by Troy Johnson
The Bikeriders author, Danny Lyon, began his photographic career in 1962 while attending the University of Chicago as a history student. His interest in the social movements of the period and his skill with the camera led to his becoming the first staff photographer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. In 1965 he finished his work with the Committee, joined the Chicago Outlaw Motorcycle Club and began to seriously photograph and record the stories of the “bikeriders” of the midwest, work that he had begun in 1963.
Originally published in 1968 and out of print for 30 years The Bikeriders had become a rare and expensive chronicle of the motorcycling culture as it existed in the midwest in the mid-sixties. Very few of us had ever seen a copy until this new edition turned up. The book consists of 49 pages of photos and 47 pages of text. Lyon recorded the bulk of the material with a Nikon F camera and a portable reel to reel tape recorder, both of which he kept strapped around his shoulder while riding a 1956 Triumph that had been built completely from scavenged parts.
Lyon has achieved his legendary status among photographers while working in an area of photojournalism that is overworked, overwrought and oversupplied–documenting the people on the fringe of society. Lyon’s photographs stand out in how he takes this subject matter which has been traditionally displayed photographically as idealized figures fighting for dignity in the face of subjugation (Dorothea Lange perfected the style while working for the FSA during the depression) and presents it without an attempt to provoke an immediate response of compassion. In Lyon’s photographs the fringe is the fringe, it gets along fine without you and will continue to do so.
No one has ever made better photographs of the motorcycling culture; and the text transcribed from the audio tapes made of the photo’s subjects is fascinating for the peek it gives us into the language used around the midwest in the 1960s and how much it has changed since.