In celebration of Danny Lyon’s acclaimed retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art, Edwynn Houk Gallery presents Journey, a selection of rare vintage prints and collages from the artist’s personal collection. Spanning his remarkable career from one of his earliest photographs made in the desert of Arizona in 1962 to his newest collage made in a Mayan village in Belize in 2016, the exhibition examines a cross-section of Lyon’s important and varied body of work.
Continuing in the tradition of Walker Evans and Robert Frank, Lyon forged a new style of realistic photography, described as “New Journalism,” where the photographer immerses himself in his subject’s world. From images of the Civil Rights movement made during his early days as one of the first staff photographers for SNCC, to his classic series The Bikeriders documenting a Chicago biker gang, to his in-depth study of Texan prisons in 1966-67, Danny Lyon has recorded the harsh realities of American life for the past 50 years. Each of these projects was accompanied by a book, which have become classics in the field.
In 1968, Lyon published The Bikeriders, a seminal work of modern photojournalism. This landmark collection of photographs and interviews documents the four-year period Lyon spent on the road with members of a motorcycle club known as the Chicago Outlaws. Photographed between 1963 and 1967 Lyon describes the series as "an attempt to record and glorify the life of the American bikerider.”
A champion of the marginalized, Lyon has always resisted the obvious. After early solo exhibitions at the Art Institute of Chicago, he expanded his work geographically and by experimenting with film, collages, and books. In the late 1960s, Lyon turned his camera on the redevelopment of Lower Manhattan, photographing the architectural destruction of the area.
The 1970s saw him return to documenting communities, in Texas and in New York, but in the 1980s he shifted gears again, turning his lens on his family. The common thread throughout his work is the closeness with his subjects, the sense of candor and respect, and the universal desire for freedom and justice.
Born in 1942, Danny Lyon is a self-taught photographer, writer and filmmaker. He has published numerous books, including The Bikeriders, The Destruction of Lower Manhattan and The Seventh Dog. An active blogger, his writing appears on dektol.wordpress.com. He has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim Foundation and The Rockefeller Foundation in both filmmaking and photography. In 2011 he received the Missouri Honor Medal in Journalism. Lyon has had solo exhibitions at the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Menil Collection and the de Young Museum in San Francisco, among others. His major retrospective, Danny Lyon: Message to the Future, curated by Julian Cox, is on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and travels to the DeYoung Museum in San Francisco, and the Fotomuseum Winterthur in Switzerland. Lyon lives and works in New Mexico.
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.”
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.
Over the course of half a century, the photographer, writer and filmmaker Danny Lyon has documented the civil rights movement, outlaw motorcycle gangs and the harsh Texas prison system.
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.