South Dakota is not a heavily populated state. In fact, it’s one of the least populous states in the union, ranking 46 out of 51 (including Washington DC). The biggest city in South Dakota is Sioux Falls, which at 155,000 persons ranks 150th on the list of biggest cities in the USA (this is 54x smaller than #1 NYC). But there are a lot of people in this country that love motorcycles, and every first week of August a whole heck of a lot them ride out to the land of Mt. Rushmore and George Custer to gawk, strut, rev, ride, and revel. In 2000, the attendance of the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally was so large that it equaled roughly the size of the 15th largest US city, Austin, TX (twice the size of Minneapolis, MN for perspective) with 754,844 persons. For 2009, the numbers wouldn’t be quite so high, although lewd t-shirt sales were probably at an all-time best as this year marked the 69th anniversary of the Black Hills Rally. If there’s one thing a journalist needs when heading into Sturgis, it’s a sense of humor. And while the AFP was not prepared for the likes of Sturgis, by the end, we were pretty sure that Sturgis was one of the silliest gatherings we could possibly have attended.
Don’t worry, the silly aspect was a shock to us too. Especially after we tried crashing the Hells Angels summer reunion ride the week before in Duluth, MN and were basically told we’d get our lights knocked out if we didn’t scram. “We don’t come to your family reunions and take pictures of your girlfriends” was one of the more amicable responses we got in Duluth. It’s exactly that rebel spirit and outlaw culture that seems so quintessentially American that we wanted to photograph and capture. If America stands for anything it’s freedom, and nothing embodies the symbol of American freedom quite like a motorcycle being ridden across the open prairie by a wind-hardened, leather-skinned, gristle-faced working class dude. Bikers are our modern-day cowboys. In an era where the horse has been replaced by the combustion engine, these are the people who ride in the saddle, wear leather chaps, feel the air against their face, and sacrifice comfort and expediency for the pursuit of a more wholesome and pure experience. Picture the alternative: an overworked disheveled computer programmer zoned out in iPod land squeezed into a packed-to-the-gills rush-hour subway train. That’s not an image likely to be adopted to symbolize a country that values courage, fortitude, patriotism, liberty, and freedom. For better or for worse, rebel archetypes in America are still an important part of our national identity.
But it’s hard being a rebel all the time. The yard needs mowing. The kids need a ride back and forth from soccer, tennis, football, ballet, french lessons, therapy, and sleepovers. The 9-5 grind wears you out so bad that you’re too tired to get much done on the weekend. Car payments. House payments. Insurance payments. Where can a person go to cut loose from all these obligations and really let their hair down? What kind of place will finally let a person go wild?
Enter Sturgis. It’s basically anything goes for two solid weeks in Sturgis around the time of the rally. All the beer, boobs, butts, brats, bros, and bacchanalia you can handle. It’s Easy Rider by day and Mad Max by night. Ride hard. Party hard. It’s where weekend warriors come to recharge their batteries for a full solid year. And it’s living proof that America still has some of that old stock left in it, that frontier DNA is still churning.
Or you could hang around a few days and come around to the inevitable but sad conclusion that Sturgis is, for the most part, a giant costume party. And the theme every year, again and again, is “rebel outlaw.” So don’t even bother to walk out your tent flap or hotel lobby unless some part of your body is adorned with black leather, a skull on flames, an eagle, a Harley logo, a cross, barbed wire, the words “freedom” or “hell” written somewhere. And of course, bear all your tattoos. Make sure your shirt doesn’t have sleeves. Don’t be bashful about showing off chest hair. Sunglasses are a must. Jeans are encouraged. Jeans with black leather chaps over them are celebrated. And some kind of hat or bandanna is totally accepted. If you don’t have any, not to worry, there are about 4,127 different t-shirt and vendor stands happily standing by ready to sell you all of your regalia needs.
Discoveries are good. Epiphanies are better. And the only way we could stick it out in Sturgis was to accept that we had been duped. We had shown up to photograph something pure and found it absolutely watered down and generic and commercialized. But we were just as guilty as our fellow costumers in seeking out that classic American archetype. We were in pursuit of exactly the kind of thing that everyone else was there to find. Everyone wanted to rub elbows with the ghosts of freedom: physical, moral, aesthetic, and even emotional liberation. That Bud Light, Harley Davidson, State Farm, Pepsi, Jack Daniels, Aerosmith, and a huge economic engine was there to facilitate the entire operation only reinforced how distant we are from our rebel forebears. And with that epiphany we saw Sturgis for what it was and photographed it as it should be photographed…as a humorous and funny and outlandish anomaly. So enjoy the pictures. They aren’t in our normal style. If there’s one photographer who excels in these situations it is British photographer Martin Parr and he was an inspiration for sure.
Lastly, it should be said that everything written above is a generalization. This was our main take-away from the event–our overall impression. We know for sure that not everyone who attended Sturgis fits this characterization. The Hells Angels do go to Sturgis every year. The Bandidos too. And for plenty, riding motorcycles is an everyday affair and even a major social influence on their lives. In particular, we spent the better part of our last day with the Royal Ras from Albuquerque, NM, a rastafarian motorcycle club. We followed behind them on the way to Mt. Rushmore and hung out with them in their hotel room. We wanted to meet and ride with a club and break away from the pageantry of the main strip. They were newcomers to Sturgis just like we were. Where we had come to Sturgis seeking out an American subculture, they had come to purely for their love of riding motorcycles. It reminded us of the true reason why hundreds of thousandths of riders descend on Sturgis every year. Despite the costume party, may Sturgis live long, and live hard. Many thanks to the guys and gal from Royal Ras for sharing their time and insights with us.