Danny Lyon

New York

at Whitney Museum of American Art


Providing the most comprehensive survey of photographer Danny Lyon’s work to date, “A Message to the Future” is a timely exhibition for an era of renewed political activism. A photographic heir to both Walker Evans and Robert Frank, Lyon emerged in the 1960s as a key chronicler of the Civil Rights Movement, and has spent much of the last fifty years focusing his work, which he calls “advocacy journalism,” on marginalized populations in the US and around the world. His photographs of protestors, motorcycle gangs, and prison inmates have received particular acclaim for their intimate views into physical and psychological spaces inaccessible to the broader public. 

Exhibition curator Julian Cox has tried to give viewers a sense of Lyon’s overall career by including a number of post-1960s works—among them, images of New Mexico, where the photographer settled after leaving New York in 1969, and Haiti, where he documented the political turmoil of the 1980s. But the show (which debuted at the Whitney but was organized by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, whose de Young Museum it travels to in November) remains focused chiefly around Lyon’s tumultuous first decade of photographic production. 

Lyon became involved with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), a key civil-rights organization, in 1962, when he was still a student at the University of Chicago. After attending numerous SNCC actions throughout the South, he became the organization’s official photographer. One of his works from that period depicts a young protester, Taylor Washington, screaming as he’s gripped in a chokehold by an Atlanta police officer. The image, which was used on the cover of the SNCC publication The Movement (1964), is a visual refusal of silencing forces. 

Another memorable image—an SNCC poster made from a 1962 Lyon photo—features a steely-faced police officer and a line of text that has lost none of its rhetorical sting some five decades on: is he protecting you? The response insinuated by several photographs in the show is that authorities are in fact scarcely concerned with the protection of citizens, particularly black citizens. In a 1964 image, Lyon’s fellow SNCC photographer Clifford Vaughs, an African-American, is shown being violently torn away from his apparently peaceful companions by a group of national guardsmen sporting gas masks and rifles. It is a grave insult to the legacy of the movement Lyon helped document that this photograph, taken a year prior to the passage of the Civil Rights Act, would be right at home among the images of authorities’ aggression toward black bodies that flood social media today.

Following his time with the SNCC, Lyon embarked on photographic projects that took him from the clubhouses of Chicago biker gangs to the streets of Cartagena, where he documented the lives of sex workers. In addition to the SNCC photographs, two series showcased in the exhibition stand out as especially relevant today. “The Destruction of Lower Manhattan” features photographs of buildings in the vicinity of Lyon’s downtown studio that were demolished around 1967 to make room for the World Trade Center and surrounding developments. Lyon described the project as an effort to “save,” if only in symbolic form, a segment of the city that was already all but forgotten. As a group, the works elicit thoughts on the unfettered development that has continued to swallow and regurgitate whole neighborhoods in Lower Manhattan and beyond, while also prompting reflection on the area’s more recent destruction, in the September 11 attacks.

A more direct example of Lyon’s advocacy journalism is provided by an extensive selection of photographs taken inside Texas prisons in 1967–68. Collected in the 1971 volume Conversations with the Dead, these photographs continue the examination of power and authority that Lyon began in his earlier works. In one image (Building Shakedown, Ellis, 1968), a group of guards can be seen smirking as naked prisoners are paraded before them. In another (From the Picket Tower, Ferguson Unit, Texas, 1968), young men are shown returning from a day of labor, while on a hook above their heads—mid-transit to guards in the watchtower—dangles a cluster of handguns, a symbol of their captors’ omnipotence.

Male camaraderie figures prominently throughout Lyon’s work: in the prison photos, in the biker series, in the shots of lawmen smugly basking in their collective power, and, more touchingly, in the visual catalogue of Lyon’s decades-long friendship with sculptor Mark di Suvero, the subject of photographs and a 16mm documentary/love letter included in the exhibition. (Two more seldom-seen films on view, Soc. Sci. 127, 1967, and Willie, 1985, find Lyon compellingly translating his captivation with the offbeat and the lawless into cinema.)

Although women appear only sporadically in Lyon’s work, they occupy an important place. Many of the words transcribed in the pages of Lyon’s book devoted to his biker series are those of Kathy, a motorcyclist’s wife whose multiple reflected images appear in a striking 1965 photograph in the show, taken in her bathroom, and whose voice can be heard in an interview Lyon recorded with her from around that time. A 1970 picture of Lyon’s first wife, Stephanie, shot against the stark desert landscape of New Mexico, exemplifies the photographer’s occasional habit of writing brief descriptions and stories in the margins of his photographs. Here, a seminal moment in a young couple’s life—their decision to leave New York for the “Land of Enchantment”—is occasion for a lengthy reflection on corporatism, the hydrogen bomb, and the history of the American West. A 1963 photograph—shot through a cell window—of the young women of the Leesburg Stockade, who were held for weeks in abject conditions for protesting segregation, is noteworthy not only for having been used as evidence in petitioning for the girls’ release, but as a reminder that, from Rosa Parks to the founders of Black Lives Matter, black women have played an instrumental role in the struggle for racial justice. Like many works in the exhibition, this civil rights–era image was a message to the future that we would do well to heed.