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.
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.
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.
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
First published in Issue 182