Doug Barber captured old-school biker life through his camera's lens
Doug Barber never set out to publish a book. In fact, sitting in the park at the foot of Broadway in Fells Point outside his former house, he appears downright nervous about sharing his story. Perhaps it's not surprising for someone who has lived much of his life quietly and on the edge of the grid.
A professional corporate photographer by trade, Barber has been in hard-core motorcycle clubs (please, don't ever call them "gangs") much of his life, using his camera to record the rough-and-tumble lifestyle. By being a part of what bikers call "the life," he had unprecedented access to a notoriously camera-shy population. Earlier this year, Barber self-published a collection of his photographs, coupled with verses by poet Edward Pliska, aka "Sorez the Scribe," entitled living the life, one man's perspective inside what Barber refers to as "the old-school biker's world."
"It's a collection of personal statements not meant to explain or justify the biker existence," Barber says. "Those who find inspiration and solace living outside society's conventions will take this book to heart."
Barber, who goes by Q-Ball in the biker world, started to step out of the boundaries of societal norms as a military brat living in Okinawa where his stepfather was stationed in the 1960s.
"I was the red-headed stepchild," he says. "There's a lot to being a red head that people don't understand. You're treated a certain way and because you are you get pushed in a certain direction. I became an outlaw of sorts at that time of my life. And motorcycles were the quintessential status symbol of being an outlaw."
He was 16 when he bought his first motorcycle, a Honda. He loved the freedom--and the fear. "Anything that would intimidate me I'd come at head on," he says. "Even today there's aspects of riding a motorcycle that are frightening and once you survive it, the feeling is probably the same as bungee jumping or sky diving."
Though he was never a malicious kid, Barber was always in trouble. A high school teacher in Okinawa saw some promise in him and helped to get him a scholarship to the Maryland Institute College of Art, where he found photography and his wife, who he's been with since 1976. Shortly thereafter, he was asked to photograph the funeral for a member of a major motorcycle club, which began Barber's slow and cautious integration into "the life," with his Nikon in hand.
Barber looks as much like Santa Claus as he does a biker and is just as gentle. Now his thick flowing beard is more white than red. He's raised two daughters and abided by his non-biker wife's one request of no tattoos. Some of his friends from his club have passed away. Those that remain encouraged him to publish his photographs. In 2006, Hot Bike Japan found his photos on the internet and asked Barber to create a year's worth of covers and a calendar. More press followed and the pressure increased to publish a book.
Ever one to defy authority, Barber turned down an unfavorable publishing deal. Then he fortuitously met Richard Gohlinghorst of Ridge Printing when he snapped his picture at a motorcycle event. Gohlinghorst had launched a design and publishing venture called Lowside Syndicate. Barber got Sorez on board and living the life self-published in January.
To choose the photos for the book Barber sent a large collection to Sorez (based in New Jersey) who matched his poems or created original works to go with the images. "This brought me back to a simpler time," Sorez says by phone; he's been in the life over 30 years and is part of a club called "The Highway Poets." "Back then, as long as you had a motor, a frame, and wheels, you'd build [a bike] and ride it. The people were real. It brought me back to being younger."
Barber confesses that he is drawn to seedy subject matter, which abounds in the biker culture. The photos begin in 1972 and are predominantly taken in Baltimore, including shots of one-time owner of the Cat's Eye Pub, Kenny Orye (now deceased), and swap meets on Eastern Avenue. The images are raw, in black-and-white, sometimes grainy. There's plenty of booze, boobs, bushy beards, and lots of ink. Flipping through the book you can feel the dirt in your mouth and smell gasoline.
In a photo coupled with the verse "No Other Way," a group of bikers gather around a campfire in a muddy lot surrounded by scrubby trees. They look cold and tired and dirty. Barber looks at that and explains that it was trips like this, when he and his buddies spent days riding with no money sleeping on the side of the road, that gave his club its name.
"We went into a Harley-Davidson shop to get some coffee and the owner saw us and said, 'Here comes dirt that moves,'" Barber recalls. The club took Dirt That Moves as its name and set up a clubhouse on Falls Road near the Baltimore Polytechnic Institute.
Barber explains that bikers live life as if on steroids, doing everything from laughing to drinking in extreme. He says that the first thing club members did when they stopped riding for the day was to break out the booze, if for no other reason than to work out the aches and pains from hours of riding. That is recorded in images and words in "Name Your Poison," where a visibly blitzed couple stagger into the frame while a disembodied hand offers them a cigarette from outside the camera's lens.
Barber is adamant that he wanted to record the biker lifestyle without sensationalism. "It's not glorification and it's not judgment," he says. "This isn't a group of animals in a cage for your viewing pleasure."
A book about the motorcycle lifestyle would not be complete without touching on the mostly mutual disdain between bikers' and police officers. Barber won't deny that some of the bad reputation bikers get is legitimate. "In the '70s, half the fun was getting in a fight," he says. "But fighting was different back then. You mostly fought with your hands and the loser bought everyone beer."
He had his share of police run-ins, particularly when he'd try to take photographs when the police would stop his club, a frequent occurrence. Trying to explain the relationship between bikers and cops is complicated. Barber says that many bikers end up in trouble with the law because the system pushes them around until they lash out against it. He says the "love of a good woman" and his camera kept him from falling entirely off the outlaw precipice. "I'm not saying all cops are bad and all bikers are good," he says. "In every organization you have the good, the bad, and the ugly. I've found through life that if you treat someone with respect, that's what you'll get back."
Generally, bikers take to the road because they want to be left alone. Many of the photographs and poems in the book underscore the freedom and solitude of the lone rider as much as the brotherhood of clubs. The cover photo says it all: "Ricky," the president of Dirt That Moves, popping his sidecar up and out of the waves at Daytona Beach with the glee of a child.
It's a lifestyle that, once begun, is not a weekend hobby or something to walk away from. "I try to live my life by a code I have for myself, to be true to myself, give and get respect, and never take anything for granted, to live in the moment," Sorez says. His favorite photo (joined with the poem, "Road to Redemption") of a solitary rider looking pensively into the distance on a cold, wet winter day encompasses everything he loves about the life.
"This is a 24-7 lifestyle," Sorez says. "I don't just go out on a nice weekend, put on my leathers, and have a nice ride. I'm out there when it's 19 degrees out, when it's pouring out, when it's hot out. Basically out there living the life."
A photo of a man called "Righteous John," a surly looking dude holding a nub of a cigarette in his huge paw in his grease-covered shop, demonstrates what Barber wanted to capture in the book. "I knew that shops wouldn't look like this forever," he says. However, there is a photo taken more recently of a more pleasant-looking guy working on a bike in his own, modern shop. It's this demographic, in addition to the old-school brothers, who are buying up living the life, a new generation of young riders resurrecting the old ways of tinkering with their own bikes.
That's exemplified in the final photograph of the book that depicts a young boy on a big wheel surrounded by motorcycles, grinning at the camera and giving it the finger. "That kid is about 30 years old now and rides a motorcycle," Barber says. He contemplates the image and adds, wistfully, "Ah . . . another generation of degenerates."
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