Lyon first came to attention in the early 1960s through his photos of the Civil Rights movement, the first of which he captured with his Nikon while hitchhiking to Southern Illinois, a chunk of the Deep South stuck in the Midwest. There, he met John Lewis. They hit it off. Lyon soon attained enough credibility to become the first staff photographer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in 1962. In the annals of social movements, it’s hard to think of any single photographer who has so indelibly stamped an uprising with pictures — pictures that come to be accepted as definitive or representative of the thing in itself.
Much of this was due to what you don’t see in the photos: the photographer standing in the right place. Lyons took inspiration from Robert Capa’s remark that if your pictures aren’t any good, you weren’t close enough. He could get Alabama Highway Patrolmen into conversation comparing nightsticks with electric cattle-prod poles wrapped in black tape.
After SNCC pamphlets, Lyon’s work flowered most within books, partly because there wasn’t much room in magazines for his kind of photography. He learned from Robert Frank — creator of the 1958 photographic book, The Americans — that “with a book, one could control one’s work, reach the world and be highly influential.” Later, there were films: abandoned children in Colombia; a tattoo artist; Mexican musicians; the sculptor Mark di Suvero, his voice dubbed by a Gene Autry soundtrack. Influence is, of course, hard to gauge.
Multitudes. Freaks. A world of margins. Death Row inmates. The nitty and the gritty, the defeated and the persistent — humanity amid its daily crucifixions and astonishing hopes. Lyon wants you to see around corners and behind walls. Perhaps the most remarkable image in this collection shows John Lewis, at home, lying in bed under a quilt, little more than a year ago, having just been diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer.
Lyon also spent years attending to Billy McCune, convicted of rape in Texas, IQ rated at 80, sentenced to death, who while awaiting his execution, sliced off his penis, was judged psychotic, and later, much later, had his sentence commuted to life in prison, much of it spent in solitary confinement. Lyon’s book of prison life photos — supplemented by McCune’s own drawings and writings from his 23 years behind bars before he was released on parole — is called Conversations with the Dead. McCune was denied colored pencils in prison.
“His is the voice of the voiceless and the dead,” Lyon wrote:
His is the sadness of ten thousand nights of darkness shared by two hundred thousand men. His is the unknown misery inside an isolation cell, into which a sane man dare not look lest he be blinded by tears or driven off by the smell. He is you and he is I, stripped naked and locked into a cell from which the only light we see tells us there’s no way out but by suffering and death.
Romantic, sure, though later Lyon would also write: “Most people in prison are jerks. […] The basic thing wrong with prisons is the total lack of justice involved between who goes in and who doesn’t go in.” And more bluntly: “Prisons are the toilets of America. […] I thought if society itself was so meaningless to me, the reverse of it might mean something.”
Lyon wants you to hurt, and to feel the hurts of his subjects. He wants you to think about pain. Not to explain it, or justify it, or denounce it — just to take it seriously. He wants to see how your freedom, such as it is, walks the same earth as the jerks. He wants you to think about your own hurt, which is not the same as someone else’s, but might be seen in such a way as to pose the question of what various pains and ruins and downfalls have to do with each other. “I tried with whatever power I had to make a picture of imprisonment as distressing as I knew it to be in reality,” Lyon writes, “and the few times that I doubted the wisdom of my attitude, I had only to visit someone I knew in his cell.”
Lyon does not water his liquor. He takes his romantic side pure, including the jerkiness. He trips the light anarchic. He travels with the runaway, the condemned, the unlucky, and the guilty. He does not mind if you feel squeamish. He does not insist that you approve of his judgments but insists on his right to come to them, to expose them, so that you may make of them what you will:
A friend of mine, a man I met in prison, has killed a policeman and is now one of the “Ten Most Wanted Men” in the United States. I hope they never catch him. I hope he runs forever. Not because I hate prisons and not because I am glad he killed a policeman, which I certainly am not. But because in this world, where man, who can fly so high, lies so broken and chained in spirit, how glad I am that there is at least one outlaw out there, running free and murderous. He is running for us all.
Lyon’s work has been rightly canonized by Magnum Photos, and his museum and gallery shows are legion. There aren’t many photographers or writers who could publish a book subtitled Selected Writings 1961–2020 and hold your attention with the quality of his vernacular awareness, his clarities and his doubts, and the deepening sense that he is composing not only a cross-country chronicle of the margins but also a song of himself. Lyon is a Whitman of the lens. He sees a country sputtering, waiting, flopping, tripping over its words. Over and over, he says: Will you get a load of this?
His United States is open roads and naked selves, largeness and multitudes, cheats and harms, refusals to quit and invitations. Lyon, born in 1942 to Jewish immigrants, seemed to hit the ground shooting but also writing, ambitious in an unconventional way — to speak plainly of what he has seen, judging, as Whitman wrote, “not as the judge judges, but as the sun falling around a helpless thing.” Lyon’s passages rarely snap you into an ideological conclusion — as if to unleash one more sermon on one more molehill. His adventures enlarge you.
The first piece in American Blood is the mordant satire of a 19-year-old, published in a mimeographed magazine at the University of Chicago in May 1961, arguing for the televising of death row executions. He’s already with the outsiders. One might be tempted to call this a spot of juvenilia if only for the way he signs off: “With usual sincerity.” Now that sincerity is the new transgression, it bears remembering that this isn’t the first time that young writers have felt they had to defend speaking plainly.
Danny Lyon believes in the United States in his own way, of course — connected to the way Walt Whitman believed in the United States, and, after him, Woody Guthrie, Langston Hughes, and Bob Dylan. Lyon doesn’t quit. He shines harsh lights on desolation rows and asks how it is that people land there as a result of evil, or indifference, or bad luck. “The camera has always been for me a tool of investigation, a reason to travel, to not mind my own business, and, often, to get into trouble.” Mostly good trouble, as John Lewis liked to say.
Lyon is blunt for reasons good and sufficient. He started with an old-fashioned belief that making pictures was good for busting up stereotypes, and he refuses to dispel this innocence even as he harbors no illusions about how close the world is to salvation. I don’t know if he would agree that he is recording the ruins of the future — ruins in progress. He publishes his website under the label, Bleak Beauty.
He doesn’t like clichés about “the ’60s” but holds fast to one of its revelations: “We need to alter our whole concept of what constitutes ‘news’ and what makes history. […] Replace the media with your own. There is nothing to lose. You have the world to gain.” He goes on: “I always regarded my work as a celebration of existence” — the fine grain of things, not the once-over, lightly pictorial visitations practiced by the media:
I used to think that as time passed people like myself would replace the Walter Cronkites of America and that the media would improve immeasurably. Like the Greeks we would be buried in beauty that would come pouring out of our television screens. I thought it would be a better world. It is not. The world is worse.
Raised on The Lone Ranger, he grew up to contend with the Parkland massacre.
Perhaps he goes too far in his estimate of the balance, perhaps not. But this is our only world — inescapable, unexpected, relentless, wretched — and he wants to record it because it, and everything in it, deserves to be honored. He was writing upon the death of Walker Evans in 1975, who said, with a camera: “It’s all or nothing.”
On the road or at home with his family, Lyon practices what his contemporary Nan Goldin calls “an emotional kind of journalism.” He expounds:
We have tremendous emotion as humans. If I can bring some of that to my work and get it out on ink and paper and pass it to others and have that resonate with their own latent emotions, that’s great. We all have these turbulent emotions. We’re all connected in our consciousness. It’s miraculous. We have the work of people in museums who are honored because they’re artists — they help move that human amoeba forward an inch by a quarter of an inch at a time by digging through with their own vision and consciousness.
Is Lyon “political”? Of course. Is he “an artist”? Of course. “The real question faced by photographers and journalists today is not, of course, the type of film inside their camera, although that matters. The real question is what’s inside their head.” Which is not a question usually put to photographers.
About the stakes, Lyon is unabashed:
Every project that I have chosen, in publishing or film, has had an ethical and ideological motive built in, and that mindset continues for me to this day. I don’t have to tell you that this country is quickly going down the shithole of history, and it is not possible to pick up a camera, or a pen, for that matter, without taking this into account.
Todd Gitlin is the author of 18 books, including The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage, and the forthcoming novel The Opposition (Guernica Editions, spring 2022).