To my daughter they’re biker dudes, but to earlier generations the perceptions of motorcyclists range from romantic free spirits to the remorseless troublemakers, bullies and criminals depicted in movies like The Wild One.
These attitudes toward one of America’s iconic subcultures pretty much sum up the arc of its reputation, but in no way prepares you for the photography exhibit on view through July 21 at the Akron Art Museum.
Danny Lyon: The Bikeriders captures the romanticism of this group in its early days and offers insights into their development that few photographers have been able to capture.
That’s because Lyon was one of the early practitioners of “New Journalism,” a method of investigative journalism that has the reporter intentionally discard objectivity and become immersed in the story to the point of being a part of it. Typically practiced by the likes of Lyon and Larry Clark and such writers as Tom Wolfe, Hunter S. Thompson and Gay Talese, New Journalism blurs the line between observer and participant.
Drawn exclusively from the museum’s extensive holdings of Lyon’s work, this exhibit, shown in the Fred and Laura Bidwell Gallery, consists of 35 images out of the 50 that the museum owns.
The show was curated by Arnold Tunstall, AAM collections manager, who said he would have shown all the images if he’d had the space and budget, but anyone interested can see them online.
The series is an attempt to glorify the American bike rider, and the wonderfully composed and printed images do just that, even if motorcycles aren’t your thing.
Born in 1942, Lyon was raised in Queens, N.Y. Trained as a historian, Lyon taught himself photography and filmmaking and began his career as the first staff photographer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
Then from 1963 to 1967 he immersed himself in biker culture, not only capturing the bikers in photographs, but joining their club, the Chicago Outlaws. (They called themselves “Outlaws” because the American Motorcycle Association hadn’t sanctioned their club — not because they were criminals. For more on the Outlaws’ fascinating history, go to www.outlawsmc.com/history.html.
The fact that the early members didn’t see themselves as criminals was made plain to Lyon the first time he approached a bike rider (shown in Jack, Chicago, 1965) for information.
Writes Tunstall in an exhibit didactic: “when Lyon asked Jack, a local mechanic, if he knew of any gangs, he replied, ‘I’m in the Chicago Outlaws. We’re not really a gang, we’re a motorcycle club and we meet every Friday — why don’t you come to a meeting.’ ”
Lyon recalled that there were “about 30 people in the club … the women would stay at the bar or diner and the guys had the meeting … they used Roberts Rules of Order. They had long discussions about whether they wanted to be buried in their colors.”
The series of images gleaned from his association with the Chicago Outlaws was featured in Lyon’s first photography book and became one of the most important and influential documentary series of the late 20th century.
At the time of its first printing, photojournalism books that told a story through images and text directly from the subject didn’t exist. As Lyon noted in a 1994 interview, “there were picture books about birds and travel. [The Bikeriders] is part of photography history as one of the first books done like this.”
The hardbound book, printed in a small edition in 1968, is now a collector’s item and in prime condition is commonly valued around $2,000, according to Tunstall.
“We are anticipating that this exhibit will have a broad, broad audience because it touches on a ’60s documentary of bikers,” Tunstall said. The museum will show the classic biker film Easy Rider at 7 p.m. Tuesday, and other programming is also in the planning stages, he said.
The Bikeriders shows members of the Chicago Outlaws not only riding their bikes across the country, but in a variety of settings: alongside racers during motorcycle rallies, kicking back between rides, showing off their “colors” and in their everyday lives.
One of the first things viewers will become aware of in these images are the “leathers” that the bikers wear, some of them elaborately decorated and festooned with small bike parts, chains and decorations from Native American jewelry.
Influence of the attire of Marlon Brando and James Dean from The Wild One and Rebel Without a Cause are everywhere in evidence, the T-shirts, white socks and rolled jeans.
Lyon has gone on to become an influential and groundbreaking figure in the field of documentary photography.
He continues to practice New Journalism in the various subcultures that he documents, releasing a book in 2011 called Deep Sea Diver, and more recently documenting the Occupy movement and demonstrations. His website is http://bleakbeauty.com.
Dorothy Shinn writes about art and architecture for the Akron Beacon Journal. Send information to her at the Akron Beacon Journal, P.O. Box 640, Akron, OH 44309-0640 or firstname.lastname@example.org.