The Riders

by Henry von Wartenberg, review by Dave Bucher, published September 2021 in Keystone Motorcycle Press.

When I first received this book, I opened it and went through it page-by-page, ignoring both the introduction and the five short accompanying essays – even the few included photo captions. 

It’s essentially a coffee table, moto-photo book and my impressions were initially Bleh! Some von Wartenberg guy I’d never heard of had a bunch of pictures, mostly from South America, and had talked someone into publishing them. Yawn! In this age of a gazillion digital photos intruding into our space from every direction, the whole concept of exceptional photography has evaporated. When you have an infinite number of monkeys with an infinite number of iPhones, you’re bound to have an infinite number of decent snaps.

Deciding to get serious about my assignment to review the book, however, I cast aside those first thoughts and started to read. The foreword was perfunctory, as was the author’s introduction. This pre-jaded my reading of the book’s first essay, by Paul d’Orléans, described as “a rider, collector and expert on moto-history,” that essentially advised the reader that he/she was really incapable of describing what it was to ride a motorcycle and that only writer/readers, like him, had that capability. This was followed by a string of elaborately constructed descriptions of the motorcycling experience –“…the ever-shifting sojourn on planet Earth, as we cross antlike atop its curvature, marveling at the kaleidoscopic transitions…” – as he attempted to prove his anointment. Now I was really disappointed. Not once did he mention or refer to the author or his photography. It reinforced my impression that the whole volume had just been hastily cobbled together.

Then with all that ornate and seemingly overdone language still running around in my brain, I turned the page to the first photograph. And, boy, did I feel stupid. Right there, right in front of me was the connection. Those words that I felt were so affected and ostentatious were all represented in the image of some disheveled biker standing with his well-worn vintage scoot in the middle of a lifeless, windswept Argentine salt-flat. But I was no longer just looking at the photograph I’d previously breezed by; on the strength of D’Orléans’s writing I was looking deep into the picture. I was feeling that picture. Some switch had flipped and now I got it. I got the book. 

The rest of The Riders is organized similarly, an essay followed by photos related to its topic. Noted auto and motorcycling writer Peter Egan tells us about living to ride; von Wartenberg himself offers a glimpse of riding to live, showing the practical side of two-wheeling; Biker magazine editor/author and TV moto-personality Dave Nichols talks of the brotherhood among bikers and hints at its post-WWII development in America; and, finally, Aerostitch founder Andy Goldfine inspires us to choose roads less taken.

I’m not usually a picture book person, but I have to confess to having succumbed to the charm of this effort. Its 9” X 11” pages are packed with intriguing images, both color and B&W, from the author’s lens. Perhaps my enjoyment is because I ride myself. But I really think it’s more because of that very first, very clever essay and its juxtaposition with that first photo. They presented two uniquely different ways of describing the emotional dimension of motorcycling. And, at that turn of the page, they melded into an enjoyable ride that continued right to the end of the book.

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