JTF (just the facts): Self published in 2016 (here). Hand stitched/glued binding, in a cardboard sleeve, 166 pages, with 66 black and white photographs, 6 contact sheets, and 4 illustrations. Includes texts and quotes from Hunter S. Thompson, Mikey Nineohseven, Keith Pavia, and the artist. The package also includes a limited edition archival inkjet print (one of 5 images, each in an edition of 5) and a newspaper (in an edition of 500). In an overall edition of 25. (Cover and spread shots below.)
Comments/Context: While it is often hard for a critic to resist the temptation to be overly measured and evenhanded, let’s start out this review with a clear, unequivocal statement – Julie Glassberg’s Bike Kill is the best new photobook I’ve seen so far this year. And while it should rack up a closet full of meaningless awards, shortlists, and mentions for the best of 2016, it probably won’t because it is self published, apparently already sold out, and in too small an edition (25) to be widely discovered. Which is likely just fine from Glassberg’s perspective, as the hand-crafted guerilla spirit of this book seems deliberately at odds with the commercial hustle of the modern photobook world.
Bike Kill follows the time-worn photographic tradition of an artist embedding him/herself in an underground subculture of marginalized outsiders and misfits. In this case, Glassberg spent three years with the Black Label Bike Club in Brooklyn, an offshoot of an “outlaw” bicycle (not motorcycle) club started in Minneapolis in the early 1990s. Its members revel in the improvisational DIY hacking of bicycles, particularly in the creation of tall bikes that totter along on frames two or three times as high as a normal two wheeler. It is a culture of pared down modification and extension, of welded steel and oversized tires, of bikes that include surfboards, painted shark teeth, and other carnival clown-like features. And each year, the group gets together for a one day festival/community party (the Bike Kill) that includes jousting with long PVC plumbing pipe lances and other costumed (and on the edge of dangerous) competitions, races, and performances.
Back in the early 1960s, some 50 years ago now, Danny Lyon set the standard for this kind of project with his images of the Chicago Outlaws Motorcycle Club and the subsequent landmark photobook The Bikeriders. Part of the reason that book was so powerful and influential is that those photographs found their way to genuine human authenticity – we didn’t just see bikers and beer drinking and cruising, but we saw people, and dug deeply into their collective spirit, their choices, and their emotions.
Glassberg’s Bike Kill does much the same some five decades later, but uncovers a rebel instinct rooted in distinctly 21st century cultural realities. Of course, there are crowds of young people, with beards and tattoos, wearing eccentric fashions and living with roommates in dingy crashpads and crowded apartments full of scrounged couches – these things never change. But the underlying reasons for embracing this offbeat bike culture are new – a dissatisfaction with increasing homogeneity, a desire to reconnect with actual people instead of technology, and an urge to replace mindless consumption with something real (and free). Stir in a few drinks, some destructive behavior, a dose of acid or two, and some intelligent creativity and out pops something surprisingly vibrant and full of energetic, jolting life, a gender-balanced community that feels equal parts earnest Fight Club rebellion and child-like sparkle-eyed fun.
Glassberg’s black and white photographs document this world with gritty tenderness. Craziness takes center stage at events and parties, often amid a Where the Wild Things Are style rumpus. Hedonistic passions run high and drunken destruction often ensues (shooting bb guns inside will do that), but Glassberg’s pictures soften the inherent harshness of such scenes, focusing on contagious inclusive joy rather than distracted debauchery. Tangles of bikes and street art mix to populate some of the images with dense patterns, while others follow the camaraderie of club members during shared meals, camping trips, beach days, cookouts, and daredevil cliff jumping into cool rivers. Her photographs center on the relationships of friends, roommates, and couples, and on the power of laughter-filled community amid the dark squalor, where acceptance of quirks, eccentricities, and skewed intelligence seems to be the norm rather than the exception. Blurs and burnished dark shadows are both used effectively by Glassberg, reminding us of the fleeting nature of these improbable moments.
Glassberg’s hand built book seems elementally true to the nature of her subject. Stitched, glued, and bookended with rubbery (neoprene?) covers, the photobook uses grainy full bleed images to generate a sense of intimacy, and type-written and hand scrawled commentaries are put on flimsy paper, along with logos and other illustrations, almost like a zine. Contact sheets are included at the start to give us a feel of the flow of this life, underlining (or grease penciling as it were) that these are ongoing experiences rather than highlight reel instances.
The images move back and forth between rowdy parties and crowded events and more introspective moments, where club members build more personal connections. This edit and sequencing feels loose, like a stream of consciousness narrative that wanders among interwoven memories and recollections. Perhaps what is so surprising is just how many strong single images there are amid this flow – this is a decently thick photobook with almost no photographic filler.
So many photobooks today feel mannered, but Bike Kill finds just the right integration of excellent photography and thoughtful design, seeming to unlock something effortless and obvious – as a unified whole, it feels right, and complete, and quietly wonderful. It simmers with the funky youthful freedom found in Ken Schles’ 1980s East Village valentine Invisible City, but gives that mood a distinctly updated feel, where the ingredients of punk, and grunge, and artisanal hipster nerdiness come together. Without getting too breathless, this is the kind of breakout photobook that keeps us all shuffling through small press tables and scouring up unknown self published efforts – once in a while, we come across one that shines like a diamond, and its brightness seems to make it stand out from a mile away.
Collector’s POV: Julie Glassberg is represented by Le 247 (here) and Galerie Jean-Denis Walter (here). Glassberg’s work has no secondary market history so gallery retail is likely the best option for those collectors interested in following up.