Danny Lyon: A Cult Figure

by Kim Steele

There is an aspect of my encounters with young photographers that seek rebellion and adventure – it comes with the territory. Danny Lyon personifies this dynamic. I had the honor of participating in a workshop he taught in the seventies and was very moved by his conviction to the medium, and his irreverence as well.

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Lyon’s first significant retrospective in the U.S. is now on view at the de Young Museum in San Francisco until April 30, 2017. Photography is a rare art form where one can teach one self, as exampled across town with the Hernandez exhibition at SF MOMA. With no formal photographic training, Lyon studied at the University of Chicago – in another field (1963), but soon thereafter published his first photographs working for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. He was fortunate to publish extensively.

His photographs of political dynamics are highly memorable. The early series of the Chicago Motorcycle Club produced some of Lyon’s best work. His most famous image is of the biker crossing the Ohio River, Louisville, (seen above)  is in this writer’s opinion, his most powerful image. There are tape recordings in the exhibition, videos on the wall that speak to his commitment to ‘story telling’ on a global scale.  This is instructional.

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In this era of reinventing Journalism into media and story telling employing various media methods, including Instagram, blogs, Twitter and YouTube, Lyon’s methodology should become a model. He knows how to tell a story. He dug into the culture of the bikers in Chicago, becoming one of them – with his own bike-a TR3, in the Outlaws Motorcycle Club, hard-riding and hard-drinking gang, to “glorify the life of the American bike rider.” (de Young Museum). Before the current era of ‘self-publishing,’ he was able to publish his own work through small, progressive publishers at an early stage of his career, publishing The Bikeriders (1968; Aperture Foundation).

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When committed to thematic subjects, Lyon excels. In the exhibit, there is a smattering of random portraits and renditions of situations he encountered that are rather mediocre, but when committed to exploring a body of work, of which he did many, he brought his formidable talent to bear. This is now more elegantly evidenced in his work in a number of his significant collections,  displayed in his The Destruction of Lower Manhattan (1969), published by Macmillan Publishers in 1969. 

In fact, in this series, Lyon includes a self-portrait in a devastated building which eventually gave rise to the World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan: all sixty-six acres of destructed 19th century architecture. Lyon befriended the ‘destruction workers’ during this series. He did benefit throughout his career via some public funding. In the Lower Manhattan series, he received a grant from the New York State Council of the Arts. “I wanted to inhabit [the buildings] with feelings and give their demise a meaning.”  That area has taken on a powerful new meaning since 9/11.

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When committed to a project Lyon reaches deeply in his soul. Of the images of the prisoners in Texas prisons he states, “I tried with whatever power I had to make a picture of imprisonment as distressing as I knew it to be in reality.” This is his mantra. From this commitment to the art, he was invited to join the prestigious agency Magnum in 1967 (and never became a full member). A book followed: Conversations with the Dead (1971).

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“A seminal work in the modern photography canon” –Time Magazine

 

 

There was a new movement afoot in the 1960’s in journalism, labeled “New Journalism,” spearheaded by Hunter S. Thompson and Norman Mailer, both of whom did their best work in this stylistic vernacular. The gist of the approach was  inserting oneself, as the ‘reporter’ into the story narrative, as a type of protagonist, to urge on the dialogue. Lyon pursued this approach unwittingly.

Throughout his career, Lyon formed a bond with his subjects, most vividly expressed in his films. I viewed his compelling film, Willie, at the DeYoung Museum, for the second time, poignantly focusing on a young man by that name, in their mutual home state for the last thirty years, New Mexico. A second generation Mexican who lived on the fringes of society, and who eventual succumbed to the pressures of its weight. Starting as a young boy to his young manhood, Willie suffered from progressive physiological maladies, described in today’s lingo as ‘bi-polar.’

The fringe is where Lyon felt most comfortable. From the bikers, to the construction works, and most pointedly, the Texas prisoners, he could empathize and interpret their human condition.  This writer views this as a lost art form in photography.  The wave of current darlings have no interest in telling ‘your’ story…but rather telling their own. James Casebere builds little models of imaginary locations, James Welling creates situations with aluminum foil or paper, and Thomas Demand sets up strange theatrical sets.  This list could go on indefinitely, but the point is that none of them are interested in reality.  Lyon lives there.

This film and his body politic of work, displays the commitment Lyon exercised throughout his career to understand and participate, very personally, in the content of his images.

As in the Lower Manhattan series, he strove to ‘give meaning’ to his subjects as if to imbue a raison d’etre into the buildings; for an otherwise apparent meaningless purpose of destruction and urban growth.  Lyon augmented his recording with detailed journals that reflected the same passion for his subjects. He was very emotionally involved it them. His early involvement in the Civil Rights movement in the South exhibited the same stuff.

Lyon was fortunate to have garnered support from important photographic curators, like Hugh Edwards at the Art Institute of Chicago, who provided two one-man shows in his early stages; and Lyon was granted two Guggenheim Fellowships.

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Lyon’s work is unheralded by the auction houses and high priced gallery walls, but in the photographic annals he will be revered.  He leaves, though not deceased, a legacy of vision, heartfelt involvement, and a piercing eye of the world around him.

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