San Francisco

Danny Lyon

Simon Lewinsky Gallery

Danny Lyon, filmmaker and photographer, achieved recognition with his photo essays on motorcycle gangs, The Bikeriders, 1967, and Texas prison life, Conversations with the Dead, 1971. His photographs—a potent mix of empathy and raw-edged veracity—avoid documentary cliche and simple minded humanism.

Lyon’s recent photographs, which also appear in his book, The Paper Negative, 1980, are an apt though problematic coda to the past decade. During the 1970s the photographer moved away from the tight, project orientation of his earlier work. In the text to The Paper Negative, written in an autobiographical “third” person, Lyon states that he wanted “his art and life to become one.” Narrated in a style somewhere between Jack Kerouac and Gabriel Marquez, Lyon cogently expresses the frustrations of a ’60s person in ’70s America: Thanks to an NEA grant (used in the book as a metaphor for red tape), Lyon became an expatriate in search of something more substantial than the tract homes encroaching on New Mexico terrain. Latin culture, an extension of the macho sensibility that drew him to bikeriders and prisoners, is an obvious subject for Lyon and also a perennial political cause. The grainy, black-and-white photographs of America, Latin America, and Rio Grande, where the photographer lived, all contain his social critique.

Lyon is a sensitive photographer, able to enter situations without being disruptive. His subjects appear to take little notice of his camera and he takes pictures that refrain from propaganda or exploitation. By not disrupting the scene—taking an anti-directorial stance—Lyon achieves a subtle realism.

In contrast to the photos in Conversations with the Dead, which form a narrative that presents a ‘picture’ of prison life, his more recent photographs provide some cultural symbolism, but rarely achieve the sympathetic intimacy of the prison series. Unlike that work, where Lyon’s portraits give evidence of his involvement in the daily routines as well as of his communication with those in jail, his ’70s work shows distance from his subjects. Most of the people look away from the camera, as if avoiding interaction.

Lyon writes that it’s getting harder to make photographs, and his images seem to bear this out. The clarity of purpose in his earlier work is replaced by a kind of aimlessness. He is able to convey his anger and frustration in writing, but his photographs suggest that he is incapable of transcending his sense of estrangement at home or abroad.

Hal Fischer