Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Danny Lyon:Eating right on the dirt.

"The use of 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" - Danny Lyon.

If you've got a spare £5,000-£6,750 you could always pop down to Beetles + Huxley on Swallow Street, Piccadilly and avail yourself of a Danny Lyon silver gelatin print. If, like most people, that's not an option you can visit the same place and look at them for free.

That's the option I took. I think it was the right one. It's a nice little spot if you're interested in photography. Either as art or documentary or, ideally, both. They've books by the likes of Steve McCurry, Sebastiao Salgado, Eve Arnold, Derek Ridgers, and Raymond Depardon.

These are piled neatly on tables and shelves in the middle of the room whilst the walls are festooned with the aforementioned prints of Lyon. Born in Brooklyn, 1942 to a German dad and Russian mum. His father Ernst had fled from the Nazis to the US in 1933. It's strange to think we're in danger of being in a place where Americans will be fleeing to Germany to escape the neo-Nazis (or alt-right as they're choosing to style themselves at the moment).

Lyon studied history and philosophy at the University of Chicago and, during summer break, he hitched to Cairo in the southern corner of Illinois, near the border with Kentucky, where he joined marches and protests with the SNCC (Student Non-Violent Co-Ordinating Committee). Politicised he spent the next two years travelling around the South taking photos of events relating to the Civil Rights Movements of the time. His aims were twofold. Firstly he sought to change people's minds. But he also sold his photos to raise funds for the cause.

In the 1963 print below we can witness his colleague, SNCC photographer, Clifford Vaughs being arrested in Cambridge, Maryland. Vaughs, who died earlier this year, was a civil rights activist who'd made a documentary 'What Will the Harvest Be?' about the Black Power movement that was aired on ABC TV. In it he interviewed both Martin Luther King Jr and Stokely Carmichael. It's Carmichael you can just make out, in the foreground of the shot, pulling Vaughs' leg from the National Guardsmen.

Clifford A. 'Soney' Vaughs had another string to his bow. He built motorcycles and, in fact, designed the two choppers that you can see Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper use in the film Easy Rider. Vaughs and Lyon must've found a lot to talk about because Lyon become hugely interested in the biker subculture and, in what was to become known as the New Journalism, embedded himself with his subjects. He joined the Chicago Outlaws in 1963 and remained a member until 1967. Whilst immersed with his biker gang he sought to erode the incorrect demonisation of their lifestyle and subculture by presenting photos of them going about their ordinary business. Which, of course, mostly involved riding, fixing, and posing on motorbikes.

The pull of the open road could hardly be better illustrated than in 1963's On the Road to Yazoo City, Mississippi whilst the shot of a man named Cal in Elkhorn, Wisconsin taken four years later makes fantastic use of the bike's wing mirror.

Below you can see Clubhouse During the Columbus Run, Dayton, Ohio (1966) and an untitled work from the same year. The dry ice effect makes these knights of the road look like they're auditioning for a Cormac McCarthy adaptation.

The feeling of comradeship, the sense of the wind in your hair, and the excitement of 55hp between your thighs is caught brilliantly by Lyon's 1963 Route 12, Wisconsin. In terms of career linearity it's appropriate that the bikers are racing off into the distance because in 1967 Lyon found a new theme.

He'd been at a rodeo in Huntsville, Texas when he got talking to some prisoners. His intrigue was pricked and an idea for a new series came. Surprisingly the Texas Department of Corrections not only co-operated but gave him unchecked access for fourteen months spanning '67 and '68.

The Texan prison system was terrifyingly outdated at that time. It was based on a format that had been created during the days of slavery and prisoners were segregated on grounds of colour and guards and prison staff were treated as no less than Gods!

Lyon sought to capture the brutality, the latent (and the very real) threat of violence, the boredom, and the inhumanity of the penal system. This he did with no little aplomb. 1968's Meal Line sees a group of men in single file ascend stairs for what, one would assume, would be one of the day's highlights. Other ways to lift the boredom would be to play dominoes or, er, have a shower.

Other shots show shakedowns, visits, men lifting weights and contents of newly arrived prisoner's wallets. It's necessarily dull stuff but beautifully shot and humanises those incarcerated. Gandhi said 'the true measure of a society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members' and though some of these men will have, though some probably won't have, committed the vilest of crimes they're still human beings. They still deserve their dignity.

What comes across in this short, but rewarding, tour of Lyon's work is just that. Dignity. Lyon aimed not to sneer but to understand. It's an idea as old as time, not some modern woolly liberal concept as those on the far right would have you believe, and one we'd do well to cling on to in the uncertain years ahead.

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