FEW PICTURES CAPTURE the full-throttle thrill of youthful rebellion as well as Danny Lyon’s 1966 photograph of a lone motorcyclist speeding across a bridge over the Ohio River. Helmetless, he looks back over his shoulder, his hair streaming behind, his leather jacket boldly emblazoned with a skull and crossbones and his gang’s name: OUTLAWS. Unlike other iconic images of 1960s rebels, of Woodstock hippies or antiwar protesters, which always seem to summarize the turbulent decade just a little too neatly, Lyon’s photograph seizes a marginal, transitory moment. As a photograph, it is incomplete, deliberately raising as many questions about the lone rider as about the photographer riding beside him, taking his picture and participating in the moment.
For images like this, and the fertile mysteries they enfold, Lyon has become something of a legend among photographers, his status only elevated by the fact that, after meteoric early success, he suddenly dropped photography cold and veered off to pursue independent filmmaking, book publishing, and projects in other media. A bold new traveling retrospective debuting at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art titled “Danny Lyon: Message to the Future,” organized by Julian Cox of the de Young Museum in San Francisco with Elisabeth Sussman of the Whitney, helpfully puts back together the seemingly misaligned pieces of Lyon’s extraordinary careeraffirming, even celebrating, the digressions and acknowledging the uniqueness and persistence of his ongoing quest for something like documentary truth.
FROM EARLY ON, Lyon had not only harnessed but excelled at photographic composition, and the imprecise skill of capturing a compelling picture. This feat is all the more impressive since Lyon was really self-taught in photography, without models or mentors. At the University of Chicago (where he was a classmate of Bernie Sanders’s), Lyon majored in history and studied documentary photographs of the Civil War; he also admired the work of James Agee and Walker Evans, especially their first-person documentary account of living among Southern tenant farmers, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941). In 1962, even before he had graduated, Lyon traveled to Albany, Georgia, to photograph civil rights demonstrations. At age twenty-one, he joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC); worked the front lines with activists Julian Bond, John Lewis, and Howard Zinn; and was jailed alongside Martin Luther King Jr. Lyon’s extraordinary civil rights images show the courage and integrity that became the hallmarks of his early work, as he waded into tense encounters with burly Southern cops and angry Mississippi mobs.
Lyon’s pictures are both intimate and analytic, not only showing close-up images of his friends as protesters but also focusing on the markers of institutionalized oppression, from the signs segregating drinking fountains by race to the guards posted outside voter-registration centers to the posters urging African American maids to move up North to depopulate the black South. Many of Lyon’s most vivid civil rights photographs capture violent clashes between protesters and armed police. One flashlit shot from 1964 taken in Cambridge, Maryland, shows a young Stokely Carmichael staring at a National Guardsman with a fixed bayonet. Another harrowing image from the same nighttime encounter shows Lyon’s fellow SNCC photographer Clifford Vaughs, an African American, being hauled off spread-eagled, shirt torn, by gas-masked guardsmen with rifles. Such risky frontline pictures were less spot news than an embedded insider’s dispatches, ones with immense propaganda value. Rather than publishing these images in Life or exhibiting them in museums, Lyon used these for political purposes, as images for SNCC posters and pamphlets. As Bond later said, “These pictures raised money. They recruited workers. They put faces on the movement, put courage in the fearful, shone light on darkness, and helped make the movement move.”
Lyon’s galvanizing work for SNCC culminated in the book The Movement: Documentary of a Struggle for Equality, published in 1964 by Simon & Schuster as a pulpy mass-market paperback. Though it bears the name of playwright Lorraine Hansberry, who wrote the text, the book was shaped by Lyon, and most of the riveting pictures are by him, including the dramatic cover photograph portraying African American high schooler Taylor Washington yelling as a helmeted policeman drags him off in a choke hold.
Against the twin alternatives then offered to postwar photographersthe hollowed-out objectivity of Life photo essays or the sentimentalized global paternalism of Edward Steichen’s immensely popular exhibition and book The Family of Man (1955)Lyon fashioned a new form of highly engaged, overtly subjective participatory documentary photography. If he openly reviled the conservative photojournalism of Life, the differences between his approach and that of Steichen are equally significant. While The Family of Man presented a decontextualized, emphatically ahistorical humanism, Lyon demonstrated that history is, in fact, always brutally presentparticularly for black bodies. Tellingly, in his famous critique of The Family of Man’s universalizing myths, Roland Barthes also invoked as a contrast the racist violence in the American South, asking, witheringly, “But why not ask the parents of Emmett Till. . . . what they think of The Great Family of Man?”
This highly opinionated New Documentary approach, which Lyon pioneered along with such photographers as Bill Burke, Larry Clark, Gaylord Herron, Mary Ellen Mark, Susan Meiselas, and Danny Seymour, was not a stylistic shift but a methodological one: By infiltrating networks of workers and outlawsdissidents who were further marginalized in America owing to their class, race, and genderLyon sought to make those outsiders and their issues visible. So while it may be convenient to see Lyon as heir apparent to the canonical observational photographers Evans and Robert Frank, it is far more accurate to position him and his photographer friends alongside the writers then practicing the unconventional reportorial techniques being identified with New Journalism. Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (1965) and Hunter S. Thompson’s Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga (1966) provide direct analogues to Lyon’s contemporaneous photographs, as do the writings of Tom Wolfe, Joan Didion, and Norman Mailer. Like those writers, Lyon and other New Documentary photographers performed subjective reporting on subcultures and social movements, relying on deep personal engagement with their subjects and narratives, and a freewheeling privileging of biased “truth” over facts. Their extended documentary coverage and near-anthropological engagement with subjects often resulted in idiosyncratic books composed of montages of texts and images.
AFTER SNCC, Lyon spent a year or so riding with a motorcycle club called the Chicago Outlaws. It was with them that he took the iconic photograph of the biker on the bridge, as well as many other equally edgy images of the motorcycle gang, on and off the road. His practice of focusing on marginalized subcultures from the perspective of a relative outsider would likely raise eyebrows today, particularly since he had moved from documenting an African American protest movement to photographing a group of disenfranchised white guys who sported Iron Crosses and other Nazi regalia. But Lyon was a romantic who believed that his affiliation with, and even advocacy for, these social outcasts served as a kind of political protest, providing his subjects with a form of legitimacy, and viewers with a context for understanding their dissidence. As if to prove this point, in 1967 he spent six months in New York chronicling the destruction of nineteenth-century buildings in lower Manhattan, followed by fourteen months living among hardened criminals and death-row inmates, photographing the insides of the East Texas prison system. Again, these projects culminated not in news-magazine articles, but in carefully orchestrated photographic books.
In rapid succession, from 1964 to 1973, Lyon published five landmark books that reshaped documentary photography. In these volumes, from the very beginning, he was committed to the notion that the individual photograph was not enough. A photograph, he seems to say, is a provisional statement, perhaps even a moral proposition, a fragmentary attempt to evaluate a slice of humanity. As a result, his books are distinctly unlike Evans’s American Photographs (1938) or Frank’s The Americans (1958), with their full-page photographs with wide white borders. Without sensationalism or generalization, Lyon’s books use photographs to focus on a particular social topic, present detailed portraits of individuals as characters, embrace first-person narratives and transcribed interviews, and offer specific images and artifacts from his subjects’ everyday lives. His book from the Texas prisons, Conversations with the Dead (1971), for example, intersperses letters, artworks, prison documents, mug shots, and other ephemera from the damaged lives of the inmates, with whom, as these insertions make clear, his relationships were often intense and protracted. Lyon juxtaposes these scraps of evidence of lives, often personal letters or narratives of purported crimes transcribed by prison officials from the prisoners’ own narratives, alongside his own starkly beautiful black-and-white photographs, showing prisoners picking cotton or showering or supervised by guards on horseback with shotguns.
The powerful combination of photographs and prison narratives helps to expose, often with brutal and horrifying clarity, the continuities between the modern prison system and slavery, an issue that has taken on renewed relevance recently given the exploding populations of disproportionately minority prisoners in an ever-expanding private prison system. Although the “access” Lyon provides through his images is breathtaking, it is also carefully limited, as he refuses to show us everything. His fascination with confinement and the oscillation between revelation and concealment is perhaps clearest in the many photos in Conversations with the Dead featuring the naked bodies of prisoners. Whether they’re in the shower, being marched down a prison cell hall, or experiencing a shakedown, they are totally vulnerablefully exposed to us, the viewersyet their faces, in most cases, are hidden, turned away from the camera. In this way, Lyon shows us the disturbing, dehumanizing perspective of the carceral state. The prisoners become deindividuated bodies or raw matter: bare life.
AFTER 1969, Lyon turned abruptly toward film, as had his mentor Frank (and as would Clark, Mark, and Seymour). It may be that film was a natural outgrowth of Lyon’s increasingly serialized and narrative photographs. Or it may be that it provided a form for his long, meditative looks at everyday life. Made using handheld cameras and featuring long, unedited takes; no narration; and even occasional fictional elements, Lyon’s filmshe has made more than a dozenare very much in the direct-cinema tradition of Les Blank, Barbara Kopple, the Maysles brothers, D. A. Pennebaker, and Frederick Wiseman. Lyon’s films often focus on oppressed individuals or groups, including abandoned street children in Colombia, undocumented Mexican workers, and convicts. Llanito (1971) and Willie (1985), two films that trace over time the downward-spiraling lives of marginalized Latino street kids living near Lyon’s home in Bernalillo, New Mexico, though rarely shown and hard to get, are classics of independent filmmaking.
Characteristic of his documentary approach, Lyon’s films are, like his photography, the product of living with people and observing them closely. Lyon has always been tangled up in the lives of his subjects, and his works are both literal and metaphoric portraits, often focusing on storytellers and letting individuals narrate their own lives for the camera. There is, in all his work, a palpable affection for people that breathes new warmth into the cold blood of postwar humanism. These are his friends, buddies, comrades in arms, kids, and lovers, and his images are full of tenderness and compassion. “You put a camera in my hand, I want to get close to people,” he told Randy Kennedy of the New York Times. “Not just physically close, emotionally close, all of it. It’s part of the process.”
In addition to being a great observer of people and situations, Lyon seems to understand and appreciate in his films and later photographs the pulsing folkways that carry the underground messages of political dissidence, things as subtle as the typography of signs, the music of Southern churches, or the handpainted decoration of race cars. Such images illustrate the process Dick Hebdige famously described in 1979, whereby “the most mundane objects . . . take on symbolic dimension, becoming a form of stigmata, tokens of self-imposed exile.” Lyon’s first film, Soc. Sci. 127 (1969), focuses on a tattoo artist, Bill Sanders, a master of the hieroglyphics of outsiderism, the ultimate emblem of defiance. The largely raw, unedited footage shows Sanders tattooing a dragon on a man’s leg; the process appearing as like a quiet, quasi-religious ritual affirming subaltern belonging.
Lyon clearly sees photography itself as a type of vernacular communication, a scarcely analyzed language that courses through social encounters, even across generations. He has made two films, Born to Film (1982) and Two Fathers (2005), about his own father’s work as an amateur photographer and filmmaker, looking at family photos not nostalgically but critically, as a code to be decrypted. These films are a reminder of how frequently Lyon chooses to show individuals posing with snapshots or with photographic images in the background. One of his pictures from 1968 shows a wall of pinup-like Polaroids in Sanders’s tattoo studio; another shows sweet family photos spilling from a Texas prisoner’s wallet. In a separate amazing image from Conversations with the Dead, Lyon depicts the tattoos on a prisoner’s back alongside the printed-matter keepsakes hanging in his cell. Vernacular photographs, here, are displaced fragments of a vast and deteriorating image world, remnants of folk traditions and artifacts of popular culture, parts of spontaneous collages that people make almost unconsciously, as if trying to preserve something that is disappearing.
Lyon’s own collages, which he calls “montages,” and which he has been making since 1979, are far more personal than his early photographs or even his films. Most center on his family and close friends. Montages such as “Dedication”: Ernst and Beba Lyon in 1944, Gabrielle and Raphael, Nancy with Baby Noah, 1979, include family snapshots. The slippage in time represented by the images and the generations they portray is a recurrent theme in Lyon’s later work. As with his early photographs depicting, say, the civil rights movement, these later works establish a deep and binding connection between the lives of his subjects and Lyon’s own. This collage also reflects his investment in photo-album making, editing family snapshots and Polaroids, a practice extended into projects such as the book I Like to Eat Right on the Dirt (1989) and the work The Family Album of Daniel Joseph Lyon, 2008–2009, commissioned by the Library of Congress. As innovations in documentary approach, these albums and collages combine the vernacular intimacy of everyday snapshots with the potent juxtapositions of filmic montage.
But these later works also reveal the radical humanism of Lyon’s practice, which depends not only on immersive engagement but also on an ethical person-to-person commitment to specific individuals and their needs and interests. The Whitney exhibition includes a roughly four-by-nine-foot bulletin board from Lyon’s upstate New York studio, incorporating photographs, negatives, postcards, gallery announcements, and personal lettersan accumulation from two decades, 1985 to 2005. This remarkable collage, as definitively as any of his photographs or books or films, shows Lyon remaking the image of himself as a series of fragments, a sequence of pictures whose symbolism is at once public and private, broadly legible and narrowly subaltern. Intensely political, he portrays his own selfhood not with certainty, but as he has always depicted his outlaw others: as provisional, unstable, continually becoming.
“Danny Lyon: Message to the Future” will be on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, June 17–Sept. 25; travels to the de Young Museum, San Francisco, Nov. 5, 2016–Mar. 12, 2017; Fotomuseum Winterthur, Switzerland, May 20–Aug. 27, 2017; C/O Berlin Foundation, Sept. 15–Dec. 10, 2017.
Brian Wallis is a curator based in New York.