The great photographer, famous for documenting the civil rights struggle and riding with bikers in the 60s, grants a rare interview.
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By RANDY KENNEDY
“LISTEN, do I have time to feed my pig?” the photographer Danny Lyon asked, picking up the telephone one morning at his home in rural New Mexico. “It will only take about 10 minutes. I’ll call you back,” he said, adding: “That way I can start the day with a clean conscience.”
Among a group of revolutionaries whose work rose to prominence in the late 1960s and ’70s and transformed the nature of documentary photography — a group that includes friends and colleagues of Mr. Lyon’s like Mary Ellen Mark and Larry Clark — the idea of conscience has been imbedded more deeply in Mr. Lyon’s photographs than in those of all but a few of his contemporaries.
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Do not ask DANNY LYON how he sees the world when he snaps the lens, or how he thinks. He's already answered those questions in the pictures and books he has produced over the past 40 years.
"Thats why you publish a book," he says. "You publish a book to show the world how you think."
Lyon, one of the country's premier documentarians and photojournalists, could chart his career by projects that record chapters in the nation's late 20th century life: civil rights, motorcycle gangs, urban destruction, South-to-North migrations, and a U.S dominated Latin America. He documented these and other topics in ten books and ten non-fiction films.
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Danny Lyon is one of the most important American photographers of the last half century to renew the documentary tradition's concern with social justice. He was shaped by his experience covering the unrest of the 1960s as staff photographer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. This led to his first publication, The Movement (1964), and since then he has produced numerous books, including Conversations with the Dead (1971), the first book on America's prison system by a photojournalist. He has also had a significant career as a filmmaker, his work including Little Boy (1977), Los Niños Abandonados (1975), and Social Sciences 127 (1969).
Self-taught, and driven by his twin passions for social change and the medium of photography, the power of Lyon's work has often derived from his willingness of immerse himself entirely in the cultures and communities he documents. This was evident early on in his series Bikeriders (1968; reissued in 2003 by Chronicle Books), which evolved from four years spent as a member of the Chicago Outlaw Motorcycle Club. And Conversations with the Dead derived from his close study of the Texas prison system; it also revealed Lyon's novel and distinctive approach to the photobook, which often sees him splicing images with texts drawn from various sources, including interviews, letters, and even fiction.
In the late 1960s Lyon turned his camera on the redevelopment of Lower Manhattan, where the construction of the World Trade Center, among other projects, cleared away much of the area's nineteenth century building stock (The Destruction of Lower Manhattan, 1969; reissued by powerHouse, 2005). The 1970s saw him return to documenting communities, in Texas and in New York, but in the 1980s he shifted gear, turning his lens on his family. In 1999 he once again spliced images and text to produce a memoir, Knave of Hearts (Twin Palms).
Danny Lyon lives in New Mexico and Maine. His most recent book is Memories of Myself (Phaidon, 2009), which collects his photo-essays from over four decades. He has been the subject of several major exhibitions at galleries including the Museum of Modern Art; Whitney Museum of American Art; and the Art Institute of Chicago. A major travelling retrospective was organised in 1990 by the Folkwang Museum in Essen, Germany, and the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, Arizona.