Danny Lyon Humanizes Biker Culture at the San Antonio Museum of Art

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USA. Schererville, Indiana. 1965. Sparky and Cowboy (Gary Rogues).
“Sparky and Cowboy (Gary Rogues), Schererville, Indiana,” 1965. Silver gelatin print, 11 x 14 in. Courtesy of the San Antonio Museum of Art.

The 1960s played host to some of the most extreme cultural and social shifts of any decade in American history—shifts infamously illustrated in part by a decidedly tense alliance between counterculture legends of two disparate breeds: hippies and outlaw biker gangs. Between Hunter S. Thompson’s 1966 debut Hell’s Angels and the 1969 stabbing of Meredith Hunter by Hell’s Angels security at a Rolling Stones concert in Altamont, the image of America’s motorcycle gangs limped out of the Sixties in a less-than-flattering light.

The San Antonio Museum of Art is currently featuring a different view via “The Bikeriders,” an exhibit of Danny Lyon’s photographs from his 1963-67 stint in the Chicago Outlaws motorcycle club. Widely considered a revolutionary in the world of photography, Lyon was both an observer and a participant in the lives of his subjects, pioneering a style that became known as photographic New Journalism.

According to David Rubin, curator of contemporary art at SAMA, the exhibit was built around “a gift [of Lyon's photographs] from a generous donor.” Rubin says the 50 photos on display in “The Bikeriders” represent “one of the first times that a documentary photographer photographed from the inside, where he’s really … part of the culture that he’s photographing.”

Lyon was heavily influenced by Robert Frank and his seminal 1959 book, The Americans, which was based, in Rubin’s description, on the “Jack Keroac On The Road idea.” Lyon took the grainy, black-and-white, road-trip approach of The Americans to a new level by fully integrating himself into the subculture of biker gangs. Rubin says Lyon’s work in turn has had a major impact on subsequent photographers, including Nan Goldin in the 1980s and contemporary Korean-American artist Nikki S. Lee, who is known for physically transforming her appearance to fit into different ethnic and social groups.

Hunter S. Thompson, Allen Ginsberg, Ken Kesey and Tom Wolfe have all written about  the infamous 1965 party where Hell’s Angels and Kesey’s Merry Pranksters collided at Kesey’s ranch in La Honda, California, lodging the event into countercultural memory. SAMA’s show of Lyon’s photos approaches biker culture through a more Midwestern lens, offering a radically different perspective.

“The Bikeriders” is on display through Dec. 1.

Check out SAMA’s page on the exhibit for more details.