Freedom for Whom?

The reflexive photographs of Danny Lyon and the stakes of critical curation

by Wen Zhuang

Illustration by Christie Zhong

published December 7, 2018

Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) Sit-In, Atlanta, 1963


Who’s the real Danny Lyon? The year was 1969 and Lyon was an attendee at one of Richard Avedon’s studio workshops on 58th Street in New York. The question was asked by Avedon not out of curiosity, but with repugnance. “It was one of these vicious Manhattan art scenes. They lacerated my work” recalls Lyon in a 2012 interview with BOMB magazine. Avedon was in his 40s, the lead photographer for Vogue at the time and would go on to produce several lauded books of photojournalism; Lyon was 27, from a middle-class German-Jewish household in Queens, and had just graduated from the University of Chicago. However, as Avedon’s question suggested: that was not the real Danny Lyon, or at least not all.

By 1969, Lyon had already produced three significant bodies of work: one on the Civil Rights Movement as the Student Nonviolence Coordinating Committee’s (SNCC) first and official photographer, one as a member of Chicago Outlaws motorcycle club (Freedom Riders), and another that documented a seven-acre site below Canal Street that was slated for demolition (The Destruction of Lower Manhattan). He would go on, in 1971, to photograph the daily life of Texas prisoners, (Conversations with the Dead) produced with permission from the Texas Department of Corrections.

Within the span of four years, Lyon’s work examined (from every angle) America’s consistent if flawed appeal: freedom. The struggle for freedom, its embodiment, and the haunting consequences of no freedom at all. He treated all his subjects with the unapologetic, almost intemperate approach of a journalist. However, due in part to the subjects Lyon chose to focus on, the work refused to fall under the notion that reportage photojournalism should be detached and objective. Lyon refused to let it, often getting deeply involved in the subject’s lives—in 1979, Lyon testified as a character witness at the trial of a man accused of murder with whom Lyon had become close while photographing in a Texas prison.

To create these relationships, Lyon also managed to transform into various people—he shifted his politics, his ethics, and his approach. “I leave SNCC in late 1964 and within two years I’m a member of an Outlaw motorcycle group that goes on a picnic and has a nine-foot original Nazi flag marking the spot,” Lyon tells the Guardian in a rare 2012 interview. “I sure as hell didn't sit down with bikers over a beer and discuss Martin Luther King and the struggle for black equality.” It wasn’t just Avedon who was curious, everyone was trying to answer this question: who is the real Danny Lyon? The question’s impossibility lies not in its direction towards Lyon, but in its desire for the “real.”

Conversations with the Dead earned Lyon fame in 1971, but he left for New Mexico shortly after, before anyone could answer the question of who he was.  Living in near seclusion for the past 50 years, he’s turned his practice inward, focusing on his life and family. Similar to many of his contemporaries, he’s abandoned photography and has moved onto film. "Well, the digital age has seen a certain kind of meaningless photography spread like a malignancy,” he told the Guardian in 2014, “there were always too many photographs, but now there's a kind of visual pollution.” However, Lyon has not discarded his idealist activist roots. He runs an active blog, Bleak Beauty, that he updates often with press, recent writing, and images he took at the 2011 Occupy LA rally. He’s careful to title it as a blog and not as a website; hosted on Wordpress, it’s unpretentious and lacks glamour. The bulk of his recent video work is uploaded through the popular streaming site Vimeo, and free for anyone through Bleek Beauty. Though a little over 70 now, and increasingly critical of the recent transformations of photography, Bleak Beauty shows an evident drive in Lyon to stay current and accessible.

Despite his humble approach to his work and his early shift away from the New York art spotlight, Lyon has received renewed interest in recent years, as those working in the arts try to contend with the nation’s current political climate. In 2016, the Whitney Museum of American Art exhibited the first retrospective of the artist’s’ work in 25 years. The following October, a smaller show opened in Huxley-Parlour Gallery in London. Both shows successfully positioned the political unrest of America in the ’60s­—along with Lyon's focus on marginalized people­—against the similar energy of Trump’s America today. However, what high-profile shows have often failed to do is catch up with Danny himself—he is no longer the same artist he was in the ’60s. The shows often feel complete and closed, but Lyon’s politics, methodologies, and current work continue to evolve.

Lyon is often outspoken about the naiveté in his earlier projects and has welcomed current political discourse into the discussion of his earlier work. At a 2012 awards ceremony at the Missouri School of Journalism, Lyon spoke with reproach about certain perceived "truths.” Pointing to the growing attack on Mexican immigrants, he warned of a "puritanical code [that] has eviscerated the US political system" and encouraged students to both strive for and question truth, emphasizing that good journalism is not about ideology.

“What I hoped to break away from was how his work is normally shown, always so codified into the series,” reflects Allison Pappas, the curator of The Only Thing I Saw Worth Leaving, a show of  Lyon’s photographs at the Brown University’s David Winton Bell Gallery that opened this November. “Part of what’s so strong about Lyon’s practice is when you see a certain dialogue happening across the different series.” The exhibition highlights a breadth of work similar to the Whitney show: images from Freedom Riders, Conversations with the Dead, his time with SNCC, Destruction of Lower Manhattan, and his continued work in New Mexico. Pappas, however, diverged from curatorial traditions and mixed the series together, organizing the show instead under five principles Lyon has referred to often in his writing: empathy, freedom, history, destruction, and narrative. The result is a refusal of cohesion and finality that not only honors the legacy of Lyon’s ’60s projects but work towards a way of examining the artist and his role as an observer within the current political context. While I toured the show with Pappas, she pointed towards two photographs in the “Freedom” section. One, (SNCC) Sit-In, Atlanta, 1963, shows a group of SNCC student organizers huddled at the bar of a diner — one is making eye contact with the camera, the others are in animated discussion, some are walking off the frame. Its neighboring photo, Jack, Chicago, 1963-66, also photographed in a diner, is of the back of a lone bike-rider — his Chicago Outlaws skull patch highlighted by the hunch in his shoulders. What did freedom mean for Jack? And how did it differ for SNCC students?

To itemize the ouvre of Lyon’s work into series is to undermine the nuance of each demographic he observed. Lumping his subjects under one suggested theme anticipates one reception—such was the case at the Whitney. The description of the show lauded Lyon’s deep concern for the marginalized and the disenfranchised; however, the motorcycle outlaws, the black student organizers, and the Texas inmates were marginalized society members in vastly different ways. Discounting this fact in order to frame an artists’ career as a homogenous entity runs antithetical to the goal of the artist. Instead of having the events of the ’60s aid our examination of the current climate, the work is instead frozen in time.

This critique of Whitney’s curatorial decisions is potentially an unfair one, as Lyon, speaking specifically on leaving SNCC, often referred to his photographs with similar universalizing language and detached journalistic rigor. As tensions grew in the late ’60s, and SNCC’s actions drew more attention and violence, the group soon questioned whether white people should even be allowed in the committee. “The point is, I was a professional,” Lyon stated, “these people were subjects, and it was time to move on. I never looked back.”

Jack, Chicago, No. 21, 1963

Gelatin silver print, 8.5 x 11.75


Lyon’s work has had lasting political implications—he snuck into Leesburg Stockade and photographed a group of girls who had been jailed for their involvement with SNCC, a photo which later secured them justice—but Lyon himself rarely reflected on the nuances of each body of work, seeing himself as an observer capturing what others couldn't see. Lyon’s claim of “never looking back” after photographing his subjects proves not entirely true—he looks back often, and each time with a renewed sense of understanding. “He has talked about not liking things his subjects said, did, believed,” Pappas tells me, referring to a recent interview Lyon did, in which he mentions that as he aged and engaged in conversations with his wife and daughters, he recognized that his photographs of the bike-riders often display behavior that is problematic and misogynistic. “In that same interview, however," Pappas adds," he expressed a need to keep discussions on a piece of work. To be self-reflective always and to show the ugly with the good, as that was and still is part of the world. That’s the journalist part of him, you know?”

It is a difficult task to show the work of a living artist who is still active in his practice, still generating opinions. Lyon’s is a particularly tricky endeavor: how can you preserve the truth of the events Lyon documented while leaving the potential for those depictions to be flawed, contradictory, and questioned? More broadly: how do museums and institutions justify unearthing the work of an artist, giving him renewed space in important museums, without forgetting the privileges afforded to him when he made the work? In the ’60s, Lyon had unprecedented freedom to make, to observe, and to enter various spaces. He was white, college-educated, came from well-respected parents—as is obvious, he had no stake in the events he recorded. He documented freedom without his ever being questioned. “He was able to go up to the police officers and they assumed he was on their side,” says Pappas. “And he worked that, he exploited it.” Hoping to move through some of these difficulties, Pappas decided to have most of the text included in the show come largely from Lyon’s own writings. In these accompanying captions, we see Lyon questioning his role in the movements and spaces he entered. Under an image of James Baldwin, Lyon's text reads, “I feel very strongly that my pictures are not enough...time passes so closely,” and underneath an image from Ellis prison unit, “my limited endurance...I tried with whatever power I had to make a picture of imprisonment as distressing as I knew it to be…I never lived in prisons. I only visited them…” The artist himself is present in our examination of each photograph—the viewer is unable to consider the photographs without also considering who Lyon was.

The world has seen half a century of Lyon now, and though 2016 awarded him resumed recognition, there’s an inherent irony in fitting Lyon into an institutional structure. “He thinks a lot about structures and keeping avenues of access open,” says Pappas. “He’s always wondered if getting shows and winning awards isn’t just a way to neutralize the work, to end what [the work] is doing.” Speaking at the Bell Gallery during the opening, Lyon spoke less about the work shown, but encouraged students to take up similar actions, to always keep an ear to the voices of the marginalized.

The transformation of photography—with the induction of the camera phone and the selfie generation—has redefined identity politics and allowed anyone to accomplish what only a select demographic could do in the past. This is not to say that the work of these pioneering photographers should be stowed away, or that we should trade the important documents of a given era in an attempt to feature diverse representation. Rather, the curatorial decisions involved in resurrecting the work of an artist like Lyon should be done with care. In some ways, it seems this is what Lyon is vying for as well. His deeply, often vulnerable film explorations in recent years is a subtle acknowledgment that the important work can and should be done by others.

In the same year as Lyon’s Whitney show, the Sculpture Center in Queens featured the contemporary photographer Leslie Hewitt’s series Untitled (Structures). In her work, Hewitt worked with archival imagery from the Civil Rights Era, including photographs by Lyon. Many who wrote about Hewitt’s show saw its strengths as twofold: it was both a timely reexamination of history as well as a reflection on her continued personal stakes in this history as a Black artist. Museums and institutions, when trying to define a body of work across history or mirror the energy of a time can no longer consider the artist with a level of anonymity—the events of US history have and continue to be intertwined with identity.

The Only Thing I Saw Worth Leaving is up at the David Winton Bell Gallery at the List Art Center until March 20th, 2019. Special thanks to Allison Pappas for her time and insight. Images from the David Winton Bell Gallery's permanent collection.


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