The Motorcycle as Art: ‘Classic Motorcycles: The Art of Speed’

Reader Contribution by Richard Backus
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Classic Motorcycles: The Art of Speed.Cover courtesy Motorbooks

Visually, there has never been another book like Classic Motorcycles: The Art of Speed. An examination of 50 classic motorcycles written by motorcycle author Patrick Hahn with photography by Tom Loeser, it is without question the most arresting and innovative presentation of classic motorcycles ever produced.

The motorcycle as art has a fairly short history, its path often tracked as starting with the Guggenheim Museum’s 1998 Art of the Motorcycle installation, an exhibit viewed by more than 300,000 people, the largest in the history of the museum. The exhibit’s success rested on the careful and insightful selection of machines and their display, providing an opportunity for the public at large to examine and appreciate the motorcycle for its historical, industrial and cultural impact — and as art.

Using a technique called light painting, Loeser photographed 50 vintage motorcycles from the collection of the internationally renowned Solvang Vintage Motorcycle Museum in Solvang, California. The motorcycles, ranging from a 1903 Mitchell to a 1994 Britten V1000, are all historically and culturally important, whether because of innovations of style or mechanical capacity. And while Hahn’s authoritative narratives provide essential background on each motorcycle chosen, it is Loeser’s photographs that draw the reader in.

In a conventional photographic session, particularly in a studio setting, a photographer uses light boxes and reflectors to get the desired lighting effect. There are limitations to this, particularly in terms of achieving even, uniform illumination and color rendering of the subject. For his light paintings, Loeser placed each bike in a pitch-dark room. He then illuminated the subject bikes using hand-held, battery-powered lamps employing remote phosphor technology, which provides cleaner, more color-correct illumination than LED or incandescent light. Loeser set the camera on a tripod, taking a series of eight to 15 second exposures, making multiple passes with the light across the bike to literally “paint” the bike with light. These brush strokes were repeated as necessary to capture every feature of each bike, with as many as 30 passes or strokes sometimes made. The process is time-consuming and exacting: Loeser says it took 10 to 11 hours to photograph two bikes, and that was before applying himself to the task of digitally stitching the completed images together. Given the arduous process involved in making the finished images, the book’s sub-title, The Art of Speed, seems somehow ironic.

The results of Loeser’s efforts are stunning. While the images at first appear “doctored” to some viewers, they’re not. The effect we see, the motorcycles uniformly illuminated in a way that almost lifts them off the page, is a result of the process of light painting, which enhances and broadcasts details with a clarity that’s almost eerie. One of the greatest books featuring the motorcycle as art of all time. Motorbooks; 224 pages, $50. To order a copy, visit our store. — Richard Backus

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