Danny Lyon’s photo-documentary displayed at Ringling

Ringling Art Museum is currently displaying an exhibit of black-and-white photographs from Danny Lyon’s photo-documentary, The Bikeriders. Lyon is famous for capturing the culture of obscure groups in 1960’s America. His photo-documentary following the lives of bike riders across America is a glorious example of New Journalism techniques and Lyon’s commitment to revealing the life of groups which had been mythicized by the American public.

This exhibit began in July, two months after the fourth edition of The Bikeriders was published, including an additional 15 photos thought to be lost before 2003. The collection is all from Lyon’s The Bikeriders, donated to Ringling Art Museum in 2012 by the collector couple Sally Strauss and Andrew Tomback. The exhibit features 15-20 framed photographs at a time out of the 85 donated. These photos have been enlarged into silver gelatin prints courtesy of Magnum Photos. A reflection of a rider’s wind-blown face in his side mirror, a girl wearing 60’s chic sunglasses on the back of a bike twisting around just enough for Lyon’s Nikon to catch her expression or the leather-jacketed gang surrounding a table in a diner are just a few of the subjects found in Lyon’s documentary.

Framed between the movies “Hell’s Angels” and “Easy Rider,” Lyon’s photo-documentary roared into American journalism in 1968, after a four-year endeavor of riding with the very subject of his investigation. Lyon accomplished his goal which was to “record and glorify the life of the American bikerider.” This past May saw the publication of the fourth edition of The Bikeriders, the inspiration Ringling Art Museum assistant curator Chris Jones needed to bring out the donated collection of Lyon’s gripping photographs.

“As the book does an excellent job providing context for the images, in the form of transcribed interviews with the bikers themselves, my goal for the exhibition was to focus on the photographs themselves and provide viewers a chance to explore their aesthetic impact,” Jones said in an email interview. The newest edition of The Bikeriders is available at the Ringling museum gift shop.

After graduating from the University of Chicago with a Bachelor’s Degree in Arts in 1963, Lyon published his first photographs working for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. These pictures were published in The Movement, a book documenting the Southern Civil Rights Movement. From this, he moved onto investigating a topic that was noticeably less covered than the Civil Rights Movement: bike rider gangs.

The Chicago Outlaw motorcycle club was one of several motorcycle gangs of their time (the 60’s and 70’s). Termed outlaw because of their disconnection with the American Motorcyclist Association, the Chicago Outlaw motorcyclists were essentially a group of bikers which distanced themselves from the assumed biker culture and rode across the Midwest, occasionally participating in races together and eventually creating their own subculture. Danny Lyon began shadowing the Chicago outlaws in 1963 and became a full member in 1965.

“We have more of Lyon’s donated collection in storage,” Jones said. He explained how ultraviolet light can cause works to fade or degrade. “We switch up the photographs every so often to prevent lighting from deteriorating the photo prints,” he added. Jones oversees two specific galleries at the end of the Searing Wing which is where temporary exhibits from the Museum’s permanent collection or visiting exhibits are displayed. “I think today the Bikeriders is a groundbreaking work that marks a pivot in our approaches to journalism and documentary reportage,” Jones said.

“The pictures show what I think a rider gang from the 60’s would actually look like,” Charlie Smolic said, a junior at Florida Gulf Coast University. Smolic is a motorcycle rider himself, owning a 1600 Yamaha Boulevard. “I liked the people that [the exhibit] followed, seeing the guy fixing his bike, which I could definitely relate to and just all the people meeting up, it was cool.”


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