell, because they depicted aggressive, anxiety inducing caricatures. After publishing a couple of pictures in Maurice Lemoine's book Le cuir et le baston (The Leather and the Brawl), he started working as a freelance photographer at Paris Match and finally published his series of images of bikers in the magazine. The Hells Angels weren't happy with the headlines in the accompanying article written by Jean Cau, so they organised a raid of Cau's house. Morvan, however, had had the presence of mind to move house before that happened.
"I knew subconsciously that these guys were the forerunners of a certain urban chaos and disintegration that would arrive later. They were the first generation to be stuck between their parents' home country and their own – the first to identify with and dream of the dominant culture coming from the US," Morvan says now. That makes Yan Morvan one of the first to illustrate the disorientation of young people in the French suburbs.
Yan Morvan has launched a crowdfunding campaign to fund a book on his years with the Blousons Noirs. You have eight more days to donate on the website KissKissBankBank to support and receive a copy of the book.
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