Formed in San Bernardino, California in 1948 the Hells Angels are the worlds most famous and notorious biker club. What began life as a single faction grew into a global phenomenon with chapters opening up all over the world and the club’s influence being felt over a broad spectrum of culture from film to music and fashion, their winged skull logo that adorns their jackets is one of the most recognisable around.
The lengthy process of acceptance for a new member means the club won’t let just anyone into their inner circle, and information about them is shrouded in mystery. Photographer Andrew Shaylor was afforded the opportunity to spend time in the company of the UK chapters of the Hells Angels, capturing life behind the scenes with these tattooed and leather clad men for his book Hells Angels Motorcycle Club. We spoke to him recently about his experiences with one of the most fearsome groups in the world.
THE MALESTROM: What was the motivation to start photographing the Hells Angels?
Andrew Shaylor: I ‘d presented an idea to Esquire to photograph different disciplines of motorcycle culture. Of the ten identified, a ‘Motorcycle Club’ was one I wanted to photograph. Obviously the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club are the best known, in the sense that most people know the name but nothing about them. I had also read Hunter S Thompson’s excellent book on the club. And, I have a passion for exploring genres that are niche or hard to approach.
TM: What were your views on them before you came to photograph them?
AS: I had read a little about them, but had no idea what they were like. I’m very open minded about people, so I had no real preconceptions, but I was aware that they might be dangerous, and resistant to having their photograph taken. When the writer, Bill Dunn, and I approached them at The Bulldog Bash, an annual event the club run for bikers, I found the members I met there respectful of my craft and generally friendly. The photograph I took there (a group shot with Sonny Barger) was the beginning of my time making the book.
TM: Tell us about how the group image came about…
AS: This was the first image I made of the HA. It was originally shot for Esquire. I visited the Bulldog Bash, and the press officer for the club arranged for a few members to gather for a portrait. I remember Marcus (third from the left sitting on his bike) telling me to get a proper camera (I was using a rickety old Wista 5×4 that day) and to hurry up… I think he was testing me. That year, Sonny Barger, 4th from the right, was in town to promote his autobiography and he agreed to be in the shot. He is a legend in the club and is credited with making the club what it is today. I ended up photographing him a few times, and he was good enough to write the foreward for my book.
TM: Were you nervous at all when you first started taking their pictures?
AS: No. I’m a great believer in being yourself, and that if the club didn’t like what I was doing then I would find out soon enough.
TM: It’s not a curtain most get to look behind, did you feel privileged in some way to be welcomed into their fold?
AS: Yes, in a way I did. Nobody had ever had permission to do what I did before, or subsequently. I wanted to present the club as I saw it, without any prejudgement. I wanted it to be my book, not the clubs book. Happily they were pleased with how it turned out.
TM: We’re imagine they like to party pretty hard, you must have witnessed some interesting scenes?
AS: Quite a few, although I was working, so I tried to maintain an air of professionalism and some dignity (most of the time). I was invited to a number of HA only events as well as visiting open nights at most of the clubhouses around the country. I went on a couple of UK Runs, and a World Run. They do know how to have fun.
There are two funeral pictures, Gentleman Gerry and Dodgy Dave. What kind of an event is a Hells Angels funeral?
AS: Hells Angels funerals are generally big noisy affairs. Members gather at the clubhouse of the deceased and share stories and pay their respects. The cortege of hundreds of motorcycles then sets off, all gunning their engines, and prospects block traffic lights with their bikes to allow a smooth journey, while the general public stop and stare and photograph this spectacle. It is quite a sight.
The photograph of Big Jim was taken on the Embankment on the way to Gentleman Gerry’s funeral. I was invited by the club to record the day, and travelled on the back of a members bike. Hells Angels from all around the world came to the funeral due to the nature of Gerry’s death. He was shot by a rival club on the M40, returning from the Bulldog Bash. The club came together, as it always does, to celebrate his life, but in this case there was a sense of showing the strength of the club as well. I knew Gerry. He was a genuine and friendly man.
Dodgy Dave had been a 30 + year member and his funeral was a big deal as well. We rode from the London clubhouse in Hackney to the crematorium in Southfields. There were hundreds and hundreds of members from around the world. The noise of all those motorcycles as one is quite incredible.
TM: They’ve got a rough, tough reputation but you’ve managed to capture a softer side in some of the images, did that surprise you?
AS: Not really. In my experience most groups or clubs are made up of individuals with their own personalities. Each chapter has the joker, the quiet listener, the leader etc.
TM: Your portraits are very striking. What is it you get from taking portraits?
AS: Thank you. I generally shot the portraits at clubhouses and at the Bulldog Bash. I wanted to keep it simple and have a certain uniformity for the purposes of the book design. I shot the portraits on a 5×4 Linhof, which precludes much in the way of spontaneity. This was a choice. I knew that I had room in the rest of the book to capture members ‘in action’.
Some faces are more interesting than others. The shot of KV is one of my favourites, as it has captured him in a strong moment. I never got to know him very well, but he was good enough to give me that picture.
I try to get a sense of that moment when the photographer and his subject come together. It should not be complicated. As Richard Avedon said,
“I have a background, I have a person I’m interested in and the thing that happens between us.”
TM: Tell us about the great shot taken in Benidorm by the pool…
AS: I went to a World Run, and in that particular year, it was at a King Arthurian themed holiday camp in Benidorm. In the evenings there was roasting pig, jousting and gallons of beer and all sorts of crazy stuff. In the day, members would relax in the grounds or go out on their bikes into Benidorm itself. I recall taking this shot as it was just after I had made a portrait of about 800 members (from a fully extended cherry picker) in the vast swimming pool that had a faux rock structure in the middle of it, with an enormous Excalibur sticking out of it. I grabbed this image as I was taking my equipment back to my cabin. It just looked so normal to me.
TM: How would you describe the relationships of Hells Angels? Are they a family? A brotherhood?
AS: They are both of those things. They support each other and their immediate families. When a member dies, the family are looked after. Quite a few members are ex-military and my view is that they like a sense of belonging to a band of brothers and need that kind of hierarchy in their life.
TM: Can you tell us about the photo of ‘Taff’ lighting a cigar at the Ashfield clubhouse…
I think that was taken first thing in the morning in the Ashfield clubhouse. The previous evening had been a portrait session with some of the Ashfield members. I had built a ‘studio’ in their garage (surrounded by Harley Davidsons) and had then spent the night at the clubhouse or with a member at his house… I can’t remember which. But I do remember Taff making me a brew and then firing up his first cigar of the day. I had my trusty old Leica M6 on me and just clicked away.
TM: What was the image you are most proud of capturing?
AS: Actually, it’s an image that I took recently in 2017 at Dodgy Dave’s funeral, of some of his brothers loading his coffin into the hearse. It captures the essence of the club in my view. Brotherhood, respect and love.
TM: What wisdom have you taken away from your time with the Hell’s Angels?
AS: I’m not sure about wisdom, but I have made some good friends, and have had an amazing experience making the book with them. I went in with no preconceptions, and came away with some great memories, and a book in the British Library. As the club would say, “if you treat us well, then we will treat you better”… which was the case.
Buy a copy of Hells Angels Motorcycle Club HERE
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Check out more of Andrew’s fantastic work at http://www.shaylorphoto.com/