Danny Lyon: The Bikeriders

Danny Lyon, Self Portrait at the University of Chicago, 1960

Danny Lyon, Self Portrait at the University of Chicago, 1960

I’d only ever come across the work of ex-Magnum photographer Danny Lyon occasionally, and wasn’t at all familiar with it, so it was a real pleasure to see quite a number of his works, especially from his Bikeriders series at Paris Photo 2016.

According to his Wikipedia entry, Danny Lyon was born in Brooklyn in 1942 and is credited with being an photographer and filmmaker. His work is regarded as part of the New Journalism style, which involved the photographer being immersed in and a participant of the subject.

In 1968, he published what is regarded as one of his classics titled The Bikeriders. According to the Aperture website:

“The Bikeriders explores firsthand the stories and characters of the Chicago Outlaws Motorcycle Club. The journal-size title features original black-and-white photographs and transcribed interviews made from 1963 to 1967, when Danny Lyon was a member of the Outlaws gang. Authentic, personal, and uncompromising, Lyon’s depiction of individuals on the outskirts of society offers a gritty yet humanistic view that subverts the commercialized image of Americana.”

Louisville, Kentucky, 1966. Crossing the Ohio.

Louisville, Kentucky, 1966. Crossing the Ohio.

According to an article by Sophie Butcher for vice.com (2014), the book “is the result of Lyon following around the Chicago Outlaws motorcycle gang for four years and documenting their brutal but free lifestyle”.

In an interview with Sean O’Hagen (2014), Lyon explains that “they [the Outlaws] were outsiders and I was drawn to outsiders. From my involvement in the civil rights struggle, I knew the best way to get good pictures was to get involved. I was a participant who also happened to be a photographer.”

The images at Paris Photo were a small, but good selection from the series. While looking at them, I couldn’t help but think of Hunter S. Thompson’s book Hell’s Angels (1967). Thompson spent a year with the Hells Angels (this is the correct spelling – no apostrophe – in spite of the book’s title) during which he had an uneasy relationship with the group.  Sure enough, the Guardian article confirmed a link with Thompson – in the interview, Lyon mentions “I did once receive a letter from Hunter, in which he basically said I was crazy for joining the Chicago Outlaws”. Obviously Thompson had learned from his own painful experience which ended with a savage beating.

From a Context & Narrative perspective, the narrative is about the riders and their way of life and is more of a collection of portraits. The use of black and white throughout, mostly in landscape format, gives a sense of continuity. There is no complex symbolism, nor a sequential story, it is about the (male) riders, their machines and their women (probably in that order).

The images are straightforward, although somewhat romanticised. They show people who aren’t used to being photographed maintaining their caution. What is missing is the violence and extreme behaviour referenced in the two articles. Butcher (2014) comments that “ultimately, Lyon attempted to glorify the life of an American bikerider and all of its hardships. He recently told Photo District News, ‘In my America, people were all different, they were handsome, and everything around them was beautiful. And most of all, they were free'”. Given Lyon’s rebellious past, it’s easy to think that he photographed they way he did because he identified with them and respected their freedom.

References

Butcher, Sophie (2014) Looking Back at Danny Lyon’s Iconic 1960s Photos of Bikers. At: https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/danny-lyons-bikeriders-are-back (Accessed 10 Jan 2017)

Lyon, Danny (2014) The Bikeriders. Aperture

O’Hagen, Sean (2014)  Danny Lyon’s Inside Shots. At: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/apr/20/danny-lyon-photographer-outlaw-bikers (Accessed 10 Jan 2017)

 

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