Danny Lyon Profile: Stubbornly Practicing His Principles of Photography

RANDY KENNEDY – The New York Times

Copyright The New York Times
Published: April 24, 2009
“LISTEN, do I have time to feed my pig?” the photographer Danny Lyon asked, picking up the telephone one morning at his home in rural New Mexico. “It will only take about 10 minutes. I’ll call you back,” he said, adding: “That way I can start the day with a clean conscience.”
Among a group of revolutionaries whose work rose to prominence in the late 1960s and ’70s and transformed the nature of documentary photography — a group that includes friends and colleagues of Mr. Lyon’s like Mary Ellen Mark and Larry Clark — the idea of conscience has been imbedded more deeply in Mr. Lyon’s photographs than in those of all but a few of his contemporaries.
At a time when picture magazines were still a holy grail for young photographers, Mr. Lyon, self-taught, began his career as the first staff photographer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. A week after hitchhiking south in 1962 at the age of 20 he was in jail with other protesters in Albany, Ga., next to the cell of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. And Mr. Lyon’s first book, the classic “Bikeriders,” made after spending more than two years as a member of the Outlaws motorcycle gang, was not just a pioneering example of New Journalism but, as he later described it, an attempt “to destroy Life magazine” and what he saw as its anodyne vision of American life.
His newest book, “Memories of Myself,” published this month by Phaidon Press, seems on its face to be the kind of comfortable, coffee-table retrospective that a revered 67-year-old artist receives at this point in his life. It is a selection of self-assigned — and largely unpublished — photo essays that he made while wandering from Chicago to Galveston, Tex., to Brooklyn to Port-au-Prince, Haiti, over almost four decades. But even this book is a product of political calculus, as Mr. Lyon described it. He has been traveling for many years to photograph a remote, impoverished region of China with a book in mind but with little idea of who would be interested in it.
“It’s not always easy to get these things published,” he said. “I’m pretty uncompromising and not very commercial.” So when Phaidon approached him a few years ago with the idea of a career survey, he offered a deal. “I basically said, ‘If you do the China book, you can do the retrospective.’ ” (Phaidon, which does not comment on its negotiations with authors, would say only that it plans to publish two books by Mr. Lyon, in addition to “Memories of Myself,” calling him a “great photographer.”)
It is the kind of bargain Mr. Lyon has been striking his whole life, especially during years when he was supporting a family of four while insisting on making the kind of work he wanted to make, a stubborn vision that has probably contributed to his photographs and independent films not being better known. Even now, with his work in important museum collections around the country, a survivor’s hustle remains and sometimes still comes in handy: a few weeks ago, at his dentist’s office in Albuquerque, he traded a nice print for a root canal. “The market has taken a body blow, and I needed the dental work,” he explained, adding, “I was so happy to do it.”
Like Mr. Clark, who blurred the line between observer and participant and wanted to confront middle-class viewers with the American underclass, Mr. Lyon has made a peripatetic attempt to photograph people who are generally unseen or unwanted, even hated, and he has never been able to approach it with a journalist’s distance. When he began his motorcycle work in the mid-1960s while at the University of Chicago, he writes in the new book, “I was a bike rider, a photographer and a history student, probably in that order.”
When he became involved in what many critics consider his most powerful work, “Conversations With the Dead,” based on more than a year photographing inside the Texas prison system in the late 1960s, he developed deep bonds with several inmates, including one who had been convicted of rape. Another, James Ray Renton, a talented escape artist who was later convicted of killing an Arkansas police officer, became an unlikely friend and devoted correspondent for more than 30 years. (In “Like a Thief’s Dream,” Mr. Lyon’s book about their relationship, he describes testifying as a character witness for Mr. Renton at his murder trial in 1979 and, in addition to his testimony, offering Mr. Renton some marijuana during a courtroom recess. Mr. Renton declined.)
“To some, he’s idealizing people who really are not good people at all — they’re just criminals,” said Larry McMurtry, who was teaching at Rice University in Houston in the 1960s and befriended Mr. Lyon while he was there working on the prison book. “But to Danny maybe they’re good people who just never had a chance.”
“He hasn’t really changed his principles any at all since he was young, when I first met him,” Mr. McMurtry added. “He’s an idealist, to a large extent.”
In a long, animated, tangent-filled telephone interview after he went to feed his pig (which turned out to be not his but a neighbor’s, borrowed to entertain Mr. Lyon’s visiting granddaughter), Mr. Lyon more or less agreed with Mr. McMurtry and asked: “Is there something wrong with me because of that? I don’t know.”
Raised in Kew Gardens, Queens, where his father, Ernst, an immigrant from Germany, was a doctor (one of his patients in New York was Alfred Stieglitz), Mr. Lyon ached to flee the conformity of an upper-middle-class life. He discovered “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” at a formative age and was fired by the intensity of James Agee’s prose even more than by Walker Evans’s pictures.
“Agee was a stone realist, and that had a huge impact on me,” he said. One of the new book’s more lyrical essays is a series of portraits Mr. Lyon took after driving to Knoxville, Tenn., in the late 1960s simply because he wanted to see Agee’s birthplace.
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