THE PHOTOGRAPHY OF BILL RAY, 1965 | HELLS ANGELS & HOT OLD LADIES ON ICE

As Irish Rich correctly said, “Bill Ray wasn’t the Lone Ranger…” meaning he wasn’t the only dude photographing the ’60s bikers/hippies/counterculture in a meaningful way – share the love. That being said, he did capture some really stunning images of the original Hells Angels of Berdoo and their striking “Old Ladies” for LIFE back in 1965. It is the Old Ladies (actually quite young), who in fact steal the show with their melancholy beauty and faraway stares. They hold me mesmerized as I search in vain for silent clues to who they were, where they came from, what brought them here. Truth is that their beauty is long gone by now, and they may have even left this world – yet somehow looking at these images they seem like ghostly beauties frozen forever in a place in my mind where time feels irrelevant. If I could only find a way back there. Truth is these Old Ladies are no longer available on the menu. Thank God (oh, and Bill Ray) for these images.

I love the personal commentary Ray shares regarding some of his favorite shots, and the behind-the-scenes escapades while out on assignment with writer Joe Bride covering the San Bernardino Hells Angels. The story for LIFE would never see print as it turns out, but the shots have become legendary despite that and are available in the book Hells Angels of San Berdoo ’65 | Inside the Mother Charter which is definitely worth a look. But don’t stare at the old ladies too long. They will lure you into the deep, dark waters and drown you.

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Two of the women riding with the Hells Angels hang out at a bar. According to LIFE writer Joe Bride’s notes– “The girl kneeling by the jukebox is Ruthie and she’s the ‘Old Lady’ of Harvey, a Diablos member from San Bernardino. Harvey attends Angels’ meetings and rides with them but is not a member. It’s only two in the afternoon but Ruthie has already ‘crashed’ from beer and bennies [benzedrine].” Bill Ray has a real liking for this particular photograph. “This is one of my favorites from the whole shoot. There’s something kind of sad and at the same time defiant about the atmosphere. Ruthie is probably playing the same 45 over and over and over again. A real music lover.”  –photograph by Bill Ray © Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

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“Outside the Blackboard in Bakersfield, Hells Angels, hangers-on, and their old ladies conduct a seminar in advanced loafing.” –photograph by Bill Ray © Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

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“I remember seeing some of the women take a razor blade and trim their eyebrows, and a lot of them managed to achieve this very hard, distinctive look. It’s a look that’s difficult to recreate, I think, and one that, when you look at these pictures, is really of its time. This look says mid-1960s. That’s what I see here, without a doubt.” –photograph by Bill Ray © Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

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“One thing about the Angels that I found fascinating,” Ray told LIFE, “and something I’d never given much thought to before I started photographing them, was the role that the women played. The girls weren’t there in chains, or against their will or anything. They had to want that life if they were going to be accepted by the Angels. These guys were kings of the road. I don’t think they ever felt they had to look around for girls. Girls would come to them, and they would take their pick. And then they’d tell them where to sit and what to do.” –photograph by Bill Ray © Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

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Bill Ray definitely has a few of his own favorite pictures from his time with the Berdoo Hells Angels. “One is the picture of Ruthie at the jukebox. Another is this photo taken outside the bar as the sun sinks, with the old lady leaning back on the bike, smoking a cigarette. The light, the shadows, the gleaming gas tanks, the texture of the bike seat in the foreground — I admit it. I like this picture a lot.”  –photograph by Bill Ray © Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

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“Buzzard, one of the original San Berdoo Hells Angels, flashes by as his Old Lady flips me the bird, probably the one gesture that sums up the attitude and contempt the Angels had for the outside world.” –Hells Angel Salute, 1965. “There’s a romance to the idea of the biker on the open road. It’s similar to the romance that people attach to cowboys and the West — which, of course, is totally out of proportion to the reality of riding fences and punching cows. But no doubt, there’s something impressive about these Harley-Davidsons and bikers heading down the highway. You see the myth played out in movies, like Easy Rider, which came out a few years after I photographed the Angels — you know, the trail never ends for the cowboy, and the open road never ends for the Angels. They just ride. Where they’re going hardly matters. It’s not an easy life. But it’s what they choose. It’s theirs. And everyone else can get out of the way or go to hell.” –photograph by Bill Ray © Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

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A group of old ladies — including one with what appears to be a bandaged, broken nose — hang out in a bar while the Angels gather in a separate room. “The men were having a business meeting and the women were definitely not invited there. When those guys were busy, the women just sat and waited. They’d smoke, drink beer, gossip, but they were pretty much just on ice until the meeting broke up. I remember, too, that many of them were surprisingly young: teenagers, or in their early twenties. They didn’t look young, though. Riding around on the back of a Harley at a hundred miles an hour in all sorts of weather will age you, I guess.” –photograph by Bill Ray © Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

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Bill Ray (with camera), Bakersfield, California, 1965. “I got along with the Angels. I got to like some of them very much, and I think they liked me. I accepted them as they were, and they accepted me. You know, by their standards, I looked pretty funny. Just look at this picture — I can’t believe I looked like that, either. That’s some kind of a plaid shirt I’ve got on,” he says, incredulity mixing with amusement, “but that was the best I could do to try to fit in!” Bill Ray spent a month with the original San Berdoo Hells Angels in 1965, hanging out at their clubhouse, shooting photos, shooting pool, drinking beer– and when an Angel split his head open, taking him to the ER. –photograph by Bill Ray © Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

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“Night has fallen on Bakersfield, and the Hells Angels continue to talk and drink, inside and outside the Black Board Cafe. I made this extraordinary shot with the existing street light from the corner lamp without a tripod. I held my breath and the Leica M S fast to the handlebars of a Harley for the long exposure. To me it looks like a film set lit by the Hollywood great, James Wong Howe.” –photograph by Bill Ray © Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

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20 thoughts on “THE PHOTOGRAPHY OF BILL RAY, 1965 | HELLS ANGELS & HOT OLD LADIES ON ICE

  1. dark stuff… i also like the one with the smoking gal reclining and the juke box one best. reminds me of dennis hopper’s seminal photography but with a little more calm and detachment. didn’t nancy sinatra embody this sort of bride of the wind in a turd of a movie back in the day?

  2. good stuff-i,d reckon the ‘motor company’ owe these pioneers millions of dollars,how fresh and far away from all the ”seen on TV instant lifestyle , overnight tattooed- johnny come lately,s” these shots are-PURE

  3. Some beautiful shots in there. Puts me in mind of a dark and nasty ‘Grease’…. I can see Rizzo in these shots. Somehow, I don’t see any of these guys attending the High School dance though.

    @simonside – I think you may be thinking of Marianne Faithful and ‘Girl On A Motorcycle’, a turd of a movie maybe but damn, she did it for me when I was just hitting my teens. ;-)

      • See what you mean by ‘turd of a movie’, Nancy is so miscast. I’m glad that it wasn’t Marianne’s film you were talking about coz that is ‘kinda special’ to me. I haven’t seen it since the 70′s when it was shown on UK TV and I’m more than a little worried it would be disappointing if I did see it now.

        Nice to hear where the Primal Scream ‘Loaded’ sample came from though. ;-)

      • haha, true. i liked the atmosphere in ‘girl on a motorcycle’. there’s a genuine affection between marianne and alain, especially in the scene when they are riding the bike together so she can learn handling the curves. there’s joy and buoyancy and a tangible wild sense of the temporal and cultural backdrop. also like the colors and the now frayed charms of the blue screen, not to speak of m’s raven leather suit hugging those celestial knockers. mmmmmh.

  4. I am fortunate in that I live a few miles from the Angels house in San Bernardino across from San Bernardino Community Hospital. Quiet and safe neighborhood around their house for sure. Decent guys from what I have experienced

  5. Great photos and glad you’ve brought this to a wider audience , but in truth when looking at these photos , regardless of what Billy Ray’s commentary may be saying, all I’m seeing is a group of sad , self destructive and tragic women , who may have come into the situation by choice , but by coercion etc were destined never to leave .

    Heartbreaking would sum up my emotions viewing this great photo essay . Reality being all too well known by myself as well as made obvious by the photos

  6. Beautiful… and sad. I feel a little sorry for these girls, but hell if I’d ever say such to their faces. I like my ass right where it is.

    I like the photo of the same girl who’s smoking, but in the previous photo. I like the way she stares at the camera. Makes me wonder if Joan Jett didn’t come across the photo as a girl and absorb some of that darkness for her own persona.

  7. The whole myth of the Hell’s Angel leaves me cold. Had the daughter of a friend hook up with the Angels. Sad & tragic sum her experiences neatly. Good chunk of the time was spent telling each other how great they were. Most of the guys were leaches. None were the noble outlaw. The biker crap most enduring accomplishment was convincing others that taking a decent if out of date motorcycle and making it into a ugly-ass barely functional disaster on wheels was a good idea.

  8. None of these images were ever published in LIFE magazine, because the editorial director said “I’m not having these smelly bastards in my magazine” when he saw Bill’s shots!

    It was a privilege to interview Bill for the feature we did on him and this shoot, especially when I realised that perhaps we were the first people to actually publish these photos from 1965 in the format they were intended for: magazine layouts.

  9. Hunter S. Thompson describe the old ladies like this in his book, “Hell’s Angels”

    The girls stood quietly in a group, wearing tight slacks, kerchiefs and sleeveless blouses or sweaters, with boots and dark glasses, uplift bras, bright lipstick and the wary expressions of half-bright souls turned mean and nervous from too much bitter wisdom in too few years.

    As usual…, he nailed it. As do these photos.

  10. Looks like Keith Richards appropriated his “look,” mascara and all, from the girl on the motorbike smoking the cigarette.

  11. A couple of things proving the “Love/Hate” attitude towards Harley-Davidson, which has been around for decades, and still lives today, are the old sayings “sportsters are girl’s bikes”, “sportsters, don’t ride’em”.

    Still, they obviously were the bike of choice of A LOT of Angels. Even Sonny Barger rode one.

    May seem a little biased because I own one, but after testing a lot of big twins, to this day, the sportster is the most Harley bike to me. If you think of the brand in a romantic way, the sportster is all: non-conformist, affordable, unbreakable, versatile, frowned-upon. Let alone it’s the best handling Harley. It delivers the goods at the end of the day. Geez… a friend of mine rode on an 883 iron all the way and back from Mexico City to Sturgis !!!

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