Danny Lyon

Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, USA

A section of darkroom wall taken from Danny Lyon’s upstate New York studio opens ‘Message to the Future’, the Whitney Museum’s retrospective of the prolific photographer, filmmaker and writer. A bricolage of decoratively lettered envelopes, headshots of radical Leftist political thinkers (Che Guevara, Lenin), photographers (Edward Weston, Paul Fusco), long-time friends (the sculptor Mark di Suvero), family snapshots and other ephemera embodies the catholic themes – travel, politics, family, counte-culture and cultural memory – that have, since the early 1960s, animated Lyon’s work. Inspired by Walker Evans and Robert Frank’s records of American life, Lyon sought to create ‘crushing and personal images’. Consequently, he spent his life getting involved in the lives of others, picturing people on society’s fringes – worlds apart from his own middle-class upbringing in New York – with an emotional charge. 

Lyon cut his teeth during the Civil Rights Movement, travelling to the South in 1964 as a photographer for the Student Non-Violent Co-ordinating Committee (SNCC). A section of the show is devoted to work from this era, including a harrowing image of fellow photographer and activist Clifford Vaughs, who looks as if he’s about to be torn apart by a group of National Guardsmen armed with bayonets. We can assume that Lyon, a white photographer, would not have been subjected to the same violence (Vaughs was black). The exhibition rightly honours the original purpose of these pictures of direct-action tactics, which were used in SNCC’s posters and pamphlets, cropped to maximize visual punch and overlaid with calls to action. Some bear red notations, indicating how a picture would be put to use; one became the cover of Lyon’s 1964 book The Movement: Documentary of a Struggle for Equality. For many photographers of this era, before the medium earned art-world credibility, the book was the form – especially so for social documentarians who used text to deepen the context for their pictures. 

18_haiti.jpg

Danny Lyon, Haiti, 1987, silver gelatin print montage. 58 x 58 cm. Courtesy Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York © Danny Lyon 

Danny Lyon, Haiti, 1987, silver gelatin print montage. 58 x 58 cm. Courtesy Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York © Danny Lyon 

Another such publication, The Bikeriders (1967), is a window into Lyon’s peripatetic lifestyle, particularly during his time in a motorcycle club called The Outlaws. There is obvious resonance here with Hunter S. Thompson’s Hell’s Angels (1966) and the subjective approach to non-fiction popularized by New Journalism. As a photographer, Lyon is often present, whether through self-portraits (in one, as a self-styled rebel clad in leather astride his motorcycle) or through his own commentary woven into his books. He opts not to be an invisible witness.

04_crossing-ohio-river-louisville.jpg

Danny Lyon, Crossing the Ohio River, Louisville, 1966, vintage silver gelatin print. 20 x 32 cm. Courtesy: Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York © Danny Lyon 

Danny Lyon, Crossing the Ohio River, Louisville, 1966, vintage silver gelatin print. 20 x 32 cm. Courtesy: Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York © Danny Lyon 

In the late 1960s, Lyon documented life inside Texan prisons, developing close friendships with some inmates. The most jarring of these images reveal a system resembling slavery, where armed, horse-mounted guards survey black prisoners picking cotton. The title of the book that collated this work, Conversations with the Dead: Photographs of Prison Life, with the Letters and Drawings of Billy McCune (1971), acknowledges a death-row inmate with whom he corresponded for decades. By incorporating his subjects’ voices directly into his work, Lyon sought to subvert documentary conventions and resist the limitations of the still image. Perhaps inevitably, Lyon also explored the filmic medium, and the Whitney’s presentation of these works is a highlight. One standout, Soc.Sci 127 (1969), is a portrait of a louche, likely alcoholic, tattoo artist in Houston who rambles about his craft, the etymology of the word fellatio and the war in Vietnam.

13_weight-lifters-ramsey-unit.jpg

Danny Lyon, Weight lifters, Ramsey Unit, Texas, 1968, vintage silver gelatin print, 22 x 33 cm. Courtesy Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York © Danny Lyon 

Danny Lyon, Weight lifters, Ramsey Unit, Texas, 1968, vintage silver gelatin print, 22 x 33 cm. Courtesy Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York © Danny Lyon 

If Lyon’s tendency to romanticize the itinerant existence of ‘outsiders’ – often the poor and vulnerable – feels nostalgic, viewers can seek out his elegiac studies of buildings in lower Manhattan as they are dismantled, brick by brick. Published as a book in 1969, The Destruction of Lower Manhattan speaks less overtly to social forces (in this case, Robert Moses and New York’s powerful banks) shaping lives. Although these formal studies of light, shadow and volume are largely absent of people, they are still pointedly melancholic – emblems of Lyon’s desire to record the erasure of history and discover his ‘facts through forms and beauty’.

Main image: Danny Lyon, Tesca, Cartagena, Colombia, 1966. cibachrome, 26 x 26 cm. Courtesy: Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York © Danny Lyon

Michael Famighetti is an editor and writer living in New York, USA.

Issue 182

First published in Issue 182

October 2016

Most Read

Ignoring its faux-dissident title, this year's edition at the New Museum displays a repertoire that is folky, angry,...
An insight into royal aesthetics's double nature: Charles I’s tastes and habits emerge as never before at London’s...
In other news: Artforum responds to #NotSurprised call for boycott of the magazine; Maria Balshaw apologizes for...
At transmediale in Berlin, contesting exclusionary language from the alt-right to offshore finance
From Shanghai to Dubai, a new history charts the frontiers where underground scenes battle big business for electronic...
Hauser & Wirth Somerset, Bruton, UK
Zihan Karim, Various Way of Departure, 2017, video still. Courtesy: Samdani Art Foundation
Can an alternative arts network, unmediated by the West's commercial capitals and burgeoning arts economies of China...
‘That moment, that smile’: collaborators of the filmmaker pay tribute to a force in California's film and music scenes...
In further news: We Are Not Surprised collective calls for boycott of Artforum, accuses it of 'empty politics'; Frida...
We Are Not Surprised group calls for the magazine to remove Knight Landesman as co-owner and withdraw move to dismiss...
Paul Thomas Anderson's latest film is both gorgeous and troubling in equal measure
With Zona Maco opening in the city today, a guide to the best exhibitions across the Mexican capital
The question at the heart of Manchester Art Gallery’s artwork removal: what are the risks when cultural programming...
In further news: Sonia Boyce explains removal of Manchester Art Gallery’s nude nymphs; Creative Scotland responds to...
Ahead of the India Art Fair running this weekend in the capital, a guide to the best shows to see around town
The gallery argues that the funding body is no longer supportive of institutions that maintain a principled refusal of...
The Dutch museum’s decision to remove a bust of its namesake is part of a wider reconsideration of colonial histories,...
At New York’s Metrograph, a diverse film programme addresses a ‘central problem’ of feminist filmmaking
Ronald Jones pays tribute to a rare critic, art historian, teacher and friend who coined the term Post-Minimalism
In further news: curators rally behind Laura Raicovich; Glasgow's Transmission Gallery responds to loss of Creative...
Nottingham Contemporary, UK
‘An artist in a proud and profound sense, whether he liked it or not’ – a tribute by Michael Bracewell
Ahead of a show at Amsterdam’s EYE Filmmuseum, how the documentarian’s wandering gaze takes in China’s landscapes of...
In further news: Stedelijk explains why it cancelled Ettore Sottsass retrospective; US National Gallery of Art cancels...
With 11 of her works on show at the Musée d'Orsay, one of the most underrated artists in modern European history is...
Reopening after a two-year hiatus, London’s brutalist landmark is more than a match for the photographer’s blockbuster...
What the Google Arts & Culture app tells us about our selfie obsession
At a time of #metoo fearlessness, a collection of female critics interrogate their own fandom for music’s most...
A rare, in-depth interview with fashion designer Jil Sander

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

October 2017

frieze magazine

November - December 2017

frieze magazine

January - February 2018