PRINT September 1995


Danny Lyon was a photo-school icon in the ’70s; his subjects helped define the milieus of choice for the male photographers of those times—prisons, biker gangs, political movements. This year, though, when the word on the street made his retrospective at the Lowinsky Gallery in New York a must-see for me, I was surprised to find that much of his new work was devoted to his family: photos of his wife and children from the ’70s to the ’90s, made into collages that sometimes include older pictures of and by previous generations of Lyon’s family, and occasionally pictures from the other worlds in which Lyon travels. In their free mixtures of sizes, of subjects, of color and black and white, and of authors, these collages break the mold of the traditional single black and white documentary photograph. Visually and emotionally dense, they capture the complexity and ambivalence, as well as the pleasure and love, of family life.

Lyon is a journalist, but not by the usual ’90s definition. Whether he was photographing the Civil Rights Movement in the American South in the ’60s or the guerrilla uprising in Mexico in the ’90s, his journalism is not about the surface, the sensational, the soundbite; it is imbued with his respect for the people he photographs, and with the commitment and responsibility this respect entails. Now, in his collages, Lyon has come up with an emotional kind of journalism exploring classes and cultures and the options that people are allowed. Claiming the same credibility for his personal images as for his more conventional documentary pictures, he has made some of his most political and most moving work to date.

So I went to New Paltz, New York, where Danny had promised to introduce me to the Great Outdoors. (His first suggestion had been to talk to me while flounder-fishing in Long Island Sound.) Instead, though, we spent the day in his studio, a converted barn, occasionally looking out at the Great Outdoors while we scanned the photos in his meticulously ordered archives. At the end of the day, while driving me to my bus, he described his intense need to get his work out because “Once you’re dead, everyone will forget you.” In his case this is unlikely. The signature book at his gallery was full of personal messages: “I bailed you out in New Jersey and now you’re great.” “I couldn’t have written my dissertation on the Civil Rights Movement without your images.” “It’s 34 years since you spent a few days at my place.” “Remember me? You gave me a ride on your bike.” Lyon and his work have touched a lot of people, as his family photos have touched me, during his thirty years as one of America’s foremost photographers.
Nan Goldin

NAN GOLDIN: You’ve said you never pick a project for the sake of having a project, that you pursue things that come to you through life-things you already feel empathy with and passion about. How did your prison project, Conversations with the Dead [1971], come to you?

DANNY LYON: I’m not the same person I was when I did the prison work—we’re talking about 1967. At that time working in a prison was a romantic concept to me. I came from Queens, I went to Forest Hills High School, I went to the University of Chicago, so prison was completely foreign to me. And prisons weren’t photographed then, you never saw inside a prison. The public knew nothing about prisons. When Tom Wicker, one of the hot reporters for the New York Times back then, was told there was a rebellion in Attica, he said, What’s Attica? And that was in ’71, four years after I began this story. That’s the way it was, that’s the way they wanted it. And I distinctly remember thinking, If I could get inside a prison that would be very amazing.

I really stumbled into it. I was in Galveston doing a thing on black transvestites, and I saw a poster saying “Texas Prison Rodeo.” I went up there, to Huntsville, and slept in a park. With some press passes I had, I bullshitted my way onto the floor of the rodeo, a public rodeo that the Texas prisons still hold. The inmates are dressed up in stripes, which they no longer actually wear—that’s the old outfit. Of course they’re bringing that all back. In Alabama now they have chain gangs again, prisoners chained together working out on the roads—blacks, the descendants of slaves, back in chains.

So I was on the rodeo grounds and I started talking to inmates. A couple of them said, You can get in here with a camera. They told me how to do it. The next day, after sleeping in the park, I went to see this fellow who was the assistant director of the Texas prison system. The next thing I knew I was sitting in the director’s office, which was huge—the director of the prison system is a very important person in Texas. I was bullshitting as fast as I could. I think I implied I was with Life magazine. I saw the opportunity unfold in front of me, and I invented this whole thing on the spot: I said I wanted to do a serious historical study of the prisons, and I wanted to move to Texas to do it. The director, George Beto, said there was a sociologist working on the prisons, from New York State, and he asked if I knew him. The guy was at the State University of New York in Buffalo, and Beto said, If he says you’re okay, you can come in. I walked out thinking who the fuck is this guy? So I called Alan Rinzler, the editor who was doing The Bikeriders [1968], which hadn’t yet come out in print.

NG: Did the prison people know about The Bikeriders?

DL: I hid it from them. I was also afraid to show them the Civil Rights work. I really lived a double life.

So I asked Rinzler if he’d heard of this guy, whose name was Bruce Jackson. And he said he was publishing Bruce Jackson, he was doing a songbook or something with Bruce Jackson. I said, Hell, call the guy up, he’s got the keys to the Texas prisons. And I drove from Texas to Buffalo in a ’57 Chevy wagon. Jackson was very cordial to me, and did something very generous: he said, Sure, I’ll tell them you’re OK. And they gave me what they jokingly called the “Texas Ranger” pass: I could go anywhere except Death Row. I carried an ID just like a guard.

So I moved to Texas. There were 13 prisons in the system; I photographed 7 of them, including the women’s unit. I backed out of that one. I did a few days there and I couldn’t stand it, I was falling in love with the girls, it was just crazy.

NG: How did you meet Billy McCune, whose letters and drawings you included in Conversations with the Dead?

DL: He was just one of the prisoners, in the crazy unit. And there was another guy, Jimmy Gunn, who’s now doing life in Arkansas for murdering a policeman—he was a lithographer in the prison, and I wanted to print the prison book there. They had a big darkroom—they’re slaves, basically, they do all this printing for the state.

NG: Brochures and stuff?

DL: Yeah, reports, whatever. They could have done the book, and I was going to do it there, secretly. The darkroom in the print shop had five or ten men; they could close the door and lock it, which is a real valuable thing in a prison. The print shop had a lot of men, but I was buddies with all the lithographers and with Jimmy in particular. Then, at the last minute, the head of the print shop, who was a civilian, said, Well, it’s fine, but I want you to show the material to Beto first. And I just didn’t dare, so that was the end of it. But we did manage to make a little portfolio, Born to Lose. That was the first version of Conversations with the Dead.

They did it all in one night, and they wrapped it up with the offset negatives, and they said, Get this out of here. I smuggled it out, and the next day I got them all burgers and shakes, and I snuck that in. We were sitting around, this guy who had killed his wife and his mother-in-law, and Jimmy, and a teenager doing life, what they call the “big bitch,” and they studied these burgers. Because they were these big burgers with all this shit on them, and the straws had red stripes and you could bend them, and they’d never seen all this plastic stuff, with the lids on the drinks. They washed the straws and saved the containers to show other people and reuse.

NG: They’d been locked up so long these things were new. Did you still think prison was romantic after spending time in there?

DL: Well, what’s romantic? I write this guy Jimmy. He’s my buddy. I’d like to do a book with him. Jimmy killed a policeman—

NG: He’s the one who escaped, and who you’ve written about as “running for us all”?

DL: They had found him guilty of murder. I testified at the penalty phase of his trial. For that charge it was either life inside or death, so I showed them this portfolio he’d printed for me in Texas. You’re supposed to say that if they don’t execute him then maybe he’ll do something good in the future, for society. That was ten or fifteen years ago; now he’s writing a book for me. It’s a great fucking book. He escaped, see—the first guy ever to get out of this high-tech prison, and he took three other guys with him. The others got caught pretty quickly, but Jimmy wasn’t caught for a long time. I said to him a year ago, This would be a great book. So he’s been sending me, episode by episode, the story of what happened to him as one of the most wanted men in America, sought by every person with a gun. You’re looking at a guy everybody hates, and it’s like Get this fucking guy, kill this guy—

NG: American vigilantism!

DL: Right. Watch out for Jimmy Gunn! Extremely dangerous! Hates policemen! Yet the story he tells is like a fairy tale. He’s free. He’s free, you know, this man who’s spent all his life in manacles, in cells, in sewers, in dungeons. You know what solitary is like in Arkansas? Every time something happens—I mean they find a pliers missing, they say, OK, Gunn, in the hole. The hole is a row of cells in the basement. Often they’re three inches deep in water and feces.

NG: Can you help keep him out of isolation?

DL: I write letters to wardens, but what can you do? There are two thousand guys like that. I write him, I send him money so he can buy candy bars, or a headset. The worst thing in prison can be the other people there. It’s a zoo. They drive you crazy. The guy in the next cell is a rapper who won’t fuckin’ shut up.

NG: And there ’s a lot of violence?

DL: Well, he’s tough. They’re not going to mess with him. Officially he’s a cop-killer. They pick on the weak guy.

NG: Before Conversations with the Dead you’d done The Destruction of Lower Manhattan [1969], about the demolition of stretches of what is now called TriBeCa. But it was The Bikeriders that made you famous.

DL: It came out in ’68. Before that I’d done The Movement [1964]. about the Civil Rights Movement in the South, but that wasn’t really my book; I took most of the pictures, but I did it as part of SNCC [the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee], and I gave up control of it.

The Bikeriders is still controversial. A while ago I got someone in California on the phone when I was selling some of my books which I publish, and she said, Is this really Danny Lyon? And she just started screaming about this picture of bikers and a girl in a field. It’s a single frame—a pretty brutal frame—from a longer sequence. When I was invited to speak at Hampshire College about six months ago, a boy called and said he’d been raped and he wanted to talk to me for a few hours. I said I didn’t know anything about rape and I didn’t want to talk to him. He interrupted the class I was invited to by standing up with a black hood on and ripping it off, and he said he was ripping the hood off the secrecy of rape. They handed out a statement saying I was a rapist and I shouldn’t be allowed on campus.

NG: No!

DL: I was showing Media Man, my latest film, which I made with my wife, Nancy. It begins with me in the garden and it has jokes about Jesse Helms coming for dinner and rotting pumpkins and federal money. When it showed at Hampshire there was a candlelight vigil preventing people from entering the theater. I had come to the showing with Michael Thelwell, a Jamaican writer and a founder of the black studies department at Amherst, and an Asian woman. So at least we were integrated, and these fucking little white kids were standing there trying to keep people out.

It makes you feel shitty to be called a rapist. It immediately put me on the defensive. It’s like being called a communist in the ’50s. I grew up then and I remember it well: my mother, a Russian immigrant, was warned not to speak Russian on the phone, the FBI visited my father when he treated a Russian patient, and basically you were condemned by being accused, and there was no defense. At Hampshire College, Mike Thelwell, who had been involved with the Black Panthers, stood up and tried to tell these kids about my history, but they weren’t interested. When they were done attacking me, they attacked the woman who had invited me there to speak. And they didn’t know anything about the situation of the picture.

NG: And what was that situation?

DL: Well, what was the situation with you over 30 years ago? It was one of a myriad things I witnessed as a photographer. At that time I thought of myself as a journalist, and when you’re a journalist you intentionally place yourself in situations where most people aren’t, because you’re a kind of witness for them. Now I’ve been condemned and told to stay off campuses—for what? For photographing a motorcycle gang?

Of all the things that have happened to me, in a way it hurt me the most. The bikers never hurt me, and the prisoners never hurt me, but those kids at Hampshire College did. Six months later the Art Institute of Boston was giving me an honorary doctorate in the arts.

NG: The students are holding you responsible for something you witnessed.

DL: It’s a brutal picture to look at. When it was selected for a show, I went to Nancy, and I went to my daughter Gabe, and I said, What do you think? They pretty much said, This picture makes me sick. It made me sick too—it was never one of my favorite pictures. But one question was, What if this is a picture of a rape? I can hardly think of a single picture of a rape that’s ever been published. There are pictures of lynchings I know, there are pictures of Nazi atrocities, so I said, What if I have a picture of a rape? What should I do, hide it? This thing exists. I said, I’ll put it in the show and I’ll take the licks, it ought to be out there.

NG: It was a gang-bang?

DL: I didn’t think it was a gang-bang. I didn’t think it was a rape. I did feel at the time I’d seen something that disgusted me.

NG: It was something normal in biker culture.

DL: She didn’t ask for help at the time, she didn’t cry out, she didn’t object that I knew of, or say Stop, or anything like that. As far as I can figure out, she was the girlfriend of the biker she came with, and remained his girlfriend; for months afterward I photographed them together. So she was involved in this also. He didn’t find her at a mall and drag her over there.

NG: As photographers, how responsible are we for what we see?

DL: I feel totally responsible for what I see. I feel totally responsible for what I photograph. That’s how I feel.

In Atlanta in ’63 these Movement kids had sat down in the street and blocked traffic, which really irritates people. There was a mob and they started to abuse these kids, they put cigarettes out on them and they were pulling their hair. I was photographing it. And a white woman, walking with a ream of stationery, she looked like a secretary, was coming down the street in downtown Atlanta, and she said to this mob, What are you doing? And they looked up at this Southern white woman, and she started giving them a tongue-lashing. A woman against this mob, and she stopped them. I empathize with her.

NG: You’ve done traditional tough-man photography—the Movement, bikers, prisons—but your photocollages of your family, this emotional stuff that’s so full of love and joy, has a whole different breadth to it. How did that begin?

DL: In a way it began with my father. My mother died, and then my uncles and aunts, and then my father, all within 14 months, like elephants. I met Nancy at that time, and started a new family. We began to raise my children from my first marriage, and we began to have our own children.

In dealing with the loss, these photo albums of pictures my father either made or saved of the family were a treasure trove. I discovered my father at a time when I never knew him—my father as a teenager, in his 20s, in his 30s. And my mother younger than I ever knew her. Working with that material was cathartic. It’s part of the miracle of photography: there these people were—they were gone but their pictures existed. So I began using them in collages with my own pictures and texts. I try to show this continuity. In effect I’m explaining why this 18-year-old picks up a camera and starts using it to explore the world: in fact I was the second generation to do that. One of the sentences in the book I’m working on right now is that really, generations made this work. I deal with it that way, and I begin with my father, and I begin in 19th-century Germany.

NG: Your father grew up in Germany?

DL: He left five years before Kristallnacht. I have a cousin who witnessed Kristallnacht: he was going into Berlin to go to school that day, so he was on the elevated railroad in the heart of the city, and he looked down and there was a fire. The synagogue was in flames. He got off the train and stood there watching it.

NG: Your father realized early how dangerous the Nazis would be?

DL: Actually he left because he was out of work. Hitler was elected in ’33, and immediately the Nuremburg laws were passed, officially niggerfying the Jews. Among the laws were, Jews couldn’t be employed by the state. My father was a doctor in a state hospital in Munich, so he was fired, and he decided to go to Paris, where he had friends. That saved him.

Something else that was traumatic went into this family work: I was a divorced father, and my first wife moved the kids thousands of miles away from me, so although I had visitation rights it was impossible to exercise them. And I refused that—I demanded that I see them. So they came up every Friday on the bus, they went home every Sunday night on the bus, but in order to be able to do this we had to move from New Mexico back to New York. It was very horrible—we lost our world.

It’s a kind of now-you-see-them-now-you-don’t fatherhood, and you end up living for when you’re seeing them, so l bought a Polaroid camera and started documenting the life of my children, as a substitute for them when they were gone. Now it’s a huge body of work. After years, I was wondering what I’d do with it. Most of the pictures don’t have negatives—they’re Polaroids. I can’t sell them. I can’t show them. What am I going to do? So I made a book out of them, I Like to Eat Right on the Dirt [1989].

NG: When I was coming up in photography, in the ’70s, personal documentary wasn’t considered valid as art. Everyone kept their family pictures in the closet. That’s shifting now, but is that why you thought you couldn’t show that stuff?

DL: Around 1980, some people came across with some money and said, We want to do a portfolio. We were making the selection and I wanted to put my best pictures in, so I brought out pictures of Nancy carrying my son Raphe out of a hurricane surf, and this fellow said, You don’t want to include a picture like that, do you? It hurt me at the time. But I got the message.

NG: There wasn’t much precedent for showing family pictures then.

DL: You know Edward Weston photographed his children—

NG: And his wife

DL: There probably were precedents. And when I was doing Pictures of the New World [1981] at Aperture, they picked this one of Nancy eight months pregnant, with a rainbow behind her and the kids, for the cover. More often, though, the difficulty was people would think, Here’s Danny Lyon, this rough guy who photographed bikers and prisoners, and what’s all this about?

NG: Yeah, it was fine to show documentary photos of others, but not about your own life and your own people.

DL: My involvement with Nancy has basically redone my brain: my pictures in Chiapas—of people in the market, of weavers, of Zapatista villagers—are almost all of women. When I go there it’s the women who are the heroes to me. It’s a matriarchal society, they do the work, they make incredible stuff, they dress unbelievably, and they’re the ones I’m responding to. It’s maturity, maybe, but a lot of it’s a change because my best friend is a woman, and she’s a quiltmaker and dollmaker. I’d been a kind of father who stood at the side, but when I became a noncustodial father I became a mother and father. That became a tremendous part of my life.

Inside, they say, all of us are both women and men. I’ve always had a tremendous attraction to men; I’ve never been homosexual but there’s no question that I love these people deeply that I’ve photographed. I was criticized and even ridiculed for the prison pictures in the New York Times, in the only review that book got: it said these guys were too handsome.

NG: They are beautiful.

DL: Of course they’re beautiful. Those are the kind of people I photograph, and those are the kind of people I care about. I think you’re driven to do these things.

NG: I call it the postrationalist school. I make pictures out of obsession; later I give them some rational meaning. I grew up in a troubled family and my parents, intellectual Jews, were all about, Don’t let the neighbors know. I was watching Leave It to Beaver and Father Knows Best, and I saw nothing that represented what went on in my family, no record of real family life. That’s why your pictures are important: people need to see that in everyone’s life, even in great happiness, there’s ambivalence.

DL: You think about mid-century American Jews and leftists, and the whole schlep from Europe over here—they were trying to create a world that had no problems. Europe was in flames but there were no problems in Queens.

NG: With their historical tracing and their different formats, the collages have the density of a book. Are you frustrated with the single image?

DL: In the collages you can have drama, a beginning, middle, and end, all kinds of things you can’t have in a photograph alone. I mean, I love Walker Evans’ photographs, they’re perfect and I adore them, but life goes on. He made those pictures in the ’30s, and here we are sixty years later. That was one reason I made books—The Bikeriders has album pages in it and stories, and the prison book has text and stories. But it’s hard for me to say, The single photograph is dead. That would be pretentious and silly.

NG: You’ve also been a filmmaker, though—was it because of the limitations of the single image that you turned to film?

DL: By early 1969 I had made four picture books, if you count The Movement, and each was done differently. I really couldn’t think at the time of how to go beyond the prison book; I’d put everything into it but live flowers. So I made my first film. It was done in Bill Sanders’ tattoo shop in Houston—Sanders had put a butterfly on my shoulder. I was so proud of the tattoo I showed it to my friend Jones, who was doing life in the Walls, the Texas prison system’s main unit. Jones said if I’d put it on my prick it would have made more sense.

NG: How does your work in the two media interrelate?

DL: The films, the pictures, and the collages are all related because they all come from the same life, mine. Jimmy Gunn told me about Bill Sanders, who had tattooed him. Often stills led to film: I was in Colombia photographing in whorehouses when I met some abandoned children in a restaurant. I photographed the children, then returned to film them. Willie Jaramillo appears in my photographs, my films, and my collages. When he died in jail, aged 40, Nancy and I bought him a tombstone and put it on his grave, which was in a place where I had filmed him as a child.

NG: What films do you like, or feel influenced by?

DL: When I was young I was very influenced by James Agee’s love of the movie camera. I was also affected by Hugh Edwards, then a curator at the Chicago Art Institute—I dedicated The Bikeriders to him. I loved Kenneth Anger’s films.

I believed when I began that there was some pure cinematic use you could put the camera to, so I tried to interfere with the camera as little as possible. That meant no narration, long shots, and minimal editing. Public television’s enlightened programmers thought this was preposterous and none of my work was shown, except on a few local stations. Twenty years later all these ideas were used in the Fox show Cops, which was then copied by a whole series of shows, and of course it’s now commonplace to make realistic films without narration.

NG: Are you working on a new film, or planning one?

DL: I just finished Media Man—it’s not a big hit. When we finished Willie [1986], no one would show it. The head of the Sundance festival actually called me to say that every year there’s one film he really loves and feels terrible he can’t show, and this year it was Willie. Somewhat exasperated, I blurted out, Why don’t you just show it? He said, Because no one will come. People like Willie, who was Chicano and practically homeless, were probably sleeping in the Utah parks near the festival.

Right now I’m engrossed in completing a book of the collages. When that’s done I’ll probably have forgotten how hard it is for me to get a film shown, and I’ll make another one.

NG: Another thing I like about the collages is the way they put your family pictures in another context. Not only are you making the private public, which itself is political to me, you’re also politicizing the family pictures by combining them with pictures of other cultures.

DL: The family spent August in Belize, and a kind of synthesis developed: the family subject merged with the Belize subject. It was a rough place to be, it was very hot, my son was hitchhiking around and I envied his freedom so I finally went hitchhiking with him, I thought it would kill me as we walked into a Mayan village in 100-degree heat, but this picture shows Raphe in a Mayan village watching this woman make a bed for us. So the two things merged. Before, there’d always been this sense of crossing a line, of leaving home and entering another world. That’s what classical journalism does. But in Belize, everything came together, and it was very gratifying. The Mayan women in these pictures are on the one hand so different from us. But are they really? I suppose the politics of a photograph like this one from Chiapas is, Why isn’t this girl a Vassar student? And the fact is she could be a Vassar student. They’re trying to keep these people in feudalism.

NG: There’s also politics in the anger in her eyes, and in the fact that she’s allowing you to photograph her, where traditionally she might not have.

DL: The people in this photograph are in a political demonstration in San Cristóbal, Chiapas. They’ve gone to a big effort to come there to protest. So they’ve crossed the line also. We’ve both stepped our of our world, and we meet in these photographs of Chiapas.

There’s a political dilemma in being part of the civilization that’s kicking around these Mayan women who don’t have shoes. That’s a challenging, difficult thing. I’m a middle-class person, I take care of a family, I have property, I put kids through universities, I have money, American money, I use it all the time. I’m part of a system and a society, and fundamental cruelties and injustices seem to be built into them, and it disturbs me and I struggle with it. Our politics in Central America over the last generation have been a really shameful period of American history. I came out of the New York public school system, and we would read the words of the Declaration of Independence and other idealistic things; I believed them. Now it’s very hard for me to look at Chiapas and just say, Well, that’s the way it is, that’s the way it has to be.

I blame the media for so much of the problem. Growing up, I felt it was a challenge to my generation, or to me as a photographer, to overthrow Life magazine and this whole system of communicating with America. Everybody with half a brain hated Life in the ’50s. Now, retrospectively, it’s been turned into some kind of platform for photography as art, which is asinine, just total ignorance. Life was really a target in doing The Bikeriders. The sad thing for me is that the kind of journalism I believed in never came to pass in America. What happened was the media got a hundred times bigger than Life had ever been, and much much worse, much more destructive, to the point where it now has a stranglehold on our civilization.

NG: Your own investigations really go deep, but do you think they have any effect? Can photography change things?

DL: Yeah. I’ve seen it happen, though it’s something you can almost never measure. I took pictures, for instance, of teenage girls in the Leesburg stockade in Georgia. They were virtually starved, held without charges, and I snuck in and took pictures through the bars. The pictures were presented in Congress a week later and the girls were released. That was in ’63, and in ’93 I met one of these girls at the Corcoran Callery. She was in her 40s.

Six years after Conversations with the Dead was published, it was used by the U.S. Justice Department in a massive lawsuit against the Texas prison system. The pictures were introduced as evidence. I testified.

NG: Did the prison administration feel you’d betrayed them?

DL: I felt I had a right to betray people who do what they do. I felt that was my job. The prisoners won the suit, the prison system was changed.

NG: How did conditions improve?

DL: Actually it’s supposed to be worse now. Since then the demographics of prison have just gone the other way; the prison population has quadrupled since I photographed in Texas a generation ago. Still, my photographs were used by people who meant well to try to change prison conditions, and for a while prison conditions were forced to change.

Danny Lyon’s recent books are published by Bleak Beauty Books and are distributed by D.A.P. New York. His films are available from Facets Multimedia, Chicago.