"Michael Lichter is arguably one of the greatest motorcycle photographers in the world today. He is, without a doubt, the man most responsible for documenting the anthropology of motorcycle culture."
By Nicoll Stapleton
Lichter, who has dabbled in many things including drumming in a jazz band, began concentrating on photography as a career in 1977, achieving great commercial success as well as artistic acclaim in notable exhibits.
He chose to focus on the commercial aspect of photography, forgoing the art scene entirely for a time, though recently he has chosen to show his motorcycle themed work in exhibits.
In 1979, Lichter began as a photographer for Easyriders magazine, work for which he became famous. In 1981 he was assigned to cover an event in Sturgis, South Dakota, which he had attended twice previously. The rest, as they say, is history… not only the history of Michael Lichter, but the history of Sturgis itself. His book “Sturgis,” can be viewed not only as a colorful read and a terrific photo book, but also as a perceptive cultural and historic reference. It illustrates how this event has grown and changed over the years and gives tremendous insight into Lichter’s love of biker culture.
Even more impressive than his precise artistic skill, his anthropologist’s point of view, or the sensitivity, energy, and subtle wit ever present in his pictures, is Michael Lichter himself. His all encompassing obsession with bikes and bikers is imparted in a friendly, disarming demeanor by one of the most gracious gentlemen imaginable. He is well spoken, kind, and very highly regarded by those who know him.
Inside “Art on Two Wheels”, the exhibit he designed for the Cherry Creek Arts Festival, Lichter acted as a tour guide, explaining the motorcycles, along with the accompanying photographs and paintings, in reverent detail. He lovingly imparted each bike’s historic significance and artistic value to a completely enthralled audience who responded to his extreme enthusiasm for the machines in kind. He then expanded upon his overwhelming fascination with motorcycles for Quick Throttle Magazine.
How old were you when motorcycles first caught your attention?
“When I first really noticed motorcycles was in the film “Easy Rider” in 1969. I saw it when it first came out. I loved it. I did not come out of the movie thinking ‘Oh, I’m going to get my own bike.’ I just loved it.
“A number of years later I read “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.” I read the book, loved the book. And then, I never really put it together until years later, this was in 1976 when I read the book, less than a year later I was riding my own Harley that I purchased in San Francisco and rode back to Denver, my 1971 Shovel Head.
How many bikes do you own?
“I own two bikes, but one would be fine. I have one bike that works. The other bike is being rebuilt now by Billy Lane into a bobber style motorcycle. The ‘71 that I have owned for 25 years or more now is being rebuilt into a bobber.
What is it about motorcycles that inspire you?
“I don’t know if there is anything in particular that inspires me about bikes, I just love motorcycles and motorcycling. It is my passion. I have done it for so many years. I like looking at them, I like talking about them, I like thinking about them, I photograph the bikes in the studio, I photograph bikers in location, I travel to do it, and it is a very, very big part of my life. I am really just passionate about the whole thing. It is my life in so many ways. It is how I make a living. I love what I do, so it is hard to call it work, but I do get paid for doing what I enjoy.
You have been more responsible for documenting the biker lifestyle than anyone. What draws you to it?
“I love to see people doing what they love to do. People are enjoying it, they are being themselves. Certainly there are aspects of motorcycling and the biker culture where there is a lot of performance involved and so much of it, at that time especially, was people just doing what they loved to do. Why did they burn rubber?... Because they felt like it. Why did they build a beautiful bike?... It was inside them, they had to let it out. I like to be part of that, to document it.
How did the Art on Two Wheels Exhibit come about?
The Art on Two Wheels Exhibit came about through the Cherry Creek Arts Festival and the involvement of Segal Fine Art. A year and a half ago, in early 2003, they wanted to do a special exhibit. They wanted to get some more attention, have some diversity. They thought by showing off motorcycles, they are so popular, especially with Harley’s 100th going on, that would be a good thing. They used it as an opportunity to set up this air conditioned tent. If it was hot, people would be attracted to coming in, maybe.
They charged $2 admission. All the proceeds went to an art in the schools program. They got funding for the tent through other sources, but all the money from admission went to art in the schools.
They contacted Segal Fine Art, who had the license for Harley-Davidson at the time. They represent David Uhl, Scott Jacobs, and Tom Fritz. Because of my knowledge along with the bikes they brought me in to help with the bikes and I would exhibit my photography as well last year.
It seemed like it was a one shot deal. They did contact us this year. Segal Fine Art does not have the Harley license anymore but they do work with David Mann, who I had already planned some things with, including a big show at the Journey Museum, a retrospective of David’s work. So we have all of the originals here. There are 45 of them and we thought it would be a good balance to have some of my work. I tried to put some of my older work up, David’s work, and the motorcycles in here.
There are 15 bikes. I tried to include bikes that could have come out of a David Mann painting or some of my earlier work in particular. We started off with an Indian Flat Tracker and a WLA Flathead Military motorcycle, Harley-Davidson, and those are the roots of all this custom motorcycling. It lead from there through the ‘60s, mostly choppers. It goes from bobbers into choppers and into contemporary bikes.
Now it has come a full circle so bikes are being built now that are the old style. It has come full circle. There is this resurgence in popularity of hand crafting, not just molding on and buying parts out of a catalog, truly bending metal, cutting, and doing it yourself. I think we are going to see more of that.
You often take pictures as you ride a motorcycle. You have sat on the back of moving cars to get a shot, and stood high above ground on a construction lift…
Anyway I can do it, yeah!
What is the greatest extent you have ever gone in order to get a shot?
I have climbed off of all sorts of silly things, and hung off all sorts of things… helicopters and planes, trucks, and even the lift gates off the back of trucks where I have been four inches off of the ground. Really, anything goes.
It is getting harder, because you know the police want to stop me. They are telling me that it’s illegal anymore. That’s my livelihood, you know?
I got stopped in the Redwoods of California two weeks ago. This cop was really pissed off. The guy was like, how could I dare? I said to my wife, “I couldn’t believe they did this.” She said “Why, because you are doing something really stupid like you always do?” I said, “Well, that’s kind of true, I guess,’” (he laughs.) It’s what I’m used to doing.
You obviously have a profound love of motorcycles which translates into your work. How do people react to your photos?
A lot of times at these places where I exhibit my work, I enjoy walking around and listening to people talk about them. A lot of people relate to my work because they see themselves in it. They can imagine themselves.
There is a photograph called “The Journey” of a lone biker going down towards the sunset on a hill on a winding road. It is actually Iron Mountain Road in the Black Hills. I see people look at that going “Oh, that could be me.”
Or, there is a photo called “Storm Rider,” a torrential downpour rainstorm with this one biker coming through this, and I have watched people and they go grab their girlfriend and their friends and say, “Hey, that’s me, man, I was in that storm. That was me he took the picture of,” and they really feel that way.
It represents them, so I see that. I think there is also maybe some historical stuff for older people who look at them and they go “Wow, look what Sturgis used to look like. There aren’t any vendors on the street. You just look at it and where is everybody?” It was not as commercial as it is now, so there are things like that.
I do have text with most of my photograph. I started showing this work in 2000, so it is fairly recent. The first time I showed I did have text, just like I do now, the same as in my Sturgis book, and I was challenged. A few people said, “Why are you doing that? Doesn’t that take away from the photographs?”
I felt strongly about it so I went through with it and after that first show I was convinced that was the thing to do. They are my words. Sometimes I talk about the photographs themselves, or just thoughts, or maybe a song, something that comes to mind, but I do find that people take the time and they read it, and after they read it , the go back and look at the photograph probably for longer than they did the first time, much longer than they would have at all. Maybe they see a different way of looking at it. It just twists things a bit. They take more time, so I think that it’s worth it. People seem to enjoy looking at it and I get pleasure out of knowing that. I think that it is really neat.
What are some of the details you consider when you choose a bike for the show?
For this show, this truly was if the bike could fit in a Dave Mann painting. To pick the bikes for this particular Art on Two Wheels show the criteria was to fit in a Dave Mann painting, Or in the case of a couple of the historic bikes, that they lead to the choppers that were in it.
It did not necessarily mean that they had to be pristine. Some of them are rusty or they had a lot of dirt on them or whatever, but I think that was part of the bike and I think that was fine. So, for this show, it was very specific criteria.
I have a show in Rapid City, SD, that is bobbers, and I am very clear on what I want for that as well, because there is no dictionary you can go to look up “chopper” and “bobber” and have the real definitions, so we are making these as we go. I personally define the difference between the bobber and a chopper, because Indian Larry wanted to put a bike in The Journey, and he showed me the picture, sent it to me and I just didn’t think it fit.
Or, who else, Dave Periewitz and Eddy Trotta also had bikes that they wanted to put in, but the way they described, they were more choppers to me. They said. “Well, what’s the difference?” and I said, “Well, I think there is a difference.” To me, the difference between a bobber and a chopper is bobbers preceded choppers. It was when the foot controls were mid controls. The handlebars were in a pretty stock position. There wasn’t any rake or extension to the front end.
To me the difference in a chopper is the controls go forward, the handlebars come up, the front ends go out. It could be any combination of those things, or all of them. You have drag bars on a chopper, you have a short front end, but it was that change where all of a sudden those became options, more stylistic in a lot of ways. Bobbers were more practical, a bit more stripped down bikes.
What are some of your other interests?
Well, motorcycles and photography are my main interests as far as how I spend my time.
Michael Lichter is the author of “Sturgis, The Photography of Michael Lichter”, and the upcoming books “Choppers, Heavy Metal Art”, and “Billy Lane.” He provided photographs for Willy G. Davidson’s book “100 Years of Harley-Davidson”, and has produced two motorcycle postcard books, and countless posters and prints.