Motorcycles are mechanical steeds that require a rider to harness the horsepower. Whether ridden for pleasure, for work, in competition or pure escape, a machine is nothing without its operator. Capturing the essence of that jockey is Henry von Wartenberg, an Argentinian photographer who has traveled the world, catching fleeting moments of mechanical time with his trusty Leica camera. His newest book, The Riders – published by Motorbooks – has been years in the making, but it all started for Henry when he was just 11 years old.

Henry von Wartenberg’s latest book, documenting 25 trips through 30 countries: The Riders (Motorbooks)

Born and raised in Mar del Plata, Buenos Aires, Henry was fascinated from his mid-1970s boyhood by motorcycles. Influencing that interest was the popular American television show, CHiPs. Pretending his simple pedal bike was a Highway Patrol motorcycle, he’d tear around the streets, chasing criminals just like his hero, Ponch. “Then, in 1978, when I was 11, my mom bought me a Honda PC50 moped – and my dreams came true! Four more Hondas in a row followed, including a 100cc, 550cc 400cc and 650cc.”

Bolivia’s salt plains mimic the Bonneville Salt Flats, but are much more difficult to access, albeit spectacular. [Henry von Wartenberg/Motorbooks]
Six years later, Henry bought his first 35-mm single lens reflex camera, an Olympus OM.  “I spent long and happy days with that camera, when you had to focus really well before taking a picture. I’m completely self-taught, and I had a notebook where I was writing successes and errors. I also had a book called ‘Be A Professional Photographer’ – or something similar – that I carried everywhere.”

The crowded roads of India, with every imaginable type of vehicle sharing the roads, makes for spectacular photos. [Henry von Wartenberg/Motorbooks]
Add into the mix of motorcycles and cameras the sport of polo. From an early age he played the equestrian team sport, and horses, of course, require care. After finishing high school, Henry enrolled in vet school. In his fourth year of study in 1989, though, he received a contract to play professional polo in France. While there, he saw an exhibit of photographs by Henri Cartier-Bresson, the progenitor of the ‘street photography’ genre, making incredible photo on the fly by capturing, as he put it, ‘the decisive moment’. Working from the mid-1930s with the then-recently developed 35-mm portable Leica camera, Cartier-Bresson captured thousands of images. In 1947, he helped co-found the photographic cooperative Magnum Photos. “I understood that I wanted to be a photographer when I saw that Cartier-Bresson show,” Henry says. “I was in France for two years, and when I was not on top of the horses working, I was taking photos all the time. In 1992, when I returned to Argentina for a process with my passport, I was able to photograph a very important event that occurred in Buenos Aires (military revolt against the democratic process), and the main Argentine magazine bought them from me, and also offered me a job. I accepted that job and did not return to France, nor did I continue studying veterinary medicine, having left in my fourth year of school.”

A rider in Altai, Mongolia. [Henry von Wartenberg/Motorbooks]
Henry worked tirelessly for ten years as a lensman with Gente magazine, and has since collaborated with numerous other magazines and newspapers around the world. He has no less than 24 books published with his photos. “But no matter where I am or what work I have been commissioned to do, there are certain things that hypnotically attract me: motorcycles and riders is the main one of those ‘distractions.’ At some point, I realized that I could have a good book project; then, I began to really ‘search’ for the images, and not just ‘find’ them by chance.”

A rider in Santiago Chile. [Henry von Wartenberg/Motorbooks]
With hundreds of images of riders in his portfolio, he reached out to Motorbooks publisher Zack Miller. Henry has worked with the Motorbooks team in the past, having photographed the 2013 book, The Art of BMW. From the start, Zack was impressed with Henry’s ‘rider’ photographs, and worked to bring The Riders to life with contributions from well-respected writers including our own Paul d’Orléans along with Andy Goldfine, Peter Egan and Dave Nichols. ‘The Riders: Motorcycle Adventurers, Cruisers, Outlaws and Racers the World Over’ is a hardcover book of 192 pages with 150 of Henry’s images, and it’s set to drop in early April. Support your vital independent bookseller, and pre-order there – it’s $45 US.

The typical limb-lost rider tends to buy a sidecar for stability, but not this Vespa fan in Buenos Aires. [Henry von Wartenberg/Motorbooks]
As for Henry, he’s still very much enamored of motorcycles. Over the years, he’s tinkered with some classic machines including a 1948 Norton ES2, 1948 Harley-Davidson Flathead, 1941 Indian 500, 1948 Douglas 350 and a 1948 Sunbeam S7. Now in his garage at home in Tigre, a small city just 30 minutes north of Buenos Aires, Henry has a 2013 BMW F800GS he’s nicknamed Jimmy. Several years ago, he rode this bike from Alaska to Ushuaia. He also has a 1977 BMW R60/7, 2017 BMW 1200 NineT Urban GS and a 1999 Piaggio Vespa 150. In February, he plans to ride the Vespa over Route 40, “The most wild road in Argentina,” he says.

A trip through South America on a vintage Gilera Saturno. [Henry von Wartenberg/Motorbooks]
After that, in April he plans to pedal an old racing bicycle across the U.S., riding from San Francisco to New York. He’ll spend 46 days on the road, documenting the journey with his trusty Leica camera – in fact, Leica is helping sponsor the trip. This adventure could end up in a book, as he’s already been communicating with Zack about the possibility. For now, though, Henry says seeing his life’s work of photographing motorcyclists published in The Riders, “It’s the award for perseverance with a subject. It is following an assignment without anyone asking you to, but trusting that the path I take is good. We reached our destination with success!”

Laura Antoine, a regular fixture of Wheels&Waves Biarritz since the beginning, with her amazing custom machine. [Henry von Wartenberg/Motorbooks]

Greg Williams is a motorcycle writer and publisher based in Calgary who contributes the Pulp Non-Fiction column to The Antique Motorcycle and regular feature stories to Motorcycle Classics. He is proud to reprint the Second and Seventh Editions of J.B. Nicholson’s Modern Motorcycle Mechanics series. Follow him on IG: @modernmotorcyclemechanics