The town of Boulder in Colorado presently basks in bright sunshine. The eye-squinting strength of the sun’s rays is intensified by reflecting off snow some 13-inches deep on the ground. According to one Boulder resident it’s a beautiful, beautiful scene, and this gentleman should know what is beautiful and what isn’t...
Michael Lichter, 60, is a world renowned photographer with a fearsome reputation for quality of work and his working professionalism. In the world of motorcycling, his images of motorcycles, be they studio shots or real life out in the open air with their owners and creators, have been seen by millions.
Michael Lichter is, without doubt, a legend in the world of motorcycle photography. The fact he has also achieved major success in commercial business underlines how successful this man is. Or perhaps that should read what a talented person he is. When you hear the old adage ‘it is better to be seen than heard’, arguably Michael Lichter is the perfect example of what this generations-old advice stands for. Outside of the biking industry, his name doesn’t immediately spring to mind, but his photographs do. There can’t be many garage walls or workbenches in this world where at some point in time they have held a magazine or ripped out page of a bike expertly reproduced by Michael Lichter.
Achieving his reputation as a leading photographer can be attributed to two things: love of bikes and photography from an early age. At five years of age, an uncle took Michael into a dark room and he was amazed seeing latent images come up in the chemistry of print film. To Michael, this was magic at its finest.
The next big step was when his father lent him a Pentacon 35mm WWII vintage camera that he had brought back from Europe from serving in the armed forces. Michael quickly fell in love with this camera and it wasn’t long before he set up a dark room of his own within the laundry room of the family home. At the age of 13 Michael was spending just as much time in his dark room as he was outside taking photographs.
Michael’s connection with motorcycles ran parallel with photography. The other kids he was growing up with had access to mini-bikes; small-framed bikes powered by pull-start lawn mower engines. Michael’s parents didn’t allow him to have one but it didn’t stop him going with friends after school to ride theirs. At about 12 years-old, a friend of Michael had a clutchless Honda 90 step-through and that was good enough to brighten the bike riding spark. Going to a cinema at 14 with a friend and his mom to see Easy Rider also fired his imagination.
“The first time motorcycling really clicked with me,” says Michael, “was in 1976, when a friend loaned me his 1947 Harley-Davidson Knucklehead chopper with a 24-inch springer front end. That was too much to believe, after the mini-bike and other rides this bike was the real deal.” The biking bug had obviously bitten because approximately three months later he had bought a Japanese 450cc bike of his own. This was followed up with a 1971 Harley Super Glide that was already modestly customised.
Wanderlust in the seventies saw Michael and cameras travels across the world. This was done with little money and when it was required a small job would put cash in his pocket. Teaching English in other nations was a particularly good way to survive. One of his most memorable jobs was delivering a car from Munich to Tehran in five days! That earned him enough money for another four months in far off Nepal, Pakistan, Afghanistan and other countries. In those days living on a ‘dollar a day’ was achievable.
In the late seventies, Michael Lichter’s biking photography drew in commissions. By 1980 he was quite far down the road as a professional motorcycle photographer, a status amplified a hundred-fold over the following years through commitment and a desire to achieve the best work possible.
Even when he’s at home he still works – a lot. Long days in fact and very often until 2am producing studio imagery. “It’s changed a lot now. I’ve been shooting bikes since the seventies and this is something that’s been a constant. But in the middle years, as I call them, I was doing a lot of commercial photography and pretty big commercial shoots and annual advertising reports – for one computer company this included shooting one black and white portrait in each of eight cities across the world. But now I’ve come back to shooting mostly motorcycles with a little commercial work.”
One of the biggest changes within professional photography, says Michael, is the demands are even greater. With the advent of digital photography, more and more people have cameras and more people feel they are photographers. Expectations have got even higher and printed magazines are having a rougher time of things. “This means having to work even harder, which is amazing because I always felt I was working as hard as I could. That expectation now means that I now write story copy text and there is so much more image editing. With today’s computers it now means we can work anywhere and this means more working hours.”
Adding to the weight of work is another side to Michael’s business. Motorcycle art exhibitions have become a major part of his life. Not just displaying his work but the full shooting match of organising the exhibitions and getting the displays in place; when we say displays this includes the actual motorcycles and material associated with bikes.
The exhibition side of Michael’s life started as a reaction to a very famous exhibition at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. The Art of the Motorcycle exhibition ran from January to September 1998 and was the most successful exhibition the Guggenheim has ever had. This was followed by the exhibition going on tour to Bilbao, Vegas Chicago and other major cities.
“It was a beautiful exhibition well done but it was production motorcycles topped off with one or two custom bikes. It was essentially industrial design but applied to motorcycles. At the time I thought that the creativity in custom motorcycles was a bit further along because they didn’t involve the constraints of going into production. I wanted to tie in the art side of it, the 2-dimensional art that applies to motorcycling plus I wanted to give something back to the motorcycle industry... and that’s how I came to the decision to put on my own exhibition way back then in a Rapid City museum.”
The most recent exhibition was in 2015 at the famous Sturgis Rally. As with all his exhibitions it ran under a theme. This one was called “Naked Truth” and showcased motorcycles on 35 pedestals all gloriously lit to show them in their raw metal stage, all naked without the eye-catching gloss of paint. “It was my 15th year of doing exhibitions and Naked Truth was probably my most artful and would have easily transferred over to an art gallery. It was a phenomenal event and the media coverage went global. Hot Bike, a renowned Japanese glossy magazine gave it 26 pages, the front cover and even used it as the basis for its 2016 calendar.”
Michael only shows his photographic work at his themed exhibitions every five years. As a rule he acts as curator. The Naked Truth exhibition was a fifth year event and included 35 years of his photography. The 105 pieces (image prints) took up all the wall space of the 700 square-metre Buffalo Chip gallery at Sturgis. Next year’s show (2016) will be titled “Skin and Bones – Tattoo inspired Motorcycles and Art” and is sure to be another hit and possibly even cause similar voiced reaction as previous exhibitions have.
“I did a theme once where participants couldn’t be born in the USA. I saw it as being similar to the British Invasion in music where the states exported rock and roll and it came back from the UK in double strength. The influence of what we exported came back from Europe and the rest of the world at double, triple strength. It was a hard thing for Americans to take, especially at Sturgis when many realised we aren’t necessarily the best. To me it wasn’t a case of ‘we aren’t the best’ but more like ‘look what’s out there in the world’.”
There is yet another dimension to Michael’s work and that is the studio photo shoots he undertakes. Like everything else that involves recording life by photography, he’s fanatical about the way the subject is shot even though it is done in what could only be described as a sterile environment. Again Michael’s professional work ethic rears up by way of using lighting and his devotion to achieve the ultimate in finished work i.e. the stunningly detailed shots he is also renowned for. A perfect example being the photo shoot of Jeff Wright’s (Church Of Choppers) customised R nineT, the latest bike from BMW Motorrad’s Soulfuel project.
On the subject of just one Michael Lichter image that stands out as the guiding light for budding photographers, or is a perfect example of Michael’s work, Michael replies: “Ok... People have asked me this many times before. As far as being an inspiration to other people, well that’s for other people to decide. I’m not going to say this or that piece is inspiring. It’s like being asked if I am an artist or do I make art? I always reply it’s not for me to say but for others to decide. I create my photography and if other people think it’s artful then that’s great. If they say I’m an artist that’s great, too. But these are titles that are bestowed upon you; something that you’ve earned.”
Taking into account Michael’s years of professional service and his never wavering ability to transfer life, motorcycles and life with motorcycles into images that astound and give meaning behind them, it would be fair to say Michael Lichter has indeed earned the right to be acknowledged as one very talented artist. Many times over.