A Bikers Guide To The American Road Myth: Two London Photography Shows

This month two shows, Dennis Hopper at the Royal Academy and Danny Lyon’s ‘The Bikeriders’  at Atlas Gallery, engage with the freedom of the road and the subcultures that sought it- the Rock n Roll lifestyle on the road. The immediacy of the camera has often attracted those for whom living in the moment is the only way to go.

Dennis Hopper was a man of his times. Hailed for having created one the key texts of the SIxties, Easy Rider -a film about motorcycles, freedom and fatal bigotry- Dennis Hopper fed and perpetuated his own myth. Many of his performances were manic in the ways audiences imagined the man might be, an impression no doubt encouraged by stories of his legendary boozing and drug-use. It is hard, therefore, to look at the pictures in this retrospective of sorts at the Royal Academy, without thinking of his portrayal of a crazed, twitchy photographer in Apocalypse Now. Unfortunately, where that character seemed the plausible end-point for misguided but nevertheless brilliant master of his medium, this exhibition shows Hopper to have been but a limited photographer.


The exhibition brings together over 400 images, taken during one of the most creative periods of his life in the 1960s.  In an illuminating quote printed on a wall, Hopper talks of how the camera was his only creative outlet during the period between when he was contracted to an oppressive studio contract at 18, and when he made finally made the Easy Rider at 26. The images are original prints Hopper had created for his first major show in 1970, and are presented hung within cabinets mounted on the walls. There are photographs of key luminaries of the L.A arts scene of the time (Ruscha, Rauschenberg et al)  as well as shots of a Martin Luther King led march of the civil rights movement, and assorted other documentations of the hippies, and gatherings of hippies, in Sixties San Francisco.


The problem is that none are particularly distinctive and the decision to present all of the images, all as vintage prints, only serves to further dull what small glimmer of a voice there might have been. With the technology currently available, many different types of enlargement could have been made to create a far more dynamic display, whilst still preserving the sanctity of the original object. In the photos, canted angles and informal compositions abound. As per the cult of Hopper , the photographs are shot from the hip, but they are strangely unreactive, nonchalant in their approach and muted in their tone. They seem as if  taken by somebody outside the picture.


It is, ironically, when he moves away from the action that one gets the sense of the photographer Hopper might have been. Much of the later work consists of urban details and fragments, some quite abstract, many intelligent, that demonstrate the creativity that later emerged in his film work. These are slow, studied images that are not in the moment; very un-Hopper.  Indeed he described himself, in another well chosen quote, as an abstract expressionist at heart. Perhaps putting the camera away permanently upon becoming a director was the right move for Hopper, as he was far from finding his voice and photography probably wasn’t the right medium to suit the persona he would later develop.


First released in 1968, a year before Easy Rider, Danny Lyon’s seminal photo-book ‘The Bikeriders’ ushered in a new kind of photographic reportage and created a space for the diaristic work of Larry Clark and Nan Goldin some years later. Raised a respectable middle-class young man, Danny Lyon decided to join the Chicago Outlaws Motorcycle Club in 1963, only 23 years old. He would spend the next four years documenting the lives and loves of this group of outlaws on the fringes of American society.

Lyon soon after became a  Magnum photographer, but was rarely as intimate (at least from what I’ve seen) with a subject or story as he was here. He became the subject. The exhibition at Atlas gallery presents 40 or so of the photographs, framed and matted in the classic style that would befit silver work of this vintage, but not the immediacy and engagement of the images themselves. Many of the photographs are taken from moving motorcycle, with the subjects either hunched over in speed, or peering back as if trying to outrun conformity itself.


There are tender shots of the interactions between the bikers as well as some more formal portraits in which the brandish their leather, plucky and cocky with chains and safety pins.In Lyon’s pictures there is an almost melancholy sense of affection for his subjects, as if he knows many of them are doomed (indeed several of his subjects did die during the project, either on the road or through suicide) or that with every photo, he comes is coming closer to the point where he will have cease being one ot them.


Rarely has a group of violent outlaws seemed so vulnerable and looked so loveable. As a portrait of what it takes to live the life of freedom Hopper later depicted in his famous film, and of how a fringe group stick together, there is none better.

Words:  Kerim Aytac © Artlyst 2014 Photos: Top Danny Lyon all others Courtesy of Various galleries and Kerim Aytac all rights reserved

Dennis Hopper at The Royal Academy until  October 19

Danny Lyon – The Bikeriders at Atlas Gallery until August 16th

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