Inside the Leather Jacket
By Jerry Portwood
Photography by Cedric Lefebvre
Belgium-based photographer Cedric Lefebvre has photographed architecture and scenic landscapes for top magazines over the years. But for the past three he's been working on a personal series of portraits of men in the motorcycle sub-culture that delve into ideas of masculinity and sexuality—even homoeroticism.
"I started without knowing how it would evolve," Lefebvre says. "I took a few shots of one of my best friends, a biker living in Berlin at the time. Those photos were seen by other bikers who asked me if I could make their portrait and, then those images were then seen by other bikers who then also asked me if I could take their photos as well."
Titled Bikershot, the series currently includes mostly men in Europe and looks decidedly different from the "outsider" image evoked in most American biker (and leather fetish) culture. We caught up with Lefebvre to find out how he finds his subjects (mostly they seem to find him!) and what keeps him motivated in this ongoing portrait project.
Did you know much about biker culture when you started this portrait project?
At that time, I was absolutely alien to the world of bikers or, perhaps, I should say the biker community. The more bikers I met, the more familiar I became with them intuitively.
While my first experience was purely descriptive in pictorial style, I am now pushing boundaries and putting an emphasis on each personality hidden inside the leather jacket. Often bikers want to show how tough they are or how seductive they can be, but I always want to capture more than these aspects.
Each portrait is built on the previous one and sets the tone for the next one. How much those portraits are in fact real portrayals of the personality I don’t really know. But photography, like all kinds of visual art, is a sort of 'quête de soi,' a journey of self-discovery.
Are all the men in the Bikershot series gay men or is it a mix of gay/straight?
I honestly don't know. Some are gay, but gender orientation or sexual preferences is not the focus of the series, and I don’t necessarily discuss this with the models. I propose to bikers I meet that we work together and other times bikers get in touch with me through my website, my Facebook page or other social networks I use for the project. Some are extremely shy in front of the camera and the conversation we have is rather limited and purely technical, like “strike a pose, turn your head, look at me” and so on.
Fortunately, others are extremely extrovert, self-confident, easy going and talk a lot. With them, it’s possible to work more deeply on the relationship that they have developed with their bike, which is the real relationship that I’m exploring.
Any tricks to get the perfect shot with these studly strangers?
I have to say that in all cases I try to get the guys to relax, as my aim is not to add new shots to an already large portfolio but really to explore the personality of this interesting sub-culture. And, the more portraits I make, the deeper I go in my understanding of it.
In what ways?
For instance, I observed that bikers have a very strong need for independence, developing an intense and exclusive relationship with their machines. They can be "Lonely Riders," and they can be either gay or straight. However, at the same time, they are part of the group or community, which has specific codes, attitudes and rules that are inherent. Sociologists draw a parallel between bikers of modern times and knights of the middle ages. Think of it: Replace the horse with a shining machine. Then add the gear, the helmet, the code of conduct, the brotherhood, and you arrive at a very specific archetype.
Is it also a way to be the lead character in a dystopian action movie, similar to playing Mad Max, or a space traveller who might have stopped on this planet for a while? For some it is, for sure. That explains the fascination for the high-tech gear at least for those who ride sports bikes. Then you can go even further and make the link with fetishists who don't have motorcycles but who have the full disguise to role-play. With all due respect to these guys, I focus solely on the real bikers.
How did you first come upon this subculture? Are you a biker? Do you enjoy motorcycles as well?
I actually first came into contact with this sub-culture at the young age of 12 when I had a sudden and unexpected encounter with a police biker who was seemed to come out of a Tom of Finland comic. Our local police station was situated between my home and school and obviously this has had some kind of impact on me, but I only consciously figured out only years later. Funnily enough I am not a biker and probably never will be as I am too easily distracted on the road; rolling on two wheels can be fatal!
You still live and work in Brussels, correct? Are these bikers Belgian or a mix of cultures and communities?
Yes, I live and work mostly in Brussels, but I have only done two shoots here in Brussels. Mostly I have taken photos across Europe in countries like Italy, France, Sweden, the UK, and even did a shoot in Australia earlier this year. I travel often and always take a chance to combine stays abroad with photo shoots for the series. I am just back from London and my next stop will be Copenhagen. Believe me, facing with somebody I have never met before, in a city where I have never been and using a camera as a medium to develop some kind of artistic statement, is always a challenging experience. But I love it.
Have you found that the bikers in Europe are different than in the United States, for example?
Based on what I have observed and the feedback I have received from guys living in the U.S., I can see significant differences, mostly in terms of style. I am really looking forward to exploring these differences through my photographs. In Europe, we don’t really have the image of the biker as "Outlaw." The movie The Wild One created a subconscious view of bikers that we still have as everywhere in the Western world.
However, from a very rational perspective, the fact that motorcycles have become a solution to the increasing urban traffic congestion legitimates what was once peripheral lifestyle choice a few decades ago. Also, you can’t compare distances in America and in Europe. For example, here you can get to France from the Netherlands without even realizing that you have crossed Belgium.
In Europe, the intercity network is extremely dense and countries like Germany have lots of highways without any speed limits. This means that streamlined design and powerful engines are often preferred by the bikers who can afford them, to more "comfortable" cruising choppers used in other parts of the world. This also is probably why you see many more Japanese sports bikes than Harley Davidsons in Europe. Also, you have European makes like BMW, Triumph, or Ducati, of course.
And then there’s the gear. Here in Europe, Dainese is considered as the cream of the crop, while in the U.S. you would surely see more aspiration for a brand such as Vanson or Langlitz.
While much of your previous work seems to be focused on architecture, you now seemed drawn to portraits and how people/faces can tell a story. What changed your interests?
I wouldn't say my interests have changed necessarily, I see it more as a case of my photographic interests being complementary. I try to demonstrate that well-thought out architecture can be self-sufficient. I mean that it can have a meaningful existence without its creator being in the frame; the building has enough of personality to make people completely redundant.
Taking a biker portrait is similar; it is an open door to an inner world—and that is what is absolutely fascinating. I studied psychology for a number of years, which has helped me draw the some links between these two diverse photographic interests. Maybe through this biker project I have explored and found the balance between my own rational and emotional dynamics as an artist.
I still don’t know how the project will evolve but I want to photograph bikers from different cultures including the US, guys in Asia and Latin America, which will add yet another dimension. I also have a dream of making a comparison between bikers from NYC, San Francisco, San Paolo, and Singapore. In the meantime, I am also looking for opportunities to present this project to larger audiences. So, publishers and art galleries are very welcome to contact me!