Perusing the selection at the bookstore, nothing’s really different or odd about it. A smallish green square book with a yellowed old color photo of some drunk bikers back in the day. You see shots like that in the online LIFE archive and Max Schaaf’s blog all the time. Walking closer, you read the hand-written title Band of Bikers in the lower left corner of the photo’s border. Cool, a new biker book! Just above the title, that’s when, wait. Is that? Is he? Yep, sure is. That fella’s wearing a shiny G-string right there.
Scott Zieher found a file box filled with photos in the garbage room floor of his Manhattan apartment building in 1999. Another tenant had died and the remains of dead man’s estate had been discarded for trash. Those photos are now collected in powerHouse Books’ Band of Bikers, an incredibly intimate collection of images documenting the life of a gay biker during 3 weekends in the summer months of 1972.
While we’ve heard stories of gay biker gangs and the birth of the macho leather fetish, we’ve never met anyone who was either involved in a gay bike gang or who directly knew someone who was. For that matter, we still don’t. There was no reference for what the dead man looked like or what his name was. None of the photos have names attached.
What we’re left with is multi-faceted visual narrative at it’s barest and most approachable. The men and events are, to passing outsiders, no different than other biker gangs of the time. The clothing, patches and posturing are virtually identical. The majority of photos give nothing away to the sexual subtext of this group.
The general normalcy of the shots is what reveals the most poignant element of the series, and that’s the comradery that all bikers share. Running to the store for food and booze. Cooking eggs for everyone’s breakfast or taking turns over the stove for dinner. Chapter meetings and awards. Riding out en mass with their buddies. Keeping the fire going. Drinking beer, chain smoking and goofing off on their bikes.
Sure, doing coke off another man’s belt buckle or posing on a Guzzi Ambassador in nothing but a leather G-string, boots and cap may not have been the norm at the time for the Hell’s Angels or Outlaws, but it definitely was for the Unicorns, Druids, Vikings and Praetorians.
As biker books go, Band of Bikers is ultimately no equal to Danny Lyon’s monumental photo essay, The Bikeriders. Zieher’s found photos are simply the remnants of a guy taking snaps with his Kodachrome during some weekend trips in 1972 with his buddies and their lovers who all happen to be in gay biker gangs. There is no evidence of an aesthetic eye or a master printer here. That said, Band of Bikers gives a startlingly frank glimpse into a subset within a sub-culture that was likely never witnessed by outsiders. And for that, it absolutely belongs on the shelf.