In a booth on a quiet side of the Flying Star Café in the small town of Bernalillo, New Mexico, I found Danny Lyon working on an old Mac Powerbook. His heavy grey wool Pendleton coat, thrown across the table, bore a black and red “OCCUPY” button pinned to its lapel.
Lyon, now 70, began photographing seriously when he was a student at the University of Chicago in the early 1960s. When one of his photographs received first prize in a university contest judged by Hugh Edwards, associate curator of prints and drawings at The Art Institute of Chicago, the two embarked upon a friendship that formed the core of Lyon’s emerging professional career. Lyon wrote recently of Edwards’ influence on him during the sixties and seventies: “At the time, I think I printed and edited my pictures so that I could bring them to Hugh for him to look at. After he died [in 1986], I thought, ‘Now who do I show the pictures to?’”
Echoes of Edwards’ influence continue to resonate in Lyon’s work — especially in his writing about photography, as in his retrospective monograph, Memories of Myself: Essays by Danny Lyon (Phaidon Press, 2009). Memories includes images from nine different projects spanning four decades, as well as writings about each drawn from diaries, letters and interviews that Lyon conducted with his subjects. A number of contemporary essays also accompany the project in Lyon’s singularly lucid prose.
While still a student in Chicago, Lyon joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and made several trips to the South in order to document the group’s actions. His photographs of members participating in demonstrations and sitins are iconic records of the civil rights movement in the early 1960s. Recently, in the Delta terminal at the Atlanta airport, Lyon passed one of his own images, blown up to mural size, depicting SNCC workers sitting in at a lunch counter. It’s the only image representing the civil rights movement in the airport’s history of Atlanta display. While the image is uncredited, Lyon shows me a picture of it on his iPhone and marvels. “This is not a museum; it’s a corridor that 25,000 people a day pass in both directions. And they chose that out of a gazillion photographs. I love it. I wish there was more of it,” he says, hinting at his ambivalence over the role that the art world has played in the distribution of his work.
Lyon ended his affiliation with SNCC in 1964, opting instead to work on self-assigned photographic projects without outside editorial pressures and deadlines. The work for which he is perhaps best known began during this period, building on photographs he took in the spring of 1963 at a dirt track motorcycle rally in Wisconsin. The photographs he made as a member of the Outlaws Motorcycle Club became The Bikeriders (1967), a book combining Lyon’s images with transcriptions from audio recordings he made of the group’s members.
Edwards continued his strong support of Lyon during these years, giving the young photographer his first solo show at the Art Institute in 1966. A statement from this exhibition, which is reproduced in Memories of Myself, clearly articulates Lyon’s philosophy of photography during this period, ideas that would also feature in conversations with Edwards, as further commentary in Memories attests. The statement, which Lyon identifies as his own, reads:
Of what value is a glance into the face of the wife of a tenant farmer who came from Alabama and holds her family together for a few brief years in a tenement in Chicago in the twentieth century? And what will be its value in fifty years? The pictures are not made to disturb people’s consciences but rather to disturb their consciousness. The pictures do not ask you to “help” these people, but something much more difficult; to be briefly and intensely aware of their existence, an existence as real and significant as your own.
More of this article can be read in the Summer 2012 issue.