Common Tread

How to get motorcycle wall art from the Library of Congress

May 11, 2018

If you're like me, you spend more time in the garage than the library.

Nothing wrong with that, but take a few minutes and give 'em a chance. After all, they're buildings full of stuff you can borrow for free. What's not to love about that? In addition to 16 million books (!), the Library of Congress looks after 120 million other objects, including some truly iconic work like Dorothea Lange's "Migrant Mother". What we're after is their stash of historic motorcycle photography. Best of all, you can order prints from the LoC’s website, or download them for free.

Browsing the collection

I’m not going to sugarcoat it for you: The Library of Congress catalog is awkward to browse. Filtering searches gets annoying and many images can’t be viewed full-size unless you’re in Washington D.C., connected to their network, like this shot of Bob Dylan on a Triumph or this Easy Rider poster. (Both can be ordered. You just can't remotely download for free.) Get past the system's shortcomings and it’s totally worth the effort for old-school cool. Based on my time digging around, the LoC has almost no modern motorcycle content, so if you want photos of a Yamaha MT-07 or something, look elsewhere (seriously, most of these photos aren’t even in color). But if you’re into very early motorcycles, or want some unique photos with cool stories to hang on your wall, read on. 

Start by opening up the Library of Congress’ Photo, Print, and Drawing main page. “Motorcycle” seems to be the best search term, but experiment with your own if you’d like. Make sure you select “Available Online,” since the LoC will only let you view some material while physically at their location. If that all sounds complicated, click here for a search I set up for you. Now that you’re browsing, you might start seeing pictures you like. Sweet! Time to figure out what to do with them. 

Getting the most out of your images

"Flying Merkel. Miamicycle & Mfg. Co. poster, via Library of Congress.
Maybe you really dig this Flying Merkel poster from around 1913. I sure do.

The easiest way to do something with these images, of course, is to download them. I'd go for the largest JPEG file, and also grab the TIFF, if available. If you’ve got a printer and some photo paper, that might be all you need for garage art or a picture on your desk. If you’d like to give a print as a gift, or maybe you’re looking for a fine wall-hanger, take that file to your local print shop or photo place and have it printed on their equipment. Make sure you have the right file type before you go. FedEx Office, for example, can print TIFF files, but a self-serve print kiosk might not be able to.

If you want something really special, you can use the LoC’s Duplication Services. Fill out an order form, and they’ll make you a copy (digital or physical) from their archives and mail it to you. Like the rest of the process, the form is a little odd, so here’s a screenshot of the information I’d put in to order the example Flying Merkel poster. 

Library of Congress screenshot, showing sample order form.

Along with the Reproduction Number, I added the title and call number to the “Identifying information for this item” box. Any librarian worth his or her salt should be able to take it from there. The next step is to select the format they’ll be delivering to you. Again, I don’t think most readers will want a digital file on a CD (my computer doesn’t even have a disc drive…), so skip on down to the print section and choose color or black and white, then glossy or matte. Fill out the rest of the application, submit your request, and they’ll e-mail you back with a final quote. Follow the directions in the e-mail to pay for your order (via credit, debit, PayPal, or through Amazon, strangely enough). Once paid, the folks in the lab’ll get to work on your print.

Now, sit back and be patient. My package arrived just a few days after they sent me the shipping notification, but don't expect Amazon Prime processing speeds. The prints traveled in an armored fortress, built with four layers of cardboard, two layers of foamcore, and thick tape around all the edges. The two 16-inch-by-20-inch prints together ran me $103 shipped, which is pretty hard to beat for work from an accomplished photographer.

As delivered. RevZilla photo.

I wish the whole process was easier, but I couldn’t be happier with the results. To help you out, I’ve rounded up some of my favorites to save you some time. Make sure to read the usage rights if you’re planning on using an image for anything other than personal enjoyment. Click the orange description text under any of the images to visit its LoC page.

"Motor cycle races, Laurel, Md., Nov. 25, 1915." Photographer unknown, via Library of Congress.

"Andre Grapperon." Photographer unknown, via Library of Congress.

The handwritten label makes me like this photo even more. "Motorcycle Machine Gun." Bain News Service photo, via Library of Congress.

"Motorcycle races." Photographer unknown, via Library of Congress.

Freddie Fretwell raced his Harley to victory just before this picture was taken in 1922. His pet monkey and occasional riding partner escaped once and caused a "gorilla panic." "Fretwell." Photographer unknown, via Library of Congress.

Carl Fleischauer's work focused on documenting America, including cattle ranches. "On Motorcycle." Carl Fleischhauer photo, via Library of Congress.

John Margolies famously recorded the experience of traveling in America, including roadside oddities and tourist destinations. "Motorcycles and shoes, Daytona Beach, Florida." John Margolies photo, via Library of Congress.

Camila J. Vergara, a sociologist turned photographer, famously captured urban decay and murals. "West 124th St. at Malcolm X Blvd., Harlem, 1994." Camilo J. Vergara photo, via Library of Congress.

Of course, you're not limited to just motorcycle pictures. There are thousands of images to pick through, but we've got one-track minds over here at Common Tread. Print 'em, don't hide 'em!