Somewhere on the 5400 block of South Woodlawn, there’s a first-floor apartment that may retain a message from 30 years ago. A young photographer concealed his signature on top of a door for posterity, and if it hasn’t been painted over, you might still read the line: “Danny Lyon made ‘The Bikeriders’ here.”
Lyon’s 1968 book, a personal chronicle of his four years as a bike rider, including two with the Chicago Outlaws Motorcycle Club, became one of the most influential photographic works of the decade. But since it was remaindered in 1972, it’s been almost as invisible as Lyon’s bit of graffiti, occasionally resurfacing to fetch prices well above its original hardcover cost of $5.95.
A New Yorker by birth, Lyon moved to Hyde Park in 1959 to attend the University of Chicago. After graduating in 1963, he traveled south to photograph the civil rights movement for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Though the resulting photos have been widely reproduced–most recently in Lyon’s 1992 book, Memories of the Southern Civil Rights Movement–he felt The Bikeriders was the first of his photographic series that was all his own.
While still in college, Lyon had bought a ramshackle motorcycle, a 1956 Triumph that had been rebuilt by fellow students, and had begun to attend rallies around the midwest. “I was a journalist, living the story,” he says. Part of his motivation was to overcome the prejudice he observed among his peers and in himself toward blue-collar white culture. “We are supposed to be a society without class, but the lines are everywhere, and I crossed them.” In doing so Lyon forged an alternative to the pat illustrated journalism of Life magazine, for which he felt “a burning hatred,” wanting instead “to do something real.”
After he showed the first prints to his mentor, Hugh Edwards, then associate curator of prints and drawings at the Art Institute (and founder of the museum’s photography department), Edwards wrote Lyon, “This time you have gone farther and present the exciting subject without getting between it and the camera….I like photography best when it is a medium of presentation and does not impose interpretation.”
Lyon kept this advice in mind as he assembled The Bikeriders, presenting his findings with the forthrightness of a journalist and the composure of an artist. The resulting book resembles what George Plimpton has called “participatory journalism,” where the line between reporter and story is largely erased. The first half consists of black-and-white photographs depicting the culture of the motorcycle clubs Lyon had lived among; at the height of his involvement, he even briefly became a member of the Chicago Outlaws, so named because the club was not approved by the American Motorcycle Association. The second half of the book is text transcribed from tape recordings Lyon made of his bike rider buddies. Whereas the photographs portray the rebellious machismo of bike racers and riders with unconcealed admiration, the texts reveal the seamy sides of their lives–the hardships brought on by lack of education and recklessness, the routine of misogyny and violence. Cal, an Outlaw, talked about how he failed in school because he was French-Canadian and illiterate in English; he ended up in the military only to receive an “undesirable discharge” after he arrested several superior officers while on guard duty. Kathy was strong-armed into marrying an Outlaw and later narrowly escaped being raped by a group of his friends who failed to recognize her as one of their own. Funerals appear often in the photographs, but so do “blessings,” when bikes and their riders are anointed by priests. Seen through Lyon’s eyes, this was a blessed and doomed caste, living out a defiant and fatal vision of American masculinity.
The Bikeriders has just been reissued in a limited edition by Twin Palms Press. Lyon will sign copies of the book from 5:30 to 7 Thursday at the Art Institute’s Museum Shop, 900 N. Michigan. Call 312-482-8275.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Danny Lyon photo by Jim Medenhall; Photographs from “The Bikeriders” courtesy of Twin Palms Publishers/ Copyright Twin Palms Publishers-“Route 12, Wisconsin” “Racer, Schererville, Indiana” “Route 90, Alabama”.