The blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation
Motorcycle riders can conjure up curious images: maybe as a gang of thugs drifting around looking for trouble, or a group of restless spirit young men and women adrift on the open road.
The exhibit at the Akron Art Museum, a Knight Arts grantee, kind of sets the record straight, as seen through the eyes of a young photographer, Danny Lyon, who meant to depict his bike riding friends in a good light.
Photographer Danny Lyon took his camera and an audio recorder on the open road when he joined up with members of the Chicago Outlaws Motorcycle Club in the 1960s. His idea, as AAM collections manager Arnie Tunstall noted, was to make a flattering portrait of this particular subculture.
The “outlaw” in their name didn’t refer to a reckless regard for civil order. Instead, it really came from the riders not conforming to the rules and regulations of the American Motorcyclist Association, an oversight group that validates clubs and arranges and schedules races and group rides.
Also, as Tunstall said, this gang hailed from the Midwest, not from the coastal extremes where other sorts of rougher riders made a quite different impression.
From the 35 or so black and white photographs hanging in the Fred and Laura Ruth Bidwell Gallery, it’s easy to get the sense of what Lyon wanted to convey. As scruffy as some of them look, the bikers also look decidedly non-radical, a notion that most people probably don’t associate with such groups.
Just going from some of the titles of the images – like “Brucie at the Spotlight Café, Cicero, Illinois” – you get the picture that these are just kids, really, who are not intimidating or threatening, but who are about having fun.
Different things can come to mind when seeing the collection. “The Bikeriders”, as depicted, saw a specific slice of America – through diners, rest areas, out-of-the-way cafes, and the two-lane highways that led through some pretty remote places throughout the Midwest.
They also seem like restless spirits, clinging to their bikes and each other as they go in search of experience.
The images that Lyon took ultimately ended up, Tunstall notes, in a groundbreaking book that was published in 1968. The publication of it in art terms represented an instance where the artist was part and parcel of the subject of his art – that is, Lyon was a club member focusing his art on the people with whom he associated. Career and recreation, art and society, philosophy and daily life – these things came together in Lyon’s documentary style.
“Danny Lyon: The Bikeriders” will be on exhibit Wednesday-Sunday 11 a.m. -5 p.m. with extended hours until 9 p.m. on Thursday through July 21 at the Akron Art Museum, 1 S. High St., Akron; 330-376-9185; www.akronartmuseum.org. Admission is $7 ($5 for students and seniors).