Motorcycles, photographs and stories are intricately intertwined in the life of legendary New York-based lensman Allan Tannenbaum. After decades of capturing stunning and important images of musicians, world altering events and simple moments of everyday life, a few years ago Allan was invited to share his work and experiences at a Motos and Photos NYC event. There, he met filmmaker and motorcyclist Jean Pierre Kathoefer, or as he prefers, JP. “We met there first, and then several more times at other motorcycle events,” says JP, whose daily rider is a KTM 990 Adventure. Born in Germany, JP began riding at a very early age aboard a Yamaha PW50. A career in IT brought him to New York some 10 years ago, but filmmaking took precedence after purchasing a GoPro camera – and then becoming very proficient with all manner of movie equipment. Six years ago, JP founded the video production company johnnypuetz Productions.

Allan Tannenbaum aboard a Norton Commando in 1970 and 2019. [Richard Baron / Peter Domorak]
Always on the lookout for an interesting tale to tell, it soon became apparent to JP that he needed to create a documentary film about Allan. Filmed during the summer of 2022, the work is complete and ready to be pitched to motorcycle film festivals worldwide. Back To The Present, JP says, is a 12-minute documentary about, “Allan, a man who is full of stories that are so interesting. Every time I speak to him, he has a new story and it’s incredible what he’s done through his career. And his images, although I couldn’t have attached his name to them, I’d seen many of them before I knew who he was.”  Watch the trailer for the Back to the Present here!

Mick and Bianca Jagger arrive at the Andy Warhol re-opening party of the Copacabana night club. [Allan Tannenbaum]
Allan’s images are iconic. Beginning in the late 1960s through the early 1980s, he photographed Andy Warhol, Jimi Hendrix The Clash, The Rolling Stones, Blondie, The Ramones and Patti Smith, among dozens of others. His work photographing John Lennon and Yoko Ono filming a nude scene for their “Starting Over” video remains a particular highlight in his portfolio. In the 1970s, Allan was working as chief photographer and photo editor of the SoHo Weekly News, documenting New York’s prolific arts, music and political scene of the era.

Members of the Chingalings Motorcycle Club on their bikes outside their rent-free city-owned clubhouse in the South Bronx. [Allan Tannenbaum]
When the paper quit publishing in 1982, Allan joined Sygma Photo News, traveling worldwide to capture revolutions, rebellions and other significant milestones, including the release of Nelson Mandela from prison. Allan was born in 1945 in Passaic, New Jersey. “America was a paradise in the 1950s,” Allan explains over the phone from his home in New York. “I made that comment kind of tongue in cheek on an Instagram post a while ago, and it got a lot of positive comments, and quite a few negative ones, as well. Nothing is ever perfect. But I had a pretty good childhood. I liked to draw pictures when I was sitting in class instead of paying attention. I loved building plastic and balsa wood models with gas-powered motors, that was my introduction to motors, really. Simply assembling things and making things work interested me. And I loved riding my Raleigh 3-speed bicycle. One of my proudest accomplishments was becoming an Eagle Scout; I learned so much from that.”

Jimi Hendrix and the Experience perform at Winterland, San Francisco, CA, October 1968. [Allan Tannenbaum]
Then came cars. He got his learner’s permit at 16 and his driver’s license at 17. He worked to purchase his first car, a 1954 Lincoln Capri, which was big and luxurious but not really Allan’s style. Next came a stick-shift 1953 Mercury Coupe with a flathead V8. “I didn’t really have a budget to customize it, and it was really such a cool looking car that I didn’t think it needed any customization. I love hot rods and all that stuff, but fast forward to my 1968 Norton project, I just liked restoring it to its classic appearance.”

Debora Harry and Chris Stein of Blondie on their roof. NYC 11/28/80.
From ‘SoHo Blues – A Personal Photographic Diary of New York City in the 1970s’ by SoHo Weekly News chief photographer Allan Tannenbaum.

In the summer of 1964, after his sophomore year at Rutgers University, Allan and a friend with a 1940 Studebaker sedan drove the car across Route 66 to Los Angeles and up the Pacific Coast Highway to San Francisco where they stayed with friends in a loft on the Embarcadero. “That was, I guess, my first big adventure,” he says. It was also when he experienced his first yearning to learn about photography. While in San Francisco, outside the main post office, Allan witnessed an anti-Vietnam war demonstration. “My friend had a nice 35mm Miranda camera which he’d left in the car, and I felt the urge to take pictures. I wanted to use the camera, but realized I didn’t have a clue. That was it, I said I wanted to learn how to take pictures.”

Allan Tannenbaum on his blue Honda CA77 Dream he bought in San Francisco to explore California and Mexico. [Allan Tannenbaum]
Late that summer, Allan began driving the Studebaker back east but ran out of gas money in Salt Lake City, regrettably abandoning the car and hitchhiking the rest of the way. Upon his return to New York, he says he was out of sync with school and got kicked out of his junior year. “I didn’t feel like hanging around the East Coast anymore after a taste of California and hitchhiked back to San Francisco in the fall of ’64. I got a job, a place to stay, and one of the things I did, because I’d wanted one for a long time, was get a motorcycle.” He went to a Honda dealer and saw a used 305 Dream, in blue, with whitewall tires. After learning to ride, he took off at night to visit a friend in Fresno. He then toured down to Southern California and into Mexico.

Muhammad Ali shadow boxes at his Deer Lake, PA, training camp. [Allan Tannenbaum]
“That was my introduction to motorcycling, and I also bought a Mamiya Sekor 35mm reflex camera. The city had a recreation center, where for $10 a year you could use their facilities which included a studio, a film developing area and a big lab with lots of enlargers and chemicals in trays and attendants that would come and take your prints and wash them and dry them. That was amazing. I would go there, and I learned how to develop film and how to make prints. I didn’t know what I was doing, but got started, and started to get the hang of it. I’m completely self-taught, and that’s where I learned my basic skills. A lot was trial and error, but I also enjoyed going to photography exhibitions and I’d hang out in North Beach and at City Lights bookstore, where I’d look at photography books.”

Patti Smith wears a t-shirt that says ‘Fuck The Clock’ at a New Year’s Eve concert at CBGBs. [Allan Tannenbaum]
Allan was happy with his Honda until seeing a Triumph 650 twin. “My bike was second-rate after seeing that Triumph, that was a revelation for me,” he says. He admits to being an East Coast / West Coast yo-yo, traveling back and forth over the years. In 1965, he shipped the Honda back to New Jersey where he worked a summer job and returned to Rutgers. “I’d started off at school as a five-year Engineering student but was terrible at Math. After getting the worst grades of my life, I switched to Philosophy. I had life questions, but the courses brought up more questions than they answered. I finally switched to Art and had a combination of Art History and Studio Art courses.” There were no photography courses at Rutgers University, but Allan would use his nascent camera skills to shoot pictures for the campus newspaper and picked up a 16mm Bolex movie camera for the first time. Things changed in the fall of 1966, however, when Allan saw the film Blow-Up. “I saw it three times, and I said that’s what I want to be, that’s the life I want, that of a photographer. It portrayed swinging London of the 1960s, with beautiful models, nitty gritty photojournalism and a murder mystery. And I saw the main character, Thomas, played by David Hemmings, using a Hasselblad.”

The Godfather of Soul, James Brown, jumps on Broadway. [Allan Tannenbaum]
In 1967 for his college graduation, Allan persuaded his father and grandmother to give him a Hasselblad 500C. It’s a camera he still owns, and still uses. With his art degree, a good camera and knowledge of how to use it, however, Allan says he found there were no easy opportunities to put it all together as a paying gig. “I went back to San Francisco during the Summer of Love, and went over to Haight Street, but didn’t like that so went to Los Angeles and hung out there in Manhattan Beach. But when summer was over, I’d been accepted at San Francisco State in the graduate film department and went to film school. The film I made there, No Satisfaction [NSFW] features a Triumph T100.” In the summer of 1968, back in New Jersey, Allan went to see a friend who had a visitor riding a Norton Atlas. “I fell in love with the bike, and he let me take it for a ride. Not only did he let me go for a ride with it, but he let his girlfriend ride on the back. A beautiful blonde, I should have just kept on going with the bike and the girl. But that was it, I was sold. And then the Commando came out.”

Allan with his first Norton Commando, after he’d shipped it to Europe for touring. Here he’s in Brighton, England, circa 1970. [Allen Tannenbaum]
Working jobs as a U.S. Merchant Seaman and as a cab driver, Allan saved enough money to go to England in the summer of 1970 where for $980 he bought a new Norton Commando under the personal export scheme. He toured England on the Commando and crossed the English Channel to Paris. From France, he rode over the Pyrenees to Barcelona and then took a ferry to Ibiza. He did the same trip back to London before shipping the Commando home to New York. He says in 1972 he tried his hand as a motorcycle photojournalist and was published a few times in Motorcyclist. However, “I soon found out that it was not a financially viable profession.” Sadly, it was in New York where the Commando met its fate in the fall of 1973 when a driver ran a light and took the Norton out from under him. The machine was totaled, and instead of investing the insurance money in another motorcycle, he put it towards photography equipment.

A self-portrait with his Mamiya Sekor 35mm reflex camera. [Allan Tannenbaum]
“I credit that Norton, though, for perhaps helping me get the break with the SoHo News,” he explains. “I was living in Brooklyn, but my hangout was SoHo because that was where the art world was. In the early 1970s, I’d ride over and have a drink and hang out in Kenn’s Broome Street Bar. One night I saw a pile of newspapers on the cigarette machine and it was the SoHo Weekly News (which began publishing in 1973). I saw the photos had credits and thought they had a photographer already. But a friend called a few weeks later and told me they were looking for a photographer and I interviewed and got the job.” Allan characterizes his SoHo News era as “eight years of Blow-Up,” including the murder mystery. “I lived it,” he says.

Shades of the present: a Palestinian demonstrator holding a banned Palestinian flag leaps over a burning barricade in Nablus, during the First Intifada, in 1988. [Allan Tannenbaum]
After the paper ceased printing in 1982, he joined the French photo agency Sygma Photo News which saw him traveling around the world and documenting important events. Although he didn’t own another motorcycle after the Norton for several years, when presented with an opportunity to ride, he always took it. He says, “In 1992, I flew to L.A. to cover the riots there. I hooked up with fellow Sygma photojournalist Bill Nation, who was starting a motorcycle dealership named Pro-Italia. When the story calmed down, we took a 750 and a 900 Ducati for a Sunday morning ride on the Angeles Crest Highway in the San Gabriel Mountains. I rode the 900 up, and after breakfast at Newcomb’s Ranch, I rode the 750 back to Glendale.”

Nelson Mandela with his wife Winnie after being released from prison in 1990. Mandela was arrested in 1962 after many years of agitating against racist apartheid in South Africa, when the CIA tipped off the South African authorities to his location. Mandela went on to become the first Black president, and first democratically elected president in South African history. [Allan Tannenbaum]
It was another Norton that eventually led Allan to meet up with JP at a Motos and Photos event. In the mid-1990s Allan’s younger brother, Gary, was running a motorcycle repair and restoration shop called Classic Iron in Morgantown, West Virginia. Although Gary liked his BMWs, he had a basket case 1968 Norton Commando he was looking to sell and offered it to Allan. “I was interested and went down, and saw just a bunch of pieces,” Allan says. But, undeterred, he paid for the Norton project and had his brother start the restoration. It was a slow process that didn’t really evolve until 2015, when Gary was moving. He told Allan if he wanted the Norton he’d better come and get it.

Hutu refugees from Rwanda in refugee camps in Kimumba, Zaire, fleeing genocide in their home country. [Allan Tannenbaum]
Renting a U-Haul trailer to tow behind his Subaru, Allan picked up the machine and brought it back to New York. Hugh Mackie at Sixth Street Specials got it together and back on the road. “Hugh put it together very quickly, and while it’s not a concours restoration, that’s the way I wanted it because it’s something I could ride without worry about scratching it or chipping it,” Allan adds. In JP’s film Back To The Present, Allan’s stories, photographs and the 1968 Commando are prevalent. JP writes in his Director’s Statement regarding Back To The Present, “Allan’s story is one of resilience and sensitivity. While he’s captured huge personalities like Andy Warhol, James Brown, Salvador Dali, it was a privilege to take a step back and speak to the iconic artist behind the lens, who continues to inspire future generations of creators.”

Perhaps his most famous photograph from September 11, 2001. The twin towers had collapsed after two passenger jets were slammed into them, causing almost 3,000 deaths. NYC
Firefighter Tim Duffy arrives downtown on his Harley-Davidson after 1st tower had collapsed. [Allan Tannenbaum]
Allan explains, “I’ve been very lucky that I have had a long career in photography,” and he continues, “Over the years I’ve been able to perceive changes that were coming in the business of photojournalism. I was lucky to be able to transition from covering art and music and showbiz in the SoHo years to doing international photojournalism which was a different game. And I was able to be successful at that. In the 1990s, though, being an international photojournalist wasn’t as easy anymore due to considerations of the news magazines, which were gradually disappearing to be replaced by celebrity journalism.

Photojournalist Allan Tannenbaum arrives in Duane Street after a Lower Manhattan ride on his 1968 Norton Commando. [Allan Tannenbaum]
There’ve been a lot of changes, including the switch to digital photography.” With his workhorse Hasselblad film camera and a top-of-the-line digital Canon R5, Allan continues to shoot but derives much of his living from selling limited edition fine-art prints of the work he shot during the 1970s. In his studio, he currently enjoys poring over his old contact sheets to discover images he’d previously ignored, to find something fresh. All his work is legendary, with four books of his images available, including New York in the 70s; New York; John & Yoko: A New York Love Story; and Grit & Glamour – The Street Style, High Fashion, and Legendary Music of the 1970s. Follow him on Instagram @soho_blues. With some six decades of experience, he concludes, “You have to be very adaptive and ready to change in the photography business.”

You can watch the full film about Allan Tannenbaum, ‘Back to the Present’, on vimeo.


Greg Williams is Profiles Editor for The Vintagent. He’s 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
Related Posts

The Vintagent Original: Summer Ride

David Martinez mashes up the…

San Francisco Art Deco Day, 2006

The Legion of Honor Museum of San…

Legend of the Motorcycle Attire

It was an event that changed the…

Subscribe to Our Weekly Newsletter