Canadian photographer Bryan Helm may be the most trusted outsider in the biker community. He doesn’t belong to a crew, but he does take stunning photographs of the devout subculture. Based in Brooklyn, he travels the world capturing life on the road, and its wild characters.
Helm recently spoke to TORO about capturing biker brotherhood, legendary builder Indian Larry, and respecting the Hell’s Angels.
So, please explain this biker fetish you have.
Well, let’s call it more of an enthusiasm. I’ve been photographing the biking community for about 15 years. I studied photography in Calgary and I had a biker friend who was also a photographer. He showed me some pictures from the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally and they we’re amazing — crazy people, bikes, girls and tattoos, just mayhem.
Are you a biker yourself?
I bike a little bit out west. I have some friends here in Brooklyn working on my bike right now.
You’ve done a lot a lot of commercial work in Canada and the U.S., but is biking photography what drives you artistically?
I do get quite a bit of freedom in the corporate world, but yes, biking photography is my passion. My biker stuff is grittier, more real — raw. It’s great to take photos of real people and not have to worry about layout or some company’s interests. I usually don’t make money off my biker work. It’s a passion project.
Your work is a collision of high culture and subculture. Most recently your photographs appeared in Toronto’s Contact festival. How do bikers react when they see themselves in galleries?
I get more bikers coming to my New York shows because there’s a bigger community here. Some cool characters come by. They’re really supportive. My photos of Indian Larry, a builder that recently passed away, were really popular and it was cool to hear the bikers’ memories of him.
Indian Larry has become a legend in the biking community. His portrait appears in your Motorcycle Culture and Celebrity Builders collection. How did you come to know him?
I met Larry at Sturgis in 2002. He invited me to his shop in Brooklyn that was actually four blocks from my then-new apartment. I only knew two people in New York and Larry introduced me to all of his friends. That’s how I met (builders) Keino [pictured above] and Paul Cox.
Since he passed, your portrait of Larry has become iconic. How does that feel?
It’s strange. He became a celebrity when the builder craze was taking off. But I always just thought of him as a cool guy.
He was also a biker philosopher.
Yes, he’d tell me how the custom chopper is the ultimate art form, because it encompassed all of the mediums. It’s design, metal work, fabrication, painting, sculpture, and it’s also harmonic and musical, and a bike has to function and perform.
I guess that artistry is what you’re trying to capture in your close-up photographs of motorcycle engines (pictured below).
Those photos suggest that the motorcycle is an organic form. You see the ribs, the skeletal pieces — the bike as a living thing. I also want to show power and rawness. So much time goes into creating those engines.
The builders I know have mixed emotions about those shows. Paul Cox, for example, all he wants to do is build bikes and be left alone. He’s old school and won’t ham it up for attention. Those shows are good publicity but they’re distractions.
Do your friends complain about how television portrays bikers as criminals?
Well, that’s just the “one per cent.” Truthfully, my guys do have a great respect for the Hell’s Angels because they founded biker culture. Everyone knows each other in New York, but I keep that side of biking separate from my work.
Below: A detail of a chopper engine by Helm