BORN TO BE WILD: by John Peabody
Written for the May/June, 2004 issue of Digital Pro Magazine.
Michael Lichter is at the top of the pyramid when it comes to photographing the lifestyle and rolling artwork that is today’s motorcycle culture. He’s equally at home documenting the rough-and-tumble crowd who designs, builds and rides the machines as he is working in the studio’s solitude.
Roger Goldammer has just driven some 20 straight hours to Boulder Colo., so Michael Lichter can shoot his award-winning bike, “Lowtec.” “He has a reputation as the best,” says Goldammer, whose sweeping green creation rides super low to the ground. With the recent renaissance and TV popularity of choppers on shows like the Discovery’s American Chopper and The Great Biker Build-Off, such trips to Lichter’s studio have become common.
“This guy lives and breathes motorcycles,” says Goldammer, who had a bad experience with a photographer who didn’t specialize in motorcycles. “You need to know what you’re looking at, what angles make the bike look good.”
In the industry, Lichter’s commercial work is in high demand, but he’s perhaps better known for his biker lifestyle shots, like those that appear in his book Sturgis: The Photography of Michael Lichter. In the last 25 years, Lichter has shot some 600 feature-length articles for magazines such as Easyriders and V-Twin, and his professional work has taken him all over the world. By maintaining a diverse workload and cultivating his specialty, Michael Lichter has experienced a steady increase in business and popularity.
“I never wanted to be a photographer,” says Lichter, who got his start in the late 70’s after graduating from the University of Colorado at Boulder. At the time, he was shooting cowboys and bikers for recreation, and a friend took some of his images to the editors of a local weekly newspaper. “I had something like five covers in a row, so when I did something and it wasn’t on the cover, I was super disappointed.”
Lichter submitted some photos to Easyriders, and the next year, he was covering Sturgis for the motorcycle magazine.
Five years ago, motorcycles made up 25 percent of Lichter’s work; now he estimates that motorcycles and motorcycle related commercial work make up around 75 percent of his business. In the last five years, two things happened that would transform and increase Lichter’s business while the economy was diving.
“There were several changes around 2000,” says Lichter, who noted a renewed popularity in choppers and the arrival of more capable digital equipment. “We went digital an we began to look at the motorcycle world as a possible place to generate some extra income. We started doing prints and showing our work. When we began to exhibit, we got very positive feedback.”
Although Lichter had been shooting biker events from the saddle of his own Harley since 1979, it wasn’t until recently that he started showing his biker culture shots in museums and on his Website. As a result, his commercial work has been impacted positively. Lichter describes a situation where he received a call from a client at one of his first showings: “Somebody was on a cell phone saying, ‘I love your work and I know you’re here. Can we meet with you this week? We have this big catalog, 100 pages. We’d love for you to do it.’ Is there any more direct feedback than someone calling me from a museum saying they want me to do there commercial work?
When it comes to his personal work, such as the photography in his books, Lichter doesn’t crop any of his images. He currently has another book in the works dilled with more of the images from Sturgis, which have gained him so much respect in the biker world.
“I know that I can crop a photograph and make it better,” says Lichter, “I know any photograph can be improved. Get rid of this, get rid of that. But it’s my modus operandi. There’s certain poetry that follows certain meters, and you could put words together however you want, but poets choose form. The form I’ve chosen is an un-cropped frame. I think those edge details give you clues as to the environment, the time and the history. To me, it’s more about the serendipity of life around us.”
As for the difficulties of capturing the biker culture, there’s no doubt that Lichter’s fellowship in that world allows him to get shots that other photographers might not be able to.
“I’m comfortable around bikers,” says Lichter, who still rides his ’71 Harley-Davidson. “I’ve been riding for a long time. I understand the culture and I’m part of the culture. As far as shooting the bikes, you could take a good photographer and he or she could do great photographs of a bike with a fresh eye and a different way of looking at it, but I can shoot a bike so that bikers want to see it.”
Lichter still uses the first digital camera he purchased, a Leaf Volare triple capture. “We started with the studio digital camera, a Leaf Volare Scitex system,” he says. “We bought this for shooting product in the studio; we still had to use film for shooting people, though. This was a huge decision three or four years ago, and it only can be used for some of our studio work, but we were happy with the decision. We felt it was the best way to go.”
It wasn’t long before Lichter and his assistant Steve Temple, understood the additional advantages presented by the digital equipment and they capitalized on them. “We realized we could make prints of motorcycles, so that became a little profit center for us,” says Lichter. “I had a decent commercial business, but we began to think about what we could do with my archive of prints of motorcycles, which has been my quiet specialty on the side. We needed to be able to scan images, so we got a scanner and a printer.”
The limited-edition prints were sold at museum showings and over the Internet. Recently, Lichter and Temple created a new Website devoted entirely to their motorcycle work, where customers can view limited-edition prints as well as endless Web galleries of stock photography.
“We started putting up stock photos on the Website and that area began to get a lot of traffic,” says Lichter. “Today, a wheel manufacturer called needing seven shots for a catalog. Yesterday, a goggle company called wanting 10 shots for a Website. Two weeks ago, another goggle company called and we made a sale of two photographs for an advertisement.”
For Lichter, the Web galleries have been a pleasant surprise. Not only do they offer easy access and transfer for potential customers, but they also give Lichter control over his images, which previously had been unobtainable with his work in a stock house.
In one case, a Website approached Lichter for an image of a biker. They wanted to digitally alter the image, adding a tutu to the fierce-looking biker. Lichter felt that if it was alright with the biker, a well-known figure in the biker world, then it would be fine to sell the image. Selling the image would potentially sacrifice the respect he hhas gained in the biker world, however.
Says Lichter, “With the stock house, I’ve always been cautious to send them motorcycle work because I can’t control it and I don’t want someone to put a pink tutu on some famous motorcycle builder even if I have a release. It’s not okay with me.” The biker didn’t like the idea and the image wasn’t sold.
For Lichter, the switch to digital was rough at fist, but once technology evolved, he and Temple were able to streamline their business and take full advantage of digital technology. Temple was brought onboard in 1998 and he helped an apprehensive Lichter through the digital transition. In 1999, they bought their second digital camera.
“We felt the color wasn’t as good [compared to film],” says Lichter. “We had problems with moirés and texture.”
Lichter and Temple weren’t about to abandon the technology, though, and after some work with the software, Temple was able to get the camera working well.
Says Lichter, “Eventually, the Nikon D1x came out.”
Despite early problems, Lichter believes going digital was essential. His work demands travel, whether it’s for bike shows, where he’ll shoot five bikes a day, or for catalog work, and traveling without film is a big advantage.
Says Lichter, “Traveling with film is a huge nightmare. We’re traveling with less equipment now, too.” With digital equipment, Lichter and Temple can have their work saved and backed up in a matter of seconds without having to worry about FedEx fees or X-ray scans at the airport.
For Lichter , backing up his work is perhaps one of the most important advantages of the digital shift. “I think what makes you a professional is expecting disaster, because it always comes,” he says. This means backing up the backup and being prepared for equipment failure.
“When we shoot a bike, we take pocket drives with us now, plus the drives in the three laptops. We’re totally backed up before the bike is taken out of the studio.”
The capability to view images immediately also has enabled Lichter to work with his customers more efficiently. “We can show the owners and builders what we’ve shot before they leave and, as a result of that, we sell prints to them,” says Lichter. “We used to say they’re not available because it was too hard to do with film.”
For now, Lichter has hired a third employee to help with archiving images on DVD and working on the Website. Lichter stores all his images as RAW files, and he uses more than a terabyte of storage spread over multiple machines. The goal is to remove the images, archive them and then wait until there’s better storage technology to utilize. Lichter doesn’t like the idea of storing all his images on one machine.
“My analogy is a guy who had 40,000 images that went up in smoke in the WTC. It was all stored in a safety deposit box in a bank in the WTC. Now, could there be anything safer than that? I’m sorry, but sounds a whole lot safer to me than having all your digital images on one hard drive, because the hard drive could crash, it could go up in a fire, it could get dropped.”
Adds Lichter, “Digital photography is a tool. For some people it opened up a universe of possibilities. I’m still a traditionalist. To me, a photograph is a representation of what’s out there. I use digital photography to get there- and it’s a wonderful tool for that.