by Beverly V. Roberts
It was a painful task sorting through the dusty boxes of photography archives that once belonged to my father. “Nothing worthwhile is ever easy,” I can recall him saying. A phrase he had used so often in my childhood, it still echoes in my mind. I remember his voice, so strong and serious. His words sometimes pierce my thoughts from seemingly nowhere, sending me back in time to a place that lives only in my memory … and in his photographs. I waited nearly seven years after his death to look through those boxes that were left to me. Amongst the clutter were old cameras, handwritten notes and processed prints; some yellowed and brittle from the passage of time. The metal camera case was just the way he left it. The old and weathered Graflex camera appeared just as it was when he purchased it at an auction sometime in the early sixties. He loved to go to auctions and would buy some of the most unusual items. At that time, I had never seen such a camera before. My father explained that it was the kind of camera newspaper men used in the 1930’s.
To this day, my favorite images in his body of work are the photos that he shot with that Graflex Speed Graphic camera. He preferred to make 8" x 10" prints from the 4" x 5" negatives, resulting in black and white images that appear dark and moody – sometimes humorous, too. These photographs bring back treasured memories from my childhood; each of the images in my father’s collection is a reminder of his passion and tenacity. His work is not only meaningful to me personally, but serves as an archive reflecting a significant part of our history; a rare documentation of the most influential time in American biker culture.
I was raised in the motorcycle culture of Detroit. My dad was a highly respected member of a one-percenter motorcycle club during the 1960’s. It was the only life I knew while growing up, and I never gave it much thought until now – nearly fifty years later. I was barely six years old when my father joined the Outlaws Motorcycle Club. The impact of my experiences during that time is forever etched in my memory, and has helped shape the person I have become. It was several years later that my father eventually left the club, but I will never forget those years of my childhood. The late night parties, battles between rival clubs, and all of those funerals from motorcycle wrecks. How could I have seen this kind of chaos as normal or safe? Yet, I did feel safe as well as loved, and I want to share my story. I was the proud daughter of an Outlaw, and remain loyal to preserving their history to this day. I would like to pay tribute to my father and the many other people who taught me so much about my own life by sharing their lives and stories with me. I believe it is especially important because we live in a time when discrimination against motorcycle riders is threatening the very existence of this American tradition cherished by tens of thousands of people worldwide.
As I sorted through hundreds of images contained in those dusty cardboard boxes, I could see my father’s life story unfold. These precious photographs are not only mementos of his lifetime interest in motorcycles, but they serve as a poignant reminder that life, itself, is fragile. He has created his legacy in each of the carefully preserved photos and negatives, and it has been my lifelong dream and an honor to memorialize his collection and continue that legacy.
In 2007, I fulfilled that dream when I published Portraits of American Bikers: Life in the 1960’s, the first book in a three-part series. The Portraits Series focuses on the collection of images my father captured during a time when few were able to get an inside look at the one-percenter lifestyle. It was often a dangerous place that was difficult to penetrate in the 1960’s. Bikers were negatively stereotyped during that era, particularly by popular drive-in films of the 1970’s. Much of that stereotype remains today, and most of it is far from the truth.
In the photographs taken by my father, we see the real people behind shows like Sons of Anarchy and History Channel's Gangland series. It was partly because of these shows that I decided to make his images public. I wanted the world to see what it was really like “inside” from someone who was there. I had intended to limit publication to the portion of his work that captured the “Club” life. However, after receiving numerous inquiries from photographers and motorcycle enthusiasts requesting to see more of his work, I have decided to release Bikers: The Men, Machines & Myths. This limited edition book explores who Jim “Flash” Miteff was as a person, a father and a photographer. He captured the 1960’s era in Detroit during a revolutionary time in our history. In addition to documenting motorcycle culture of that time, he was paying homage to the old-school press photographers that he admired during his childhood.
While I was growing up, I helped my father hand-develop his photographs in the small, cluttered darkroom he had built in the far corner of his home office. I can vividly recall watching the prints come to life in white enamel trays, filled with chemicals that were magic as far as I was concerned. Seeing his work today evokes many of the same emotions I felt fifty years ago, and I knew even then that people would connect with his images. My father shot these photographs with heart and soul, the same way he did everything during his lifetime. They are his history, they are my history, and now they are a part of American history. I am proud of the legacy my father left behind and I am grateful to play a small role by producing his work, in hopes that this legacy lives on long after I am gone.
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