Bryan Helm: Immortalizing Moto Culture

Rahoul Ghose, NYC MOTORCYCLIST, October 20, 2020

We first approached Bryan Helm about being a guest speaker at Motos and Photos : NYC well over a year ago, but schedules never meshed. Helm has a busy shooting schedule with both motorcycle events and advertising shoots year-round. This year, with COVID still dominating the country, a 2020/21 Motos and Photos : NYC series is still, realistically, on the shelf. However, continuing our tradition of spotlighting the incredible moto photographers, artists and filmmakers NYC has in abundance, we are happy to feature this fellow Canuck shooter now on NYC Motorcyclist … a virtual #motosandphotosnyc, if you will.

To me these people might live on the edge of existence, more extreme lives than others, but they also have more feeling and more reality about them.

Danny Lyon, Photographer and author of The Bikeriders

To view Bryan Helm's moto and vintage race images is to get a rare, insider’s look into motorcycle counterculture, its embrace of gasoline-sparked, two-wheeled machines, and the ties that bind a timeless brotherhood together.

The original Indian Larry crew with Paul Cox and Keino Sasaki; Billy Lane and his Sons of Speed vintage trackers; and the fearless souls who battle through The Race of Gentlemen ... just a few of the subjects immortalized through Helm's documentary lens over the past two decades.

His style and philosophy are not unlike the legendary documentary photographer from Queens, Danny Lyon, who inserted himself into biker culture in Chicago in the late 1960s, capturing the mood and feel of a an oft sidelined segment of society.

“As a younger photographer in 1998 I was pretty enamored with documenting the whole motorcycle culture: badass bikes; colorful, grisly, tattooed characters; beautiful, interesting women; leather; and loud music were pretty enticing,” Helm says. “Dipping my toes in, I may have been a little trepidatious photographing everything at the time. But as the years went on, and I started making several friends and acquaintances, it really helped me gain access and more confidence. Approaching strangers, striking up a conversation, then being granted the opportunity to take some great photos was always, and still is very rewarding to me.”

The 45-year-old Brooklyn transplant was born in Singapore and found homes in Lagos, Nigeria and Jakarta, Indonesia, before his family settled in the Western Canadian city of Calgary, where he earned a BFA in Photography at the Alberta College of Art + Design (now the Alberta University of the Arts). A couple years in Toronto, Ontario, multiple trips to Sturgis, and an eventual move to Brooklyn in 2002 – after he secured an agent (and riding comrade) – saw Helm through to a fateful meeting with local motorcycle builder, artist, and stunt rider Lawrence DeSmedt, aka Indian Larry.

 

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Indian Larry, Brooklyn, NY, 2003 — Bryan Helm

It was great to be photographing such an amazing character in Brooklyn. At the time it really made me feel that maybe New York was the right decision. I have a 4’x4’ print in my apartment that always puts a smile on my face. It keeps his memory alive after his tragic passing (following) a bike crash in 2004.

Bryan Helm

"I had originally been to Sturgis (in) South Dakota in 1998 (and) I had such a great time, I decided to go back in 2003; This was the year that really accelerated me into documenting bikers,” Helm said. “I met Indian Larry outside the Camel Roadhouse.”

At the time, Helm was pairing up cool bikers and unique characters with a lot of the local bartenders to photograph.

“I liked the juxtaposition, and the introduction between the two usually made for interesting photos. (Indian Larry) was the coolest: I told him I had just recently moved to Brooklyn (and) he told me to drop by the shop and meet everyone. Couple weeks later I took him up on the offer. My apartment in Williamsburg was just a few blocks away from the North 14th shop. But of course, I would’ve come all the way from Calgary with that invite.”

Helm brought his Hasselblad large format camera and shot both portraits and some images of Indian Larry with one of his bikes.

“He had a great presence. We wandered around the shop, he introduced me to Paul Cox, and Keino Sasaki, and he talked about his current builds. Building bikes is the ultimate art form … it encompasses all the mediums: sculpture, painting, design, leather, textiles, illustration, even music with the engine purring. But it also has to be highly functional. (Indian Larry) built all his bikes meticulously, properly balanced, with powerful drive trains. The springer front ends would dampen the vibrations, and since the bikes were so symmetrical and balanced, he would be able to do all his stunts, no hands, laying back on the bike, without worry that the bike would drift right or left.

“It was great to be photographing such an amazing character in Brooklyn. At the time it really made me feel that maybe New York was the right decision. I have a 4’x4’ print in my apartment that always puts a smile on my face. It keeps his memory alive after his tragic passing (following) a bike crash in 2004.”

Paul Cox has also become a good friend over the years, Helm says, referencing a later image from 2010 of the now Port Jervis, NY-based motorcycle builder, leather craftsman, metalsmith, knife maker and inventor.

“It’s always great to see the projects he’s working on (as) he’s a master craftsman/builder in so many disciplines. Paul had just completed his bike ‘Bone Crusher’ and was delivering it to the city. I hopped in a Northside car service and was photographing out the window. Paul mugged for the camera for a split second over the Williamsburg bridge and I got the shot. It definitely made the driver’s day too.”

Shades of Lyon again …

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Paul Cox over Brooklyn NY, 2010 — Bryan Helm

Paul had just completed his bike ‘Bone Crusher’ and was delivering it to the city. I hopped in a Northside car service and was photographing out the window. Paul mugged for the camera for a split second over the Williamsburg bridge and I got the shot. It definitely made the driver’s day too.

Bryan Helm

 

Helm has a penchant for capturing rolling motion in his images. Looking at his vast collection of vintage-styled images from Billy Lane’s Sons of Speed – an annual Florida-based motorcycle race inspired by early 20th-century board-track racing – tack sharp riders are complimented by the panning motion of skinny wheels in timeless rotation.

“I’ve always shot the race work with a little more movement and pan,” Helm says. “I feel an image is strongest when the viewer really notices the speed. You don’t want to take away any of the organic movement and strip it of its essence by freezing the action too much. If you can’t tell if the bike is parked or racing, since the spokes are tack sharp, is it the best rendition of what you just saw?”

On track days, Helm use two bodies, a Canon 1DX Mark II and a Canon 5DS, together with three go-to lenses: a 70-200mm F2.8L , 24-80mm 2.8L and a 16-35 2.8L.

“I’m usually granted pretty good track access, so I don’t need to go with any longer lenses. These days it’s 85 per cent digital. I come from a color and black and white printing background, so I usually emulate looks I’ve printed in the past. There are definitely some things you can’t get the same in post as in the darkroom … color bleeds, fogging highlights, and some split tones. (But) for my fine art shows we make sized digital negatives and contact print them on fiber base paper, which then gets processed in ‘the soup’ i.e. chemistry. This process enables me to come full circle back to the darkroom days.”

Many of Helm’s images are also ‘aged’ … sepia tints giving a timeless feel to photos of modern-day historical re-enactment events like Sons of Speed or TROG.

“I usually put a warm tone platinum, or lith look to my work through Photoshop. Capture One also has some looks that I’ve tweaked and made more to my liking. There’s lots of great assets out there these days for photographers. I think you just need to find what works best for your workflow and style. It all comes down to what’s the best for what you’re trying to say.”

His Billy Lane head-on tracker race image – eyes staring right through the camera beneath vintage goggles, bike angled into a turn – can only be described as ‘iconic’ and ‘epic’.

“Billy is always game to shoot some photos … he knows getting strong imagery out into the world only helps his Sons of Speed event. We got to the dirt track at the Full Throttle in Sturgis shortly after sunrise. He had a few bikes there and his period correct helmet and goggles. So, we got to work shooting on the banked track utilizing the morning light. This image was eventually used for the Sons of Speed poster and has been in several awards annuals.”

Though Helm has never raced motorcycles himself, he does have a background in sports, competing in baseball, football and track in his youth. Today finds him on the ski hill, snowboarding in the winter months and downhill mountain biking in the warmer seasons … but as a participant rather than a photographer.

“I prefer to cover sporting events that require gasoline,” he says. “I have the utmost respect for the racers, flat trackers, hooligans, board trackers, drag racers … they put a lot on the line. Even the process of getting all the bikes and crew to the track and maintaining the machines is quite the undertaking, let alone the injuries and racing dangers. I think the fans take this for granted a lot of the time. I haven’t raced myself, but I’d like to try racing an old Knucklehead with spiked tires on ice. Maybe it’s the ‘Canuck’ in me. I do love the speed though. I’ve often found myself trying to see how fast the bike will go with a full load, on a tar snaked laden Route 66 or through barren side roads in Utah. Probably not the smartest, but I’m the only one that knows anyway. Of course, it’s not a race if there’s only one bike though.”

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Billy Lane 1911 board tracker, Sturgis SD, 2017 — Bryan Helm

Billy is always game to shoot some photos … he knows getting strong imagery out into the world only helps his Sons of Speed event. We got to the dirt track at the Full Throttle in Sturgis shortly after sunrise. He had a few bikes there and his period correct helmet and goggles. So, we got to work shooting on the banked track utilizing the morning light. This image was eventually used for the Sons of Speed poster and has been in several awards annuals.

Bryan Helm

In addition to Chopper Inc.’s Billy Lane, Helm continues to work with Paul Cox documenting his builds and projects, and Rhett Rotten from the Wall of Death motordrome.

“When I’m traveling cross country, I usually drop a line to specific builders in the area. Bill Dodge puts on the BC Moto Invitational at the Tennessee Motorcycles and Music Revival. He always curates a great and diverse group of builders, so I’ve met a ton of builders through there alone.”

Helm’s website and Instagram are full of interesting character portraits of notables in the moto world.

“Candid portraits are always great,” Helm says. “I’ve always smiled and introduced myself to people I’d like to photograph on the street. I find its always better to get a small rapport going with them beforehand, then they open up and tell you about where they’re from, or other interests. This can lead to more access with the person, whether they are excited to show their bike, or a new tattoo … things that would not be revealed if I just took a quick snap and walked away. I love coming away with a fun photograph but also having a background story about the person, with the bare minimum having at least a name or where they’re from. There are people I’ve been photographing on and off for 20+ years. It’s always nice to see how they’ve changed over (time).”

Great examples are writer and actor Kevin Bean’re (right) and artist Darren McKeag (left).

“I photographed (Bean’re) all over the country and even in Mexico. I had planned to work with him in Vietnam, then 2020 started ramping up.”

Over the past two decades, since moto build culture’s emergence into popular folklore, with shows like Discovery Channel’s Biker Build-Off (2002-2007) profiling the likes of Indian Larry, Keino, Paul Cox and Billy Lane, Helm has noticed a difference at events such as Sturgis.

“I always gravitated to the bikers that put on miles and have a story to tell. But there started to be more ‘weekend warriors’, which wasn’t a bad thing. I just had to separate the hero characters from the normal. Of course, it was always better ‘back in the day’. I would’ve loved to have been there in the ‘70s and ‘80s – Michael Lichter has some incredible shots from these times. I especially love the shots at Sturgis City Park, burning crotch rockets and exploding outhouses. But I’m sure he wishes he was there in the ‘40s and ‘50s.”

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The Frozen Few: The Oilers CC/MC presented The Few, The Fast, The Frozen. Man, Machines and the frozen tundra. — Bryan Helm

I have the utmost respect for the racers, flat trackers, hooligans, board trackers, drag racers … they put a lot on the line. Even the process of getting all the bikes and crew to the track and maintaining the machines is quite the undertaking, let alone the injuries and racing dangers. I think the fans take this for granted a lot of the time.

Bryan Helm

Helm’s main gig is marketing/advertising photography, shooting primarily people for clients such as Diet Coke, AT&T, and pharmaceutical companies … a “little fashion-forward advertising,” he says.

“My strong suit would be working with real people and getting them a little more animated and fired up than normal. Making them comfortable in front of the camera helps the talent in the pharma campaigns. If I can hang with outlaws and motorcycle racers, it’s not too hard to make a middle-American male get excited about taking a drug to quit smoking. Style wise I have several lighting techniques and looks in the arsenal … I just match to the creative director or client’s liking or final vision. Sometimes I can draw from the motorcycle grittiness and documentary style for certain other jobs, which is always nice.”

While initially a ‘Triumph’ guy, Helm has been a Harley aficionado for some time now … his present ride is a 2017 Dyna Lowrider S.

“I have it currently set up for traveling from shoot to shoot – hard cases, and my friend Tony lifted a windshield off a BMW adventure bike, (which) we made mounting brackets (for). The windshield worked pretty well across the country, especially through all the grasshoppers in Saskatchewan and the rain in Thunder Bay, ON. It was a nice change as I’m normally the windshield.”

Locally Helm’s travels have taken him through some amazing scenery in Pennsylvania and upstate New York … Plattsburg, Albany.

“Even my commute from Ditmas Park, Brooklyn on the BQE is amazing with the city backdrop. If you can get an hour out of the city, (there are) so many great roads and scenics. I’m planning more rides up towards Maine and Boston, and I’d sneak up to Newfoundland, but I’ll have to wait out COVID quarantines and border issues.”

What’s it like being a Canadian photographer working in the States?

“Today’s times have obviously been pretty wacky,” Helm says. “Being Canadian hasn’t really changed my photographic outlook too much in the US, (but) it does grant me the out saying ‘I’m Canadian’ when politics comes up in conversation. I just try to be the stereotypical ‘nice, polite’ Canadian and go about my business looking for new adventures. I’ve learned the hard way that life is short, and you really should live every day to the fullest and do some cool shit.”

Words to live by …

 
 
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Jason Elam, Lortta Lynn’s Ranch, Hurricane Mills, Tennessee, 2017 — Bryan Helm

Photographed during the Tennessee Motorcycles and Music Revival. Shot on a dirt 'hillbilly' racing track. Sun streaming in, dirt, Shovelhead and Southern style ... What else do you need?

Bryan Helm

You can connect with Bryan Helm online at bryanhelm.com or on Instagram @bryanhelm. Helm currently has an exhibit at Indian Larry Motorcycles in Williamsburg – 70 N 15th St, Brooklyn, NY – titled Indian Larry Photographs, Brooklyn 2003.

And often you will find him shooting at local moto events like the The Race of Gentlemen, Indian Larry's annual Grease Monkey Block Party, Aiden's Ride and the recent inaugural Brooklyn Biketoberfest. Hopefully, soon, you'll see him live and on stage at a Motos and Photos : NYC event.

 

14 Comments

  1. Rhett Rotten

    One of our very favorite photojournalists in the world, @bryanhelm was recently featured in @nyc_motorcyclist. Head over and check out the article, but more importantly check out Bryan's amazing work @helmgallery.

  2. Darren McKeag

    Bryan is an amazing human, photographer and friend ... his art is so rad to look at!!! Well deserved my friend.

  3. Dirty Jones

    Partied with Bryan a couple of years at Tennessee Motorcycles and Music Revival. He is quite personable, and open for friendly conversation. Me being 70 yo, and a lifetime biker, and old school, I appreciate his detail. I truly hope to run into him again some day.

  4. @zeegull

    🤘🤘👏👏👏

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