“You put a camera in my hand, I want to get close to men and women,” the photographer Danny Lyon once stated. “Not just physically close, emotionally close all of it.” Perhaps that yearning for intimacy explains why New York’s Whitney Museum chose the 74-year-old as the topic of its 1st photography show. If so, the curators fell for the very same romance of roughness that seduced him in the 1960s, when he shot calendar-prepared photos of sullen bikers and sinewy Texas convicts. If he ever got actually close to a subject it was only to find out there was nothing at all significantly there, aside from an attitude, a rap sheet and a properly-honed set of muscles.
In the Whitney’s incoherently hung retrospective, Danny Lyon: Message to the Future, Lyon comes off as a workmanlike documentarian who spent his greatest years mimicking Robert Frank, Bruce Davidson and Diane Arbus ahead of entering a steep inventive decline. But those photographers took deprivation and the men and women who suffered it seriously Lyon sentimentalised poverty, eccentricity and defeat.
Born in 1942, the son of a New York doctor, he grew up in an affluent section of Queens, and graduated from the University of Chicago with a bachelor’s degree in history. Lyon shucked off his privileged surroundings as soon as he had the chance, poking his lens into shabby neighbourhoods and campus protests. (He not too long ago enjoyed a small spurt of political fame when a 1962 photograph he took of Bernie Sanders addressing a student sit-in came to light, affirming the candidate’s civil rights bona fides.) Lyon went on to become an official photographer for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. You get the feeling in these early protest photographs that violence and confrontation thrilled him even more than the pursuit of social justice.
But what he actually relished was an air of proud seediness. In Uptown Chicago, he shot hillbilly migrants like rockers posing for an album cover, their sneers, slumps and hair radiating casual glamour. In 1967, he road-tripped to Knoxville, Tennessee, where he ogled barefoot and bare-chested unfortunates in their Ford convertibles and tumbledown habitats.
Lyon made his Knoxville pilgrimage in honour of native son and fellow celebrant of the downtrodden James Agee. The author of “Let Us Now Praise Well-known Men” exhorted photographers “not to alter the world as the eye sees it into a planet of aesthetic reality, but to perceive the aesthetic reality inside the actual world”. Lyon answered the get in touch with. He was after the holiness he saw incarnated in regular folk and their automobiles. “I am left feeling the folks I photograph are the best individuals in America,” he wrote. In Lyon’s populist exuberance, which is as significantly literary as visual, we hear echoes not just of Agee, but also of Walt Whitman and Jack Kerouac.
Lyon’s fondness for pariahs drove him to join the Outlaws, a famously antisocial biker gang, whose members, the smitten photographer enthused, were “probably the only thing like cowboys left in America”. They definitely had fantastic outfits. Lyon lingers over their regalia — leather jackets, tight T-shirts, iron-cross pendants, tattoos, patches and berets — and the burnished gleam of their bikes. He had vowed to get behind the bandit pose and portray their lives and libertinage from the inside out, but for the Outlaws, image was a weapon they seldom holstered. As they rode dead-eyed by means of Wisconsin, Indiana and Illinois, they seem never ever to have forgotten that Lyon’s sidearm was his camera, and they treated it with respect.
The gang got a volunteer propagandist, the photographer got access to a renegade legend. He made a suite of flattering symbols, such as “Crossing the Ohio River, Louisville, 1966”. A slender rider’s physique types a 3-slash rune (torso, thighs, calves) against a lushly detailed bike. His hair trails out behind him like comic-book speed whooshes.
His relationship with these males was “tactical however genuine”, in the words of curator Julian Cox (but can each words actually apply at the exact same time?). Lyon’s corps of hog-riding primitives aligns perfectly with Kerouac’s portrait of Dean Moriarty in On the Road: “His ‘criminality’ was not one thing that sulked and sneered it was a wild yea-saying overburst of American joy it was Western, the west wind, an ode from the Plains, some thing new, extended prophesied, extended a-coming (he only stole cars for joyrides).”
The bikers led him toward the Texas penal technique. He hauled his camera to six prisons over 14 months, ingratiating himself with prisoners and guards alike. Lyon had just read Jean Genet’s penal-colony memoir, The Miracle of the Rose, and he responded to the dreamy eroticism of the prose: “I was certain that someplace inside those golden-necked brutes, maybe in between their shoulder blades, was a hidden rift of tenderness.” Genet transformed the murderer Harcamone into a practically godlike figure Lyon found his personal Harcamone in Billy McCune, a charismatic rapist on death row. “I believe Billy McCune is the identical as me,” he wrote — an ordinary man trapped in a pitiless system. Lyon believed that McCune required his story told, and he was the man to do it.
Whatever closeness Lyon established with McCune, or with any of the other Texas inmates, should have vanished in the darkroom. Alternatively, the men who populate his scenes of hard labour flaunt blank faces and buff bodies, some nude, some in jumpsuits like flashes against the dark land. This is the segregated southern prison culture of Cool Hand Luke, and more than a couple of of the convicts seem to have modelled themselves on Paul Newman. Not even the recordings he produced of his subjects’ voices (which play on a loop at a listening station) can genuinely bring them alive.
Later, he tried a distinct tack: maintaining a film camera educated on his subjects lengthy adequate to get to know them. But here, also, he plays the part of a slumming voyeur, fascinated with weird, provincial varieties. In his 21-minute film “Soc. Sci. 127” (1969), Lyon hangs around a Houston tattoo artist, Bill Sanders, who drawls and drones endlessly, whilst adorning a woman’s nipples with flowers or a man’s backside with an eagle. It’s tough to see what Lyon wanted us to see in this sweaty, talkative codger: an artist, a blowhard or a loveable eccentric?
The Whitney scrambles the photographer’s work so badly that it is easy to lose track of him. The show shuffles chronological order and geographic unity, occasionally scattering random photos across a gallery wall. Maybe this arrangement was meant to evoke his appetite for chaos and danger as an alternative it sows confusion and muffles Lyon’s quiet achievements.
To September 25, whitney.org
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