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Martin Dixon: Leica Biker

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

The tight, tough, intimidating world of New York City's black motorcycle clubs is "a subculture within a subculture," notes 36-year-old commercial photographer Martin Dixon, himself no slouch when it comes to doing hard miles on a Yamaha or a Harley.

In fact, it was a taking-care-of-business trip to the deep south ten years ago – a place where even today a young black man all by himself on a motorcycle might not choose to go – that won Dixon acceptance, and more important, access to this closed, macho fraternity.

A fraction of Dixon's photographic biker archive is contained in his superb book, Brooklyn Kings: New York City's Black Bikers (powerHouse Books, 143pp, $50). It is a gritty, personal, sometimes bizarre, and often beautiful look at the men – and women – who people, what to many may seem, a dark, forbidding and certainly dangerous place.

But, in fact, a close read of both the pictures and the text – especially an excellent interview with Dixon by Village Voice staffer and friend Greg Tate – reveals that, for every genuine hard case or outlaw, there are an equal number of everyday people who simply work for a living, have families, and love the open road.

They just don't take any crap from anyone.

"They want to blaze their own trail, away from the mainstream," Dixon told me. "This is the closest you can get to an urban ranch," albeit, he notes, with "no fences or cows." (There sure as hell weren't any cows in Brooklyn the last time I was there.)

Dixon's book – beautifully printed and designed so that the good-looking text does not intrude on the layout – also tells the story of how a documentary project like this happens. Often, the best projects start themselves.

"I started riding with the Brooklyn Imperials for half a year before I ever pulled out a camera," Dixon notes in his book. Owning a bike and playing harmonica at a local club earned him an invite to the Imperials' clubhouse and their Wednesday night fish fries. "After coming in a few times to look around, I decided this would make a good subject to photograph. I slowly introduced my camera; I'd have it out, but not necessarily popping pictures. Eventually, I started feeling out who wouldn't mind me taking a photo and who would."

Subsequent weeks, he would return to the clubhouse with 5x7s and Polaroids. He would occasionally take and sell a Polaroid for "five bucks or whatever."

"That's when I became 'Picture Man.'"

Eventually, Picture Man knew he had a book in progress and began to photograph other black biker clubs. "I was never given boundaries," Dixon told Tate, but once a biker approached him "very older-brother-to-younger brother," and said: "I know you're taking photographs. I dig what you're doing. But you should know that some of the people in this room, ahh, do certain things for a living and would have no qualms about hurting you for what you're doing."

The "older brother" wouldn't tell Dixon who these guys were – or even whether they were in the club that night. All he would say was: "Be careful where you point."

There were times early on when they thought he was an undercover cop – though what fool working undercover would ever do so with a Nikon and a Polaroid I'm hard pressed to imagine. Finally, persistence, his dues as a biker himself, and the fact that he had a cousin Spydar who was "a hardcore lifer from a club out in Queens," gave Dixon his ticket in, and he rarely left.

Still, he didn't shoot everything he saw. Like the time at one club "when this girl had taunted this Puerto Rican guy one too many times. He just reached back and pulled out a black nine millimeter, cocked it, laid it on his knees and just looked at her like, 'You should just take a _____ walk...'"

The tension – and the potential picture – were terrific. Dixon was only five feet away, but held his own fire.

"Because even if you know guys in the club and think they're going to protect you if you do something wrong, they'll support their brothers over you. It'll be like, 'Hey man, you deserve a kick in the ass, hope you can fight. I won't join in, gang [up] on you, I'll just watch.'"

But what Dixon did get is amazing. He is clearly pleased to have his biker pictures compared with those of Robert Frank in his seminal book, The Americans. And well Dixon's pictures should be compared.

He pays homage, too, to other photographers whose work influenced him: Danny Lyon, Sebatiao Selgado, Josef Koudelka, and Roy DeCarava, under whom he studied. He also cites Joel-Peter Witkin for the sheer hairy-assed oddness of his photo tableaux that often picture naked freaks, and body parts from cadavers.

Almost exclusively, the work in this book is capture-the-moment, virtually all done by available light on Tri-X, mostly with Leicas. If there is an inevitable amount of posturing for the camera (that is, after all, what many of these folks are about), there also are some beautifully caught moments: A biker holding a bagged beer in one hand, stroking the head of a young boy with the other. The boy, a miniature version of the biker, down to the leather vest and do-rag, looks up to the biker with a beautiful tenderness.

In another, a member of the Kamikaze Motorcycle club, viewed from the rear, bends over to chat with a cop in his squad car. A nice enough shot, save for the python the biker is holding and which seems to be slithering out from under the man's vest, past his ring of keys.

A real python? Who knows? The book doesn't say.

What matters is that Dixon was there and made the shot.

Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Down East Maine/A World Apart (Down East Books). He can be reached at fvanriper@aol.com.

© 2001 Martin Dixon
A member of the Kamikaze Motorcycle club, holding a python that seems to slither out from under his vest, bends to chat with a cop in his squad car.

© 2001 Martin Dixon
"They want to blaze their own trail, away from the mainstream," Dixon said of the bikers. "This is the closest you can get to an urban ranch."

© 2001 Martin Dixon
Dixon rode with the Brooklyn Imperials for half a year before he pulled out a camera. He eventually sensed who would and wouldn't mind being photographed.

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The Print Lab Around Your Neck

Wedding War Stories

The Eyes of History

Digital Master of a Barren Beauty