Not minding his own business
'This World is Not My Home: Photographs by Danny Lyon'
by Sura Wood
In stark contrast to his verbal stream-of-consciousness and stoner delivery, photographer Danny Lyon's pictures have a bracing clarity and intensity that gets you in the gut. This World is Not My Home, a small show at the de Young Museum of over 60 photographs and montages dating from 1962 to the Occupy Movement in 2011, touches on various aspects of Lyon's five-decade career. A writer and street photographer, a filmmaker who has made a dozen films including a short titled Murderers, he's a student of history and all-around acerbic observer of the American scene. Lyon has a longstanding – and some might say risky – practice of befriending and allying himself with his subjects. Inspired by the unvarnished realism of Walker Evans, he doesn't subscribe to the notion of journalistic detachment, a concept he labels "the myth of impartiality."
Although he acknowledges having "an ethical or ideological motive" for each project he has undertaken, and he's not afraid to assert that the country "is quickly going down the shit-hole of history," and if it's not possible to pick up a camera or a pen without taking this into account, it's difficult to suss out the full implications of his choices, But whether riding with motorcycle gangs in the Midwest, bonding with death-row inmates, surveying the ruined buildings of Lower Manhattan with a 4x5 camera and tripod in tow, or moving among abandoned children in Colombia, one of whom is shown here casually taking a drag from a cigarette, Lyon's lack of emotional distance hasn't affected his acuity or the technical finesse of the imagery. As he explains on his blog, his camera has been "a tool of investigation, a reason to travel, to not mind my own business, and often to get into trouble."
Rambling and opinionated when talking to a gathering of reporters recently, Lyon, now 70, looked and sounded like an emissary from the 1960s. Dressed in blue work-shirt, wire-rim glasses and beat-up running shoes, his curly white hair pulled into a neat ponytail, he espoused the importance of our essential humanity and the urgency for social change, values emblematic of that era. And he has lived his creed. Born in Queens to a German-Jewish emigrant father who dabbled in photography and kept a darkroom in the family apartment, he says he got lucky when he "stumbled onto the story of the decade," the Civil Rights Movement. In the early 1960s he hitchhiked to the South, a segregated tinderbox on the verge of conflagration, where he became the semi-official photographer for SNCC. He caught Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in an unguarded moment just before he spoke at a funeral for the little girls killed at the 16th St. Baptist Church in Birmingham, and captured an incendiary moment in 1964, when a mob assaulted demonstrators blocking traffic outside Leb's Restaurant in Atlanta. Leb, the Jewish proprietor, hired the Ku Klux Klan to protect his business. The irony was not lost on Lyon, who grabbed the shot and called the owner a Nazi.
Slow to embrace the digital revolution, Lyon laments the vanished, sensory experience of silver paper and tools of the trade that have all but disappeared. Cell phones are not cameras, he writes. "A camera is a Nikon or a Leica or Rolleiflex. and when you strike someone with one, they know they have been hit with something substantial."
Unlike his less interesting montages, collages of photos he shot of family and friends, Lyon's serious work forces you into places and toward individuals you might otherwise avoid. He wants to communicate that all lives have value, no matter how they've turned out, a philosophy that's a corrective to the worship of celebrity and material wealth. Throughout his life, he has been drawn to society's rejects, people on the margins who have been relegated to the trash heap and remain mostly invisible to mainstream media. (His stated goal, at one point, was to "destroy Life magazine" and other glossies run by "archaic minds.")
"If the top of society is so screwed up," he recalls thinking to himself, "why not look at the bottom?" So, in 1967, he began a record – an indictment would be the more accurate description – of life inside the Texas penal system, and his photographs from that project are some of his most powerful. In one, an African American man who has collapsed from heat exhaustion is sprawled in the back of a pickup truck like so much refuse; another man stands naked in front of a white guard during a "shakedown." During this period, he formed lasting relationships with some prisoners, none stronger than with Death Row inmate Billy McCune, a rapist serving his sentence in a nine-by-five-foot cell. The two men corresponded and forged an artistic collaboration. McCune, whom Lyon calls a genius, was eventually released, and died in 2007.
"The most profound experience of my life was seeing him free," says Lyon, and freedom, in the end, may be the real subject of his work.
Through Jan. 27 at the de Young Museum.