Tom Zimberoff Talks About His Fascination For Choppers.

Who is the man behind these custom machines is what every custom motorcycles fan wants to know. Journalists, reporters and writers do a good job at revealing who the well known custom builders are. One of the best ever is Tom Zimberoff, the celebrated author of the 2 reference hard-cover books (maybe 3 very soon) Art Of The Chopper 1 and 2. And there is a good reason why Tom is much more than a motorcycles writer and photographer and has such a deep and acute understanding of our world. Since a very young age Tom is fascinated by our bikes and is a true authentic chopper lover. He wrote a beautiful text about how, as a child, he discovered the chopper culture in the desert of Nevada. It’s very interesting and worth reading slowly (Cyril Huze).

“The first choppers I remember seeing in person lumbered along the shimmering summertime streets of mythological Las Vegas, a small but significantly hip retreat made possible by air-conditioning, long faded into memory since the 1960s and my high-school years there. It was the scene of the Rat Pack and rodeo, one-armed bandits, silver dollars, swimming pools, glamorous women wearing head scarves, big dark sunglasses, and pastel polka dots. There was always a forty-nine-cent breakfast served by a waitress who called everyone Honey. Rough-and-tumble three-patch clubs rumbled through town like Wild West desert posses, slowing down to make a visual statement on the Strip. I was particularly fascinated by the wretched excess of their motors. Maybe, I was susceptible to these loud convolutions of pipes and pig iron as a teenage boy because, in spite of their attraction, they made my blood run cold under the desert sun, mimicking the antipyretic attributes of oil flowing through their infernal plumbing.

These were primitive machines compared to today’s glitzy bikes, but in a way that choppers-as-art invoke the same kind of gut response as does one’s first glimpse of the prehistoric paintings of prey animals on the walls of antediluvian caves in Europe, the impact of which are presumed to strike awe in the beholder. I recall walking by and staring at bikes leaning in choreographed rows in casino parking lots, their chrome and aluminum parts rendered no less lambent by a patina of oil and road grime, and wished I could ride off into a desolate desert landscape on one of them myself.

The first photographs of choppers I remember seeing appeared in Look magazine. In 1967, I saw a series of portraits depicting the startling and new San Francisco counter culture which included Irving Penn’s perfect portrayals of Hells Angels and their Harleys in a studio setting. Then, in 1969, again in Look, I saw a young Ann-Margret of Viva Las Vegas (the movie) and Elvis Presley days wheeling down a desert byway just outside Sin City on a perfect, red Triumph chopper with tank scoops and a chrome girder, wearing a stars-and-stripes bustier that mimicked Peter Fonda’s characterization of Captain America on the silver screen that same year.

The latter publicity picture, made by my friend Douglas Kirkland, had stuck in my mind for decades, since long before I met and became friends with him. Older and securely established in the photo biz, he unselfishly helped me get one of my first important photo assignments. Unconsciously, perhaps, his and Penn’s photographs were catalysts for my interest in choppers later on. Now, I seek them out as a personal predilection and to record them for posterity as artifacts of a cultural insurgency.

Builders abound. Artists do not. That is to say, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of competent mechanics and fabricators who can build a really tight, beautiful motorcycle. But only a few can go beyond imitation, to meld function and style into something never seen before "


12 Responses to “Tom Zimberoff Talks About His Fascination For Choppers.”

  1. 1 John Shear Feb 17th, 2007 at 10:37 am

    Nice read

  2. 2 Tom Zimberoff Feb 17th, 2007 at 4:30 pm

    I just want to say that the photograph illustration this blog entry is copyrighted by Irving Penn, the master photographer who had a great influence on my own work.

  3. 3 Josh Ashbury Feb 17th, 2007 at 6:55 pm

    I agree that these 2 books hat I own (Cyril signed 1 while in Las Vegas) are the best about the art of the chopper. I will buy the 3rd one.

  4. 4 Ryan Feb 18th, 2007 at 10:56 pm

    Please publish a third and fourth and so on, we can’t get enough good art these days. Thank You Tom and Cyril.

  5. 5 Tom Feb 19th, 2007 at 3:08 pm

    Excellent Books. We want more!

  6. 6 John Enrich Feb 20th, 2007 at 9:58 am

    Both are great books but these builders deserve more pictures of bike details. It’s what makes the difference between good builder and master builders.

  7. 7 Henry Botman Feb 20th, 2007 at 9:15 pm

    Own the 2 books, too. I would like to see more bikes from each builder.

  8. 8 Rick Feb 21st, 2007 at 2:39 pm

    Had the honor of a photo shoot with Tom. This guy is a class act and true gentleman. A consummate professional who is humble about his work and his accomplishments. His books will continue to be a success for the composition and prose. Classy guy. Go visit his site at : -Rick Krost

  9. 9 Tom Zimberoff Feb 21st, 2007 at 3:24 pm

    Thanks, Rick. Where shall I send the check?

    I want to respond to Mr. Enrich’s comment, “…these builders deserve more pictures of bike details. It’s what makes the difference between good builders and master builders.”

    Indeed, these builders deserve much praise. And the point of my books is to celebrate the builders as artists as much as their bikes are already appreciated as art. I might have illustrated more details, had I been allotted a bigger page count. My publisher only allows so much real estate. As it is I am doing three volumes (this will be the last) because the builders whose works I have curated, so to speak, wouldn’t fit between the covers of a single volume. There are too few true artists (expert mechanics and fabricators notwithstanding) in my opinion to fill a fourth volume. Nevertheless, showing details is like showing the brush strokes in a painting. I would rather illustrate the work as a whole when forced to make a choice.

    I hope more people will read the biographies and ponder the portraits in my books. They are what my books are all about. They are what makes my books unique.

    Thanks to all of you for your remarks.


  10. 10 CJ "Warden" Hanlon Feb 21st, 2007 at 3:50 pm

    I, like Rick have had the honor of meeting Mr. Z. His work and approach to this industry is without question one of the reasons we see motorcycles being “mainstreamed” into society. Granted, there will always be people who like to ride, but there are those that will never ride, but enjoy the art form, which Mr. Z so aptly captures through the lens of his camera.
    His ability for composition as well as catching the spirit of the individuals involved is what speaks through his pictures, and his ability to catch the right “angle, light and depth” for a shoot, is very inspiring for those of us that have always wanted to be able to take a photo with such meaning.
    Thank you Tom, for all you do and continue to do for this industry.

  11. 11 MILES BROWN Feb 21st, 2007 at 4:58 pm

    Thanks Cyril for establishing ,maintianing and introducein this new form of interaction amongst all of us like minded individuals in this buisness.
    I want to extend my sincere thanks to Tom Zimberoff for his unparalleled devotiotion to exposing the chopper culture to the masses as an art form .
    For the past 35 years , like Tom , I’ve been consumed with a passion for all things motorcycle related , especially choppers, the culture and lifestyle .
    As a builder who’s insperations are drawn from the old movies and magazines from the late 60’s and 70’s , the art work of Dave Mann , and also from the old photographs i have seen from time to time that were taken by Irving Penn, I can completely relate to Tom’s comments. Every now and again i see an old picture , a new bike that a true artisan has crafted , a vintage movie poster , or an old centerfold of Dave’s and it’ll make the little hairs on the back of my neck stand up.
    Mr. Zimberoff’s books grace the coffee table in my home and i enjoy watching the reactions of my guests every time they open the cover of one of them. They’re truely works of art in their own rite. Thanks Tom for publishing them , and continued success …….

  12. 12 Jason Drew Feb 23rd, 2007 at 3:17 pm

    I know pretty well a couple of builders in the 2 books. They are hard working, talented, and don’t make the money people think. They are all motivated by one thing only, love custom motorcycles. Each publication, each video, each book, etc is contributing to give them more respect from the public at large. Tom Zimberoff work (1 & 2) is a big step in this direction. Artists need to be protected and encouraged. We want more coverage on these talented people.

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