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.
Already a respected photographer at age 25, Danny Lyon returned to his hometown of New York in 1966 and settled in Lower Manhattan. After observing that half the buildings on his street were boarded up, he learned that a 60-acre area encompassing one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods was slated for demolition. “I came to see the buildings as fossils of a time past. These buildings were used during the Civil War. The men were all dead, but the buildings were still here, left behind as the city grew around them. . . . For a hundred years they have stood in the darkness and the day. . . . Now, in the end, they are visited by demolition men . . . pulling apart brick by brick and beam by beam the work of other American workers who once stood on the same walls and held the same bricks, then new, so long ago.”
Empathy is both an emotional response, as well as a cognitive one. We can both feel what another experiences, as well as perceive it through rational thought. To be empathetic is a challenge some refuse to accept, but for those willing to open themselves, it is a two-fold process. First there is simply the ability to understand that which is not our own, and to refrain from manipulations that would adulterate its truth.
Covering six decades of artistic output, Danny Lyon’s first full retrospective provides an inclusively robust cross section of his work as a photographer, filmmaker, and writer, so much so that it opens the door to a wholesale re-evaluation of his long career. What it shows us is that the first decade of Lyon’s career (from roughly the early 1960s to the early 1970s) burned with an astonishingly incandescent brightness that few have matched before or since. In that one ten year span, Lyon delivered no less than four stand alone lightning strike projects of durable significance, along with several other in-between efforts of overlooked merit. Seeing that consistent intensity of engagement clearly laid out in a series of well-edited adjacent rooms is immensely impressive.
Danny Lyon’s career would make a great bio-pic. The New York City photographer, who, at seventy-four, is the subject of the Whitney’s terrific survey “Message to the Future,” has led an improbably adventurous life, beginning with his involvement in the civil-rights movement. In 1963, when he was twenty-one, he became the staff photographer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. The year before, on his first trip to the South, Lyon ended up in a Georgia jail, with Martin Luther King, Jr., in a nearby cell. Over the next few years, he documented marches, sit-ins, arrests, and the aftermaths of bombings.
It’s more than a bit disturbing that the photographs Danny Lyon captured during the early '60s while working with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in the segregated south continue to resonate so deeply in the modern day. It would be one thing if these black-and-white photographs, taken in the earliest years of the photographer’s career, served as a historic document of how far the country has come, but the issues of race, mass incarceration and urban gentrification that Lyon documented when he was first starting out have only intensified in America. Danny Lyon isn’t looking back on history—he is looking at the present.
Art and life are never entirely separate, but different artists lean more toward one than the other for inspiration. For the photographer Danny Lyon, the world of live humans has been the bigger draw. “You put a camera in my hand,” he once said, “I want to get close to people. Not just physically close, emotionally close; all of it.”
Danny Lyon's upcoming retrospective at the Whitney Museum will open June 17th, 2016.
Chelsea gallery Churner and Churner opens “Deep Sea Diver”, an exhibition of Danny Lyon's recent work made in the Shanxi Province of Northeast China.
Danny Lyon will join curators of the photography department at de Young museum in San Francisco on September 28th for an evening of conversation.
This year marks Lyon’s 70th birthday, a major retrospective of his photographs at The Menil Collection in Houston, and the preservation of two of his most significant films. Anthology Film Archives is thrilled to welcome Lyon in person for a screening of these enthralling works alongside the world premiere of his most recent short video. Expect a lively conversation from an uncompromising artist whose vision only sharpens with age. Happy birthday, Danny!
Check out the artist's blog and his recent photographs taken at the Occupy LA protest on his website.