Over the past five decades, photographer Danny Lyon has produced a compelling body of work, embracing both the lyrical and political potential of the medium. He helped redefine photojournalism by telling radical stories from immersing himself deeply and intimately in the lives of his subjects. Just before Easy Rider roared its way into American consciousness, Danny Lyon attempted to record and glorify the life of American bike riders and all of their hardships with his first book, The Bikeriders, published in 1968.
While still finishing college, Lyon began riding with and photographing bikers in Chicago at races and “scrambles.” Soon after, at the age of 23, he joined the notorious motorcycle gang Chicago Outlaws, a decision that even his friend Hunter S. Thompson advised him against. Armed with a camera, tape recorder and 1956 Triumph, he spent four years on the road capturing the golden age of the outlaw bikers.
Documenting life on the fringes of society, Lyon provided a glimpse of this counterculture from the inside out. With a mix of realism and romanticism, he encapsulated this brutal but free lifestyle, offering a truly authentic voice about his subjects. Lyon captured roaring motorcycles, dirt, dust and open roads of the Midwest, but also exposed the complexity and intimacy within this subculture. Juxtaposing images and transcribed interviews, he captured his subjects’ hopes and aspirations, as well as familial bonds they formed with each other, without taking the edge of their badass aura. Intimate, candid, raw and uncompromising, these images celebrate freedom, nonconformity to mainstream culture, and unity and loyalty within the group.
The Bikeriders is a seminal example of the 1960s-era New Journalism, made famous by writers such as Joan Didion and Hunter S. Thompson, in which the author is immersed and participating in the scenes being documented. Getting close to the rebel gang in a way others had not been able to, he managed to offer a gritty yet humanistic view that subverts the commercialized image of Americana. Having a restless and compassionate vision, as well as a non-conformist attitude and plenty of idealism, Lyon created one of the seminal photographic essays of his generation.
The latest Aperture edition of Danny Lyon’s The Bikeriders can be purchased on Amazon for $35.
Photo credit: © Danny Lyon - Sparky and Cowboy (Gary Rogues), Schererville, Indiana from The Bikeriders (Aperture, 2014); Danny Lyon - Club house during the Columbus run, Dayton, Ohio from The Bikeriders (Aperture, 2014). Courtesy Edwynn Houk Gallery.