Photographer Julie Glassberg spent three years documenting the tight-knit world of the Black Label Bike Club
Type the words “Bike Kill” into YouTube and you’ll get dogs, dirt and dodgy bicycles. But a deeper dive will show you that there’s more to it than just that. Organised by the riotous Black Label Bike Club, a “freak/mutant bicycle organisation” founded in the early 90s, Bike Kill is a yearly celebration of bike hacking, friendship and anarchy. With branches in New York, San Francisco, and Tokyo – even “nowhere”, for all the nomads – photographer Julie Glassberg documented Brooklyn’s BLBC while studying at the city’s International Center of Photography in 2009. During a period of three years, she followed “Stinky” and other members to get a glimpse of the offbeat biking culture.
But Bike Kill was not a typical photo-documentary project. Shooting a close-knit community like this one involved a long process of establishing bonds with the subjects. “The ‘fly on the wall’ technique doesn’t work with this kind of story”, Glassberg explains, adding that at the beginning, the bikers weren’t too keen on having her document them. “Human interaction is quite important to build a mutual trust, and that takes time.”
A student at the time, Glassberg befriended a member of the scene who first took her to the annual event. As expected, the club’s gathering was “chaotic” with “unidentified objects flying everywhere”. Somehow, Glassberg’s black and white photographs, now compiled in a book, capture a certain tenderness amidst bike mayhem.
Below, the photographer tells us about the community she infiltrated.
“The ‘fly on the wall’ technique doesn’t work with this kind of story... Human interaction is quite important to build a mutual trust, and that takes time” – Julie Glassberg
How did the project Bike Kill come about? How did you become interested in the subject?
Julie Glassberg: It was my first year in New York and I was trying to document another subculture. It didn’t work out so well and someone mentioned to me the Black Label Bike Club and tall-bikes. Of course, I was very curious and started researching. I discovered a crazy world that attracted me right away. I also saw a movie from the 90s called B.I.K.E from the early years of the BLBC. I became extremely interested in this rebel youth that had no rules, disobeying social pressure to follow a certain life path and constructing their own freedom – I had to know more.
How did you go about finding them?
Julie Glassberg: It took me quite a while to find them! I thought the person who told me about them knew them, but he had just seen them riding their tall-bikes around. So after a long period of research and trying to reach a few club members, I was finally invited to come to a local bar in Brooklyn where they were all meeting up one night. At first, they didn’t quite like the idea of me documenting them. Plus, they had had a bad experience with the media before. But I wasn’t the media. I was just a student at the time, doing it on my own, with no specific goal besides discovering their world. That night, I met Paul who invited me to his birthday at the Chicken Hut (HQ) in Brooklyn, the following weekend. That’s how it all started. I took my first photo at his birthday, and I met Stinky, who then became my main contact and helped me to gain trust from the group.
What sort of people did you meet at the Bike Kill events?
Julie Glassberg: All kinds of people! That’s what makes those events so great. It’s not reserved for one class or style. Of course, you have the different bike clubs’ members, but you’ll also find students, artists, average joes, spectators, kids: it’s open to everyone. It goes with their philosophy that fun should be free and accessible.
What’s a typical Bike Kill event is like?
Julie Glassberg: You have the kids coming early in the afternoon with their parents to try out the crazy built bikes, followed by a few bike games and dancing and finally the jousting will close the event. It’s very chaotic, and unidentified objects are flying everywhere. The music is blasting, people are having fun. Everyone is a kid during that day: you have eight-year-old kids, 15-year-old kids, but also 25-30 year-olds and above! There is no worry. Everyone is living the moment.
Do you keep in touch with any of the people you met there?
Julie Glassberg: Of course. I spent over three years with them, so a few people became my friends, some even became close friends. The core of their philosophy hasn’t changed. All I see is that some are moving away to build their own family, some are staying in the community and building their family. But in the end, the club is like a close family itself, so even if some are not as active in the activities, they still check in regularly. Life is happening. That’s all.
What did you learn from this project, or, even, the community itself?
Julie Glassberg: This project was my first long-term project. It taught me a lot as a person and as a photographer; how to construct a story about a world I strongly wanted to discover; to capture my own truth about how I perceive things without caring about how others think I should approach it; and most importantly, to be persistent. It was the foundation of everything that would follow.
I particularly enjoyed putting the book together last year, when I was living in Japan. Finally, I was able to tell the whole story I lived while I was with those guys, the way I wanted to tell it. It is not just the same few sensational pictures anymore. Now, I can now show a deeper perspective and a more intimate approach. I made an entirely handmade edition while in Japan, which was a whole new adventure in itself, and this year I will be working on a little trade edition, with Ceiba Editions, that will come out around the fall.
Follow Julie Glassberg’s work here