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"Cal Elkhorn", Wisconsin
"Cal Elkhorn", Wisconsin

Has biker culture reached the hard road?

Taking on Danny Lyons' seminal account of infamous biker gang the Chicago Outlaws

In 1963, an intense young man from Brooklyn called Danny Lyon joined a fearsome biker gang called the Chicago Outlaws. Over the next four years, he shared their lifestyle: Lyon went on long distance rides, races, field meets and even to social gatherings, all the while documenting it with his borrowed Rolleiflex camera.

The result was photobook The Bikeriders, now considered a seminal work in the modern photography canon, and a significant trigger for Lyon becoming one of the most influential documentary photographers ever. Shortly after its release, the cult road film Easy Rider, a loving homage to the motorbike, took America by storm. But it was Lyon’s approach – to immerse himself wholly within his subjects and their culture, rather than being a distant outsider – that made his works so powerful. There is an intimacy and rawness permitted in these images that wouldn’t have been possible without Lyon’s willingness to befriend.

His approach was the photographic equivalent of the New Journalism movement led by Hunter S. Thompson in the '60s and '70s, which was marked by its freewheeling and unconventional style. Lyon continued this approach with his other work, depicting the US civil rights movement and prisoners in the Texas penal system, which confirmed him as a champion of the marginalised, the mistreated, and the outlawed.

This summer Atlas Gallery are showcasing exclusive shots from Lyon’s potent Bikeriders work. We caught up with Ben Burdett, Atlas Gallery owner and the show's curator. 

What did Danny Lyon contribute to modern photojournalism?

Ben Burdett: An edgy alternative to the sometimes rather safe culture of magazine photography in the early sixties.

How do you think the choice of some photographers to befriend their subjects affects the resulting photography?

Ben Burdett: An intense proximity to intimate situations which through the lens of other photographers would seem unnatural and awkward. It's important to realise though that Danny did not befriend the biker community in order to take photographs but was already a part of it and decided to document it as it was part of his life.

Has biker culture reached the end of the road?

Ben Burdett: The biker culture as shown in Danny's work is certainly a thing of the past.

Why do you think The Bikeriders photobook originally sold poorly, but a first edition is now considered a precious artifact by collectors?

Ben Burdett: Photobooks have risen in value hugely. Danny's modest-looking soft back first edition is particularly rare as it was firstly not printed in a big edition and was also by its nature an almost ephemeral seeming volume.

Is it more difficult for counter-culture photographers to succeed these days? Is photojournalism taking a different direction?

Ben Burdett: It should be more relevant today than ever! It is much harder for photographers to work intimately with subjects now in a world where everyone is more suspicious of the media. However, with so much social media being photo based, countercultures are very proficient at photographing themselves. Nevertheless there are many examples of photojournalists documenting groups like survivalists or war gamers, hackers and other subversive groups.


The Bikeriders is showing at London’s Atlas Gallery until 16 August.