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Sons of Anarchy Meets Mad Men in Danny Lyon's Classic Biker Portraits

Danny Lyon: Cal, Elkhorn, Wisconsin (1968)
Danny Lyon: Cal, Elkhorn, Wisconsin (1968)
Courtesy of the artist and Duncan Miller Gallery

"Danny Lyon: The Bikeriders" at Duncan Miller Gallery's Bergamot Station location is one of the most engaging -- and surprising -- photography shows of the past year. Featuring 50 prints from Lyon's landmark 1968 book of the same name, "The Bikeriders" documents four years, 1963-67, during which the artist embedded himself in the daily life of the Chicago Outlaws motorcycle gang.

Armed with a Triumph, a Nikon, and a unique dual perspective as both participant and observer, Lyon was able to access and portray a disarmingly intimate, familiar, and diverse subculture full of family picnics, independent women, and openly gay men -- a sweet brand of Americana that infuses a little Norman Rockwell into its prescient, pre-Easy Rider nostalgia.

Though the many classic portrait shots do a lot to convey the public hallmarks of the subculture (fashion, style, attitude) as well as the eclectic private humanity of individual club members, there are loads of more complex images with compositional sophistication and an avant-garde sensibility.

Chief among these is Cal, Elkhorn, Wisconsin, which shows a rider's face reflected in his bike's rear-view mirror. Its chopped-up, receding focal planes and the physical and allegorical layering expressed in these choices, speaks to a level of introspection and reflection (pun intended) that's as unexpected in depictions of biker gang culture as the site of children playing in a park, a gathering in a field of daisies, two dudes in biker cuts fully making out, or a woman piloting her own hog -- all of which, along with further adventures in domestic and bucolic romance, happen in other photographs from this unforgettable show.

"Danny Lyon: The Bikeriders" is on view now through Jan. 12.

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