Danny Lyon

Lyon’s seminal work of journalism is The Bikeriders from 1968. In it he explores the motorcycle gang that he was actually a member of, and displays his raw monochrome images alongside interview extracts. Many of the images are available online at the Magnum website:

Although some of these images reinforce stereotypes of bikers – drinking beer, shooting pool, we never lose sight of the humanity of Lyon’s subjects. He even includes images from the pages of some of the bikers’ scrapbooks, as a kind of vernacular to complement his own images. This is a useful tool for showing the humanity of his subjects, letting the viewer know that these bikers, despite their outward aggressive appearance, are human. A useful device for eliciting empathy:

While also showing some more intimate shots of the bikers at home and with their families:

Thus we really start to warm to these guys, and that’s before we’ve even heard their very human and at times profound observations on life and biking:

I’ve seen what most people have read about. Like take the United States, man, I’ve traveled it back and forth, man, about fifteen or twenty times. Not only from Los Angeles to New York, man, but from Oregon to Florida . You know, just anyplace I’d decide to trip to. So therefore I figure I’ve got more knowledge up here stored up than half the college kids my age.” (Cal)

Being on a motorcycle don’t make you special at all. And a lot of guys figure that it does. It’s like that clown pulling out of the tollbooth sittin’ in the middle of a lane. He was on a motorcycle, so he felt special. He can sit there. It’s a big world, man. If you don’t get shoulder to shoulder an’ learn to roll with the waves you’re gonna get either walked on or awful frustrated. You want to see just what it’s like, just step out into a nice big old fat ocean all by yourself in a little rowboat and see just how microscopic you are.” (Rodney)

This is probably what makes the whole project in my opinion, the first hand narrative, which allows the bikers to speak for themselves and tell their own stories, as it were. Shelley Rice wrote the following of Lyon’s work:

Lyon allows the subjects to speak for themselves, to describe not only their activities but their relationships to family, work, and the bourgeoisie. Lyon used his books as forums not only for his own photographs but for the stories and pictures of the men who were his sitters.” (Rice 2001, p 24)

In a sense, this is what I’m trying to achieve – not so much a showcase of my own photography, but providing a platform for the voices of others to be heard. Selections from the original sound recordings are available on Lyon’s website here as mp3 soundbites.

Lyon: “[The Bikeriders] is a personal record, dealing mostly with bikeriders whom I know and care for. If anything has guided this work beyond the facts of the worlds presented it is what I have come to believe is the spirit of the bikeriders: the spirit of the hand that twists open the throttle on the crackling engines of big bikes and rides them on racetracks or through traffic or, on occasion, into oblivion” (art2art exhibition catalogue).

In a Guardian interview, Lyon said the following of his life’s work: “I’m a photo-journalist who became an artist. I make prints by hand, I spend time on putting books together so they look beautiful. These things are important. They are evidence of the creative life you have lived. You can hold them in your hands. They’re solid.”

Another of Lyon’s projects was Conversations with the Dead, a culmination of 14 months spent inside the Texas penitentiary system, images from which are also available on the Magnum website. From Phaidon book review:

Lyon had already made a name for himself by the time he came to shoot in Texas, having single-handedly invented what became known as the New Journalism – spending months with a subject, or subjects, building up telling and detail-packed portraits of their lives.”

Cool, calculated composition but with enough immediacy to bring the viewer right into the action – on the unfamiliar side of the prison walls and bars. Lyon is not afraid of the people he shoots, and this comes across in his images. He is almost one of them, and I suspect he even donned convict overalls for this shoot, to feel like one of those he was shooting as well as to blend in. One of the most human stories that came out was that of Billy McCune:

McCune was on death row when Lyon met him:

Danny Lyon met Billy George McCune in 1968 when Lyon was making his book, Conversations with the Dead, inside the Texas Department of Corrections. McCune, sentenced to Death in 1950 on a dubious charge of rape, had survived two years on death row, when his sentence was adjudicated to Life. In 1960 the TDC classified him as psychotic. When the two met, McCune was in the isolation ward of the Wynne Unit, literally surrounded by lunatics. He had been in prison for 18 years. The collaboration of Lyon and McCune resulted in an outpouring of work from the supposedly psychotic inmate.” (bleakbeauty.com)

Born to an epileptic World War One vet who sold pencils and ice cream, McCune was judged, in his teens, to be ‘feebleminded’. After leaving school he joined the navy but was discharged for ineptitude. Charged with the rape of a woman in a Fort Worth car park he was found guilty and sentenced to death. While awaiting his fate however, he cut off his penis at the root and placed it in a cup, which he passed between the cell bars to an unbeknowing guard.” (Phaidon)

Lyon photographed the death sentence, as well as McCune’s artistic works – drawings and poems. The two kept a close correspondence until McCune’s death in 2007:

Old, frail and worn thin from a life lived on the harsh streets of New York, McCune had requested to see Lyon just one more time before he died – in effect to thank him for the kindness Lyon had shown him in telling his story, and, to say goodbye.”

The fondness that McCune had for Lyon comes across in the writing as well as the pictures he drew after Lyon’s images. McCune’s works are also exhibited on Lyon’s website. Lyon wrote of how he wanted to get the message across to his audience, and that the best way to do that was to use the words of the inmates themselves:

McCune’s letters to and the drawings and paintings he made for Danny Lyon permeate Conversations with the Dead, giving the reader an uneasy insight into the brutality, hopelessness and dispiriting existence of life in jail in Sixties America where many men were serving long sentences merely for smoking weed or indulging in same sex relationships.

As Lyons says in the book, “I simply did not believe I could convey the reality of the prisons through my own writing alone. I wanted to drag the reader in with me. I wanted to put the reader through what I was experiencing emotionally. I wanted it to be real, and I became convinced the best way to do that was to use these documents and count on the basic humanity of my readers to respond.”

Shelley Rice wrote of this work:

a documentary study of career criminals behind bars. Weaving together Lyon’s photographs, government documents, and texts and images created by the prisoners themselves, this 1971 classic is a complex and multifaceted exploration of the tense relationships between the mainstream and the margins of society” (2001, p 24).

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