Danny Lyon

United States 1942


Danny Lyon
Danny Lyon
United States
July 7, 2016

For Danny Lyon, American documentary photographer and filmmaker, artistic approach and everyday routine are never entirely separate realms. If you put a camera in my hand, I want to get really close to people. Not just physically close, but also emotionally close, Lyon said. The artist is renown as a photographer who has produced several bodies of incredible documentary work in the 1960s before he turned 30. He always wanted to be the voice of the marginalized and he believed that photographers are respectful truth tellers, able to look inside and find a hidden beauty in everything. The entire Lyon’s work was done in the style called New Journalism, which means that the photographer has become deeply immersed in the documented subject, may it be portraiture or event. He is also known as the founding member of the Bleak Beauty publishing group.

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Danny Lyon – Crossing the Ohio River, 1966 – image via christies.com

Early Pictures, Exhibition History and Association with Motorcycle Club

Danny Lyon was born in the early 40s in Brooklyn, New York. He was raised in Queens and studied history and philosophy at the University of Chicago. In 1963, he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts and around the same time he published his earliest photographs, which were later featured in the documentary book called The Movement. When it comes to the main topics of Lyon’s work, one thing that surely stands out is his interest in the world motorcyclists. His collection called The Bikeriders from 1968 documented the life of bikers in the American Midwest in the 60s. Because of his passion for this lifestyle, Lyon himself became a member of the Chicago Outlaws Motorcycle Club and he traveled often with fellow bikers. Lyon’s photographs from the 60s are often considered an attempt the glorify the life philosophy of the American bike rides. This series of his photographs was really influential in both 60s and 70s. During the 70s, Lyon started working on a new photo project, called DOCUMERICE. This project was organized by Environmental Protection Agency.

When it comes to the main topics of his photography, Lyon’s passion and interest in motorcyclists surely stands out

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Danny Lyon – The Bikeriders Series – image via theselvedgeyard.wordpress.com

Navigation Through Manhattan and Prisons in Texas

Lyon’s other major projects were called The Destruction of Lower Manhattan, from 1969 and Conversations with the Dead, from 1971. The first one documents the demolition which took place in the Lower Manhattan in 1967. Lyon photographs in this series featured streets and buildings which were about to get destroyed. At the same time, he made portraits of many people from the local neighborhoods, which turned out to be very powerful and emotional photographs. The Destruction of Lower Manhattan series was remaindered for one dollar each, but soon it attained the status of a collector’s item. It was remade in 2005. When it comes to his Conversations with the Dead, this controversial and brave series was published with the cooperation of the Texas Department of Corrections. Lyon photographed various prisons and prisoners from 1967 to 1968, making one of the most influential American photo series which documents the life in prison.The introduction of this photo book emphasized the idea that the penal system of Texas represents the incarceration policies presents throughout the United States. Images of prisoners represent people subjected to strip searches, those working outdoors as well as the individual portraits of people behind bars. It is interesting to mention that Lyon’s tendency to dignify his subjects made his depiction of prison life less repulsive than it was supposed to be. The photographer made friends with some of the prisoners and his photo book turned quite complex and colorful because it included texts taken from prison records and even inmate artworks. The prisoner which took a central place in the book was called Billy McCun and he was a rapist initially convicted to death sentence. However, his sentence was eventually changed into a lifetime in prison. Lyon became fascinated with this prisoner and described him as a real psychotic due to his bizarre behavior.

Lyon photographed various prisons and prisoners from 1967 to 1968

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Danny Lyon – Shakedown – image via cloudinary.com

Lyon’s Documentary Films

Lyon wasn’t interested only in documentary photography – his career as a moviemaker was equally successful. His earliest film from 1969 was called Soc. Sci. 127 and it is a 21-minute portrait of the tattoo artist called Bill Sanders. This short documentary is quite straightforward and it portrays the everyday routine of Sanders’s lifestyle. Lyon has filmed Sander’s tattoo parlor, where we can see the tattoo artist inking a man’s buttocks or a woman’s bare breast. While working, Sanders was known to mumble his opinions on sex and politics, which made this documentary quite entertaining. In 1981, Lyon made another short movie called Dear Mark. This 15-minute black and white piece is a portrait of the sculptor Mark di Suvero. The movie shows Mr. Suvero shirtless, working diligently on a huge assemblage. The scene is accompanied to by the soundtrack of an old Gene Autry movie in order to achieve a humorous effect. However, the masterpiece of Lyon’s movies is a longer film called Willie, from 1985. It is an 80-minute documentary which combines color and black and white scenes and it follows the story about Willie Jaramillo, who is a prison recidivist. Lyon’s approach to building a narrative structure in this film is truly dynamic. He cuts back and forth between the black-and-white footage of delinquent young boys and scenes in color where the main character is already a troublesome adult. During the filming of Willie, Lyon has talked directly with the prisoner through jail cell bars and he included in the final version of the movie even some brief conversations with other prisoners. This amazing documentary can help us understand why Lyon shifted the focus of his work from photography to movies. No matter how artfully a picture is composed, it is still just a static and silent object. Lyon always wanted more – he wanted to capture the movement, the struggle, the power of transformation, which are all outside the realm of traditional photos. The skill of filmmaking allowed Lyon to dedicate himself to more powerful storytelling, which is achieved through the use of moving images with sound.

Lyon always wanted more – he wanted to capture the movement, the struggle, the power of transformation

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Danny Lyon – The Bikeriders – image via americansuburbx.com

Involvement in the Civil Rights Movement

Lyon’s involvement with the Civil Rights Movement dates back to the time of his junior year at the University of Chicago. The artist was impressed by the speech of John Lewis, who was a leader of this movement. Lyon decided to join the gathering of the activists held at a segregated swimming pool. Together with the rest of demonstrators, Lyon knelt down to pray. However, a truck came and went through the crowd in order to stop the demonstration and a young black girl got accidentally hit by the truck. After this incident, Lyon was sure that he wanted to be a part of the Civil Rights Movement. Shortly after joining the movement, Lyon had issues with the police, because they believed his father was an African-American. Lyon had to leave town in order to avoid further complications and keep his photography and movies safe. However, he decided to come back next year, even though the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee was unsure whether it’s safe to take him back. However, he managed to regain a good reputation and later on he participated in a new project. He was in charge of taking photos of high-school female students who ended up in prison without any real charges against them. After Danny Lyon was being accepted as the photographer for SNCC, he started shooting the majority of decisive historical events related to the Civil Rights movement. His reputation skyrocketed so much that he became the important collaborator of the Magnum Photos, which is the preeminent international association, geared towards documentary approach.

Danny Lyon’s involvement with the Civil Rights Movement dates back to the time when he was taking photographs at his junior year at the University of Chicago

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Danny Lyon – Occupy Demonstration on Broadway, Los Angeles, 2011 – image via deyoung.famsf.org

Looking for the Truth in the Lives of the Marginalized

Danny Lyon, who is nowadays in his 70, is still passionate and active when it comes to moviemaking and photography. Over the past four decades, he has traveled widely in order to photograph street urchins in Colombia, protesters in California and even coal miners in China. Needless to say, his list of international solo and group shows is very long and varied. In 2015, Danny Lyon has won a prestigious Lucie Award for the lifetime achievement in Documentary category. The artist’s work is strongly appreciated by many documentary enthusiasts, because of his unparalleled ability to get really close to his marginalized subjects, sympathize with them and depict their state of mind with a deep and honest desire to let the world hear their voices. Lyon’s exhibition called Danny Lyon: Message to the Future is the first comprehensive retrospective of his work to be presented in the last two decades. It is organized by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and it premiered at the Whitney Museum in New York, in June 2016.

Danny Lyon lives and works in New York.

Featured image: Danny Lyon’s Self-Portrait, 1967 – image via pinterest.com

YearExhibition TitleGallery/MuseumSolo/Group
2016Danny Lyon - Message to the FutureWhitney Museum of American Arts, New YorkSolo
2015Conversations with the DeadForum für Fotografie, GermanySolo
2014This World Is Not My Home: Danny Lyon Photographs Knowxville Museum of Art, Knoxville, TNSolo
2014Danny Lyon: The Bikeriders The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota, FLSolo
2014The Social Landscape: Selections From The Ralph M. Parsons Foundation Photography CollectionMOCA Grand Avenue, Los Angeles, CAGroup
2014How Far How NearStedelijk Museum, AmsterdamGroup
2014Manna: Masterworks from the Tufts University Permanent Art Collection Tufts University Art Gallery, Medford, MAGroup
2014Road TripMusee des Beaux-Arts, Bordeaux, FranceGroup
2014Planes, Trains and Automobiles Davison Art Center, Middletown, CTGroup
2013Danny LyonFundació Foto Colectania, BarcelonaSolo
2013Danny Lyon: The Bikeriders San Antonio Museum of Art, San Antonia, TXSolo
2013This World Is Not My Home: Danny Lyon Photographs Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Santa Barbara, CASolo
2013Decisive Moments Honolulu Museum of Art, Honolulu, HIGroup
2013Eye on the Streets: Trends in 1960s and 1970s PhotographySmith College Museum of Art, Northampton, MAGroup
2013A Democracy of Images: Photographs from the Smithsonian American Art MuseumSmithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C.Group
2012This World Is Not My Home: Danny Lyon PhotographsThe de Young Museum, San Francisco, CASolo
2012This World Is Not My Home: Danny Lyon PhotographsThe Menil Collection, Houston, TXSolo
2012The Whole World Was Watching – Civil Rights-era Photographs from the Menil Collection Des Moines Art Center, Des Moines, IAGroup
2012 A Descerning Eye: Julian T. Baker Jr. Photography Collection North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh, NCGroup
2012Streetwise: Masters of 60s PhotographyKnoxville Museum of Art, Knoxville, TNGroup
2012Der Mensch und seine Objekte Museum Folkwang, EssenGroup
2011Public WorksThe Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago, ILGroup
2010The Bikeriders: Danny LyonKrannert Art Museum, Champaign, ILSolo
2010Danny Lyon: Selection From The Bikeriders Des Moines Art Center, Des Moines, IASolo
2010Danny Lyon: Bikeriders Southeast Museum of Photography, Daytona Beach, FLSolo
2010Thanks for Being With Us: Contemporary Art from the Douglas Nielsen Collection Tucson Museum of Art, Tucson, AZGroup
2009Reality Revisited Moderna Museet, StockholmGroup
2009This Is Not A Fashion Photographs: Selections from the ICP CollectionInternational Center of Photography, New York City, NYGroup
2008MAGNUM – 60 Years of PhotographyStedelijk Museum Amsterdam, AmsterdamGroup
2007Danny Lyon: Montage, Film, and Still Photography Whitney Museum of American Art, New YorkSolo
2007Male & Female: Gender Performed in Photographs from the George Eastman House Collection George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film, Rochester, NYGroup
2007Currents in PhotographyCenter for Contemporary Art, Sacramento, CAGroup
2007Everyday People – 20th Century Photography The Menil Collection, Houston, TXGroup
2006Unpublished: Vintage Photographs 1963-2005Edwynn Houk Gallery, NYSolo
2006Danny Lyon Photographs and Film Moral Derfler Gallery, Musrara College, Jerusalem, IsraelSolo
2006Summer Vacation – Photographs from the CollectionPhiladelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PAGroup
2006Documenting DISSENT Speed Art Museum, Louisville, KYGroup
2005The Destruction of Lower Manhattan Museum of the City of New York, NYSolo
2005De la comtesse De Castiglione a Cindy Sherman Galerie de France, ParisGroup
2005Artists Interrogate – Race and Identity„Henri Cartier-Bresson, Danny LyonMilwaukee Art Museum, Milwaukee, WI Group
2005Artists Interrogate – Race and Identity - Henri Cartier-Bresson & Danny LyonMuseum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Rijeka, CroatiaGroup
2004Danny Lyon: Forty YearsFahey/Klein Gallery, Los Angeles, CASolo
2004The Bikeriders: Pictures and Audio from the 1960’s Milwaukee Art Museum, Milwaukee, WISolo
2004Common Ground – Discovering Community in 150 Years of ArtThe Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.Group
2003Table Turners: Album Covers By Artists Who Hardly Do Album Covers Track 16 Gallery, Santa Monica, CAGroup
2002Heart ButteEdwynn Houk Gallery, New YorkSolo
2002Danny Lyon: Photographs, 1962-2000 Art Institute of Minneapolis, MNSolo
2002Indivisable – Stories of American CommunityPhiladelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PAGroup
2000Danny Lyon: Born to LoseEdwynn Houk Gallery, New YorkSolo
2000The Social Scene The Palm Beach Institute of Contemporary Art, Lake Worth, FLGroup
1999Danny Lyon: Indian Nations A Gallery for Fine Photography, New OrleansSolo
1998A Collector’s View – Photographs from the Sondra Gilman CollectionHaggerty Museum of Art, Milwaukee, WIGroup
1997Danny Lyon: The Bikeriders Vintage Prints 1962-66Edwynn Houk Gallery, New YorkSolo
1997The Movement, Montages-Iris PrintsJane Jackson Gallery, Atlanta, GASolo
1996Rare, Unique and UnseenJan Kesner Gallery, Los Angeles, CASolo
1996Chiapas Simon Lowinsky Gallery, New York City, NYSolo
1995The Americas Jan Kesner Gallery, Los Angeles, CASolo
1995Danny Lyon: Photo/FilmCorcoran Gallery of Art, New York City, NYSolo
1994The Chicago Years 1960-1966Ehlers Caudill Gallery, Chicago, ILSolo
1994Pictures Of The Real World (In Real Time) Le Consortium, Dijon, FranceGroup
1993Danny Lyon: Photo/FilmMiddlebury College Art Museum,  Middlebury, VT Solo
1993Rebel in America Robert Klein Gallery, Boston, MassachusettsSolo
1993Danny Lyon: Photo/FilmFoundacion de la Caixa, BarcelonaSolo
1992Danny Lyon: Photo/Film The Photographers Gallery, LondonSolo
1992Three Early Essays Jan Kesner Gallery, Los Angeles, CASolo
1992The Young Rebel in American Photography 1950-1970Museum of Modern Art, New York City, NYGroup
1991Danny Lyon: Photo/FilmFolkwang Museum, EssenSolo
1991Danny Lyon: Photo/Film 1959-90Center for Creative Photography, Tuscon, AZSolo
1988Haiti and the February RevolutionSUNY New Paltz, New Paltz, NYSolo
1988Men’s LivesThe Menil Collection, Houston, TXGroup
1987Danny LyonBaltimore Museum of Art, Baltimore, MDSolo
1987American DreamsMuseo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia MadridGroup
1986Danny LyonThe Photographer's Gallery, Saskatoon, SaskatchewanSolo
1985Danny Lyon: Photographs and FilmsPresentation House Gallery, Vancouver, B.C. Solo
1985Danny LyonWalker Arts Center, Minneapolis, MNSolo
1983Pictures from Films, Films from PicturesGallery Eleven, Cohen Arts Center, Tufts University, Medford, MASolo
1983Phototypes Whitney Museum of American Art, New York City, NYGroup
1982Pictures from the New WorldThe Philadelphia Art Museum, Philadelphia, PASolo
1977Danny LyonThe Photographer's Gallery, LondonSolo
1975Danny LyonUniversity Art Museum, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, NMSolo
1973Danny LyonInstitute of Arts, Minneapolis, NMSolo
1972Danny LyonUniversity of Nebraska, Sheldon Theater, Lincoln, NESolo
1971Danny LyonBergman Gallery, University of Chicago, ChicagoSolo
1971Danny Lyon Photographs, Billy McCune Drawings Institute for the Arts, Rice University, Houston, TXSolo
1970Danny LyonSan Francisco Art Institute, San FranciscoSolo
1969Prison and the Free World Art Institute of Chicago, ChicagoSolo
1968The Destruction of Lower Manhattan, Nov. 1966-67 South Street Museum, New York Council on the Arts, New YorkSolo
1966Danny LyonArt Institute of Chicago, ChicagoSolo
1964The Photographer’s Eye Museum of Modern Art, New York City, NYGroup
1962New Dorm Lounge University of Chicago, ChicagoSolo