Behind Danny Lyon’s Celebrated Photos That Inspired the New Film ‘The Bikeriders’

Written and directed by Jeff Nichols, the movie is based on Lyon's 1968 photo book.

Austin Butler as Benny in The Bikeriders (2024). Photo: Kyle Kaplan/Focus Features. © 2024 Focus Features, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

The new film The Bikeriders (2024) brings us into the ranks of a motorcycle gang dubbed the Vandals, whose members are navigating the true cost of freedom and rebellion. At its heart is Benny (played by Austin Butler), the group’s newest recruit, who is drawn in by its charismatic founder and leader, Johnny Davis (Tom Hardy). But the Vandals’ increasing violence eventually alienates Benny, testing both his loyalty to the club and his marriage to Kathy (Jodie Comer).

Uniquely for a motion picture, the movie was adapted by director Jeff Nichols from a series of photos shot by Danny Lyon from 1963 to 1967. Then a budding photographer, Lyon spent years riding with the Chicago arm of the Outlaws Motorcycle Club, documenting their adventures and relationships in audio recordings and images that made their way into a book.

A still from the film The Bikeriders, showing a man and woman against a nocturnal city scene

Jodie Comer as Kathy and Austin Butler as Benny in The Bikeriders (2024). Photo: Kyle Kaplan/Focus Features © 2024 Focus Features, LLC. All RIghts Reserved.

The Bikeriders (1968) captured Lyon’s gritty, somewhat romantic view of life in the motorcycle club, depicted in high-contrast black-and-white photographs. Bookending the volume are recollections by its members, including the real-life Benny, Kathy, and Johnny, as well as characters like Funny Sonny, Zipco, and Cal (played in the film by Norman Reedus, Michael Shannon, and Boyd Holbrook respectively).  

“You had all of the details and you even had some of the greatest lines written for you in this book,” Nichols said about his adaptation. “I just needed a structure I could hang them all on.” 

While the movie gives a fictional spin to real-life events, Lyon’s book already boasts actual drama. “Being an Outlaw,” Lyon recalled in his new memoir, “was exciting enough.” Here’s the story behind the celebrated photo series that inspired The Bikeriders. 


How did Lyon find his subjects? 


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The photographer’s earliest image of bike riders was incidental. In 1963, while in a car with his friend Skip on their way to a motorcycle race in Wisconsin, he eyed a group of riders ahead of them, speeding across a bridge over a railroad. He grabbed his Nikon F, centered the five bikes in frame, and hit the shutter. The resulting photo would eventually grace the cover of The Bikeriders. 

“I made the picture through the front window of the moving car, and I would go on to make some of my most successful pictures from moving vehicles,” he wrote in his memoir, This Is My Life I’m Talking About (2024). “Motion excites me.” 

Two men sitting in the foreground of a demonstration, one of them waving an American flag

Danny Lyon (with flag) and Mark di Suvero (foreground, right) at a rally in Washington, D.C., 1967. Photo: Leif Skoogfors/Corbis via Getty Images.

Inspired by the “absolute realism” of Walker Evans, Lyon earned his stripes photographing civil rights demonstrations as a staff photographer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. At the same time, motorcycle culture enraptured him: he bought his first bike, a Triumph TR6, at age 19 and was a regular attendee of races and field meets.  

Around 1965, he made contact with the Chicago Outlaws via his mechanic, Jack, who was a member. Lyon first met the gang at a diner on a Friday night, including members Kathy, Cal, and Andy, who insisted on posing for a number of pictures. He immediately fell in with them: “I had found my subject.” 


He’s not the first to find a subject in a motorcycle club, though. 

Definitely not. As early as 1953, the movie The Wild One, in which Marlon Brando played the leader of the fictional Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, had fixed in popular consciousness the image of the rough-riding rebel. Interestingly, in one of Lyon’s photos can be glimpsed Johnny’s scrapbook, which is affixed with a picture of the leather-clad Brando (the shot is recreated in the film). That same image would later be appropriated by Andy Warhol for his 1966 silkscreen Four Marlons. 

Before Lyon set out with the Outlaws, he also sought advice from Hunter S. Thompson, the gonzo journalist who had just spent a spell embedded with the Hell’s Angels. Thompson, whose time with the gang would eventually be documented in an unsparing 1967 book, wrote Lyon: “Dear Danny, I think you should get the hell out of that club unless it’s necessary for photo action.”  

Lyon joined the club instead, becoming a full-fledged member from 1965 to 1966. But he also saw photo action. 


So, what of the photographs themselves? 

A black and white photo of a man's face reflected in the small rearview mirror of a motorcycle

Danny Lyon, USA. Elkhorn, Wisconsin. 1966. Cal. (1966). © Danny Lyon/Magnum Photos.

Lyon’s Bikeriders series was shot during the Outlaws’ runs across the Midwest. The thrill of the open road is apparent—as seen in the kineticism of Crossing the Ohio River, Louisville (1966)—as is the camaraderie that binds its members. Intimate moments are scattered throughout, from Big Barbara’s meditative stance by a jukebox to Kathy taking a cigarette break in a bathroom. 

“I was deep into a subject: stunning-looking young men and women, all in black leather, on Harley Davidsons, outlaws,” Lyon wrote of his time with the club. “Every roll produced something great.”


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The photographs debuted in 1966 at Lyon’s first museum showing at the Art Institute of Chicago, where they were displayed in a small inside room. Curator Hugh Edwards (to whom The Bikeriders was dedicated) wrote in a letter to Lyon: “This time, you have gone farther on and present the exciting subject without getting between it and the camera… In [these pictures] you evoke and provoke emotions and are modest about your own self-expression.” 

Lyon brought a group of about 25 Outlaws to the exhibition. “Most of them had never been downtown,” he recalled. “Many were dressed as if they were going to church.” 


What happened after Lyon’s Bikeriders project? 

A book titled The Bikeriders, with a black-and-white image of bikers riding on a road

Danny Lyon, The Bikeriders (2014). Courtesy of Aperture.

First, Lyon had to know when to be done with the project. He approached Edwards, who had mentored the photographer since he was an undergrad at University of Chicago, with the question, “When am I done?” As Lyon recalled, “Edwards’s answer… was, ‘Oh, I suppose when you have covered every aspect of it.’ And I answered, ‘Then I am done.'” 

He had also become disillusioned by the club’s growing violence and paranoia, as new members arrived with new tensions. “I was kind of horrified by the end,” he said. “By then, I had realized that some of these guys were not so romantic after all.”

The Bikeriders was published in 1968, priced at $2.95 in soft cover and $5.95 in hardcover. However low its price tag, the book would be remaindered, before later being republished at least four times. Today, a first edition of the book could cost you upwards of $1,000. The volume also purportedly served as inspiration for the 1969 film Easy Rider; Bikeriders director Nichols called it “the coolest book I’d ever come across.”

A still from the film The Bikeriders showing two men sitting on a grassy patch beside motorcycles

Tom Hardy as Johnny and Austin Butler as Benny in The Bikeriders (2024). Photo: Kyle Kaplan/Focus Features © 2024 Focus Features, LLC. All RIghts Reserved.

While Lyon would continue to photograph social activist movements in the following decades, it’s his images of riders that endure as potent hallmarks of a vanished time, shot as they are with urgency and intimacy. Lyon said he’s heard now and then from the children of his subjects, many of them long deceased, “often asking about parents that I knew and they didn’t.” 

“They were outsiders and I was drawn to outsiders,” he said of the Outlaws. “From my involvement in the civil rights struggle, I knew the best way to get good pictures was to get involved. I was a participant who also happened to be a photographer.” 

This Is My Life I’m Talking About by Danny Lyon is now available on Damiani.

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