A Five-Point Guide to Danny Lyon's Photographic Oeuvre

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Danny Lyon, Tesca, Cartagena, Colombia, 1966Collection of the artist. © Danny Lyon, courtesy Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York

As the prolific American photographer and filmmaker's new exhibition opens at the Whitney, we present a written accompaniment to his life's work thus far

For over 50 years, photographer Danny Lyon has been a tireless chronicler of the poor and dispossessed, of urban obsolescence, and of families — whether his own, or the ones he formed among his subjects. From the Chicago Outlaws Motorcycle Club, and the men he got to know within the Texas prison system, to the spirited Chicano kids in his adopted home of New Mexico, Lyon is celebrated for his emotional reach. Freedom is the thread that runs through his work, whether the pursuit or total lack of it.

This summer, the 74-year-old enjoys a major retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, presenting rare pictures, montages, films and other ephemera from his incredible career, spanning his early work as official photographer for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee in the deep south, all the way to more recent images of the Occupy protests. His exquisite portraits and landscapes, born in a time of seismic civil unrest, are as relevant today as they were when they were first taken. Here we consider five points on the map of his inimitable career.

Rebel Heart
Danny Lyon was born in 1942 in New York City, "exactly 100 years" after the process of photography was invented, as he later wrote in his reverse memoir The Seventh Dog (Phaidon, 2014). Son of an ophthalmologist and enthusiastic amateur photographer who treated Alfred Stieglitz at his Lexington Avenue office, Lyon was steeped in photography from an early age. His first camera was an Exa single-lens reflex, purchased on a trip to Europe. After studying at the University of Chicago (where he was put on probation for smoking pot), Lyon hitchhiked south to cover the civil rights movement, eschewing the comfortable middle-class path his family hoped he would take. It was the beginning of a lifelong engagement in the struggle against social injustice, corporate culture, and the sedate journalism typified by Life magazine. “Slowly, I have come to understand the meaning of that word, Imperialism," he once wrote. "As a citizen of the United States I must dedicate my work to her enemies, the guerrilla fighters and student liberators of America."

In all of Lyon's photographs and films, there is a clear empathetic identification with his subjects. His are loving portraits, which find common humanity in convicted murderers, bikers and Huck Finn kids destined to become washed-up adults. The connections he developed with his subjects — from the alcoholic tattoo artist Bill Sanders to the tragic repeat offender Willie Jaramillo, who starred in his 1985 documentary masterpiece Willie — were deeply felt and he formed many close personal ties. One particular friendship was with Billy McCune, a prisoner in Texas. Judged "feeble-minded" as a teen, he was sentenced to death after being convicted of rape, and eventually released, but only after enduring harrowing treatment in jail. His letters and drawings to Lyon are contained in Conversations with the Dead, Lyon's beautiful, brutal photo-book about prison life.

The American West
Though born to European Jewish immigrants, and raised in Queens, Lyon was enthralled from an early age by the vast freedom of the American West. His hero growing up was the Lone Ranger. When he joined the Outlaws, Lyon thought of them as “probably the only thing like cowboys left in America”. Poet Walt Whitman, author of Song of The Open Road, was an important literary touchstone for Lyon. In 1970, he moved with his family to Bernalillo, New Mexico, where he built an adobe house next door to an Indian Reservation. After divorcing his first wife, who moved with their children to New York, he would split his time between New Mexico and the Big Apple, finally returning in 2011 to live in Bernalillo full time.

The Marriage of Image and Text
A relentless journaler, Lyon's many books often include insightful, diaristic observations, records of conversations with his subjects and scraps of letters he exchanged with them. In the mid-70s, he began writing texts around the borders of his photographs and montages. Lyon was captivated by the lyrical writings James Agee wrote to accompany Walker Evans' defining images of the Depression in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, and even made a pilgrimage to the writer's hometown in Tennessee in the summer of 1967. As with his images, his writings reveal a sensitive soul with a unique flair for poetics.

Extraordinary Encounters
Given his presence at the heart of some of the most important moments in modern American history, it's natural for Lyon to have met some of its living monuments. Still, spending a night in the same Georgia prison as Martin Luther King ranks as a seminal encounter, as does photographing Muhammad Ali in Miami Beach. He attended high school with Art Garfunkel; maintained a friendship with Robert Frank of The Americans fame and corresponded with Hunter S. Thompson over his association with the Outlaws. Way back in 1962, while taking photographs for the University of Chicago yearbook, he shot a young Bernie Sanders during a sit-in. Lyon's instinct for being at the heart of things was as developed as his love of the margins, his camera invariably pointed at the sweet spot where the two intersected.  

Danny Lyon: Message to the Future runs until September 25, 2016 at the Whitney Museum of Art, New York.