“Danny Lyon: Message to the Future,” the photographer’s most comprehensive retrospective is currently on view at The Whitney Museum of American Art. The show boasts an impressive 175 photographs and films as well as rarely exhibited archives and personal documents. It is divided thematically exhibiting Lyon’s most well known bodies of work, and roughly chronologically traces the start of his career in 1962 all the way to Lyon’s work in the present day. The exhibition is divided into seven sections: Civil Rights, The Bikeriders, The Destruction of Lower Manhattan, Prisons, New Mexico and the West, Films and Montages, and Ongoing Activism. From the titles alone Lyon’s broad range of interest in social issues and concern for the marginalized and disenfranchised is made apparent. His work represents a nonconventional and intimate approach where Lyon immerses himself in his subject’s world, gaining an insider perspective that moves beyond mere observation and into a wholehearted and genuine interest.
“You put a camera in my hand, I want to get close to people. Not just physically close, emotionally close, all of it.” –Danny Lyon, The Whitney Museum of American Art
Lyon began his career in 1962 when he began working with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) as their first official photographer, documenting the civil rights movement in the South. He captured sit-ins, demonstrations, marches, funerals, and the general turbulent and violent atmosphere of the period. His photographs were used in brochures, posters, and fundraising campaigns, many of which portrayed the brutal force of the police academy, questioning their position and responsibilities to civilians. One 1962 SNCC poster of a [white] officer, arms crossed, reads “Is He Protecting You?” It is highly unsettling to see just how many of these images seem so familiar and resonate in American culture today.
Turning the corner we are met with cool, hard faced bikers in leather jackets with matching “Chicago Outlaws” insignia. This selection is based off of Lyon’s time spent riding with the Chicago Outlaws Motorcycle Club in the late 1960s. Romanticized shots of the Outlaws on the road, such as Crossing the Ohio River, Louisville (1966) and Route 12, Wisconsin (1963) indulge us in the liberating freedom such groups enjoyed, while in several close up portraits we have a rarely seen, tamer version of the bikers—surrounded by their families, girlfriends, and wives. The rebellious nature of the bikers, matched with their unapologetic pursuit of freedom attracted the photographer to the group. After spending more time with them and gaining their confidence, Lyon began recording the group speaking candidly and conducted informal yet highly personal interviews. The photographic documentation and edited transcripts would become his famous book, “The Bikers,” published in 1967.
In his extensive body of work, Prisons, encompassing photographs, interviews, recordings, and film, Lyon chronicled life behind bars. With the help of Dr. George Beto, then director of prisons within the Texas Department of Corrections, Lyon gained access over a fourteen-month period to move freely inside prison complexes and to follow prisoners around on their daily activities. We see personal belongings like photographs and calendars, games of checkers, labor time on the fields, shakedowns, security pat-downs, and officers on guard. These images are as serious and somber as they are filled with humanity and understanding of these men and their situations. The resulting photographs, film footage, and other archival documents would become the book “Conversations with the Dead” published in 1971.
“[I wanted to] make a picture of imprisonment as distressing as I knew it to be in reality.” –Danny Lyon, The Whitney Museum of American Art
Documentation, and truthful documentation, is the end goal throughout Lyon’s photographic practice. His images are transparent, direct, and charged with meaning and message. Each one serves a to bring injustice to the surface with the hope to promote social change. With this approach he has challenged the conventional “sanitized” vision of American life as presented in media, offering up an alternative that portrays the various social histories of America.
From the 1970s and onward he shifted focus as a self-proclaimed “advocacy journalist.” His activist drive took him to various Latin American countries where he captured laborers and street children, undocumented workers crossing the US-Mexico border, and the violent revolution in Haiti. More recently, between 2005-09, he traveled to China to documented communities living in polluted regions.
Regardless of subject matter, geographic location, or time period, all of Lyon’s images are linked through a common spirit: the photographer’s compassionate character and relentless ambition to be a truth teller. The result is his inherent ability to humanize his subjects while returning the dignity and character that social prejudices and ignorance have stolen from them. These are human beings worthy of a second chance and worthy of a second glance.
A single look at these photographs and we are filled with more understanding and compassion than when we entered, a comprehension that seems as relevant today as it did decades ago. If that’s not the point of art, then I don’t know what is.
Danny Lyon: Message to the Future is on display June 17-September 25, 2016 at The Whitney Museum of American Art.