Danny Lyon: Politically Engaged Photographer

Photographer, filmmaker and writer Danny Lyon (born 1942), a New Yorker, born and raised in Queens, whose father was the ophthalmologist to Alfred Stieglitz, is the focus of the Whitney’s first photography exhibition in its new, downtown location.

Danny Lyon: Message to the Future, organized by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, where it will open at the de Young Museum in November, is also the first full career retrospective of his work, including 175 photographs, previously unseen 16mm film footage made inside Texas prisons, vintage prints and personal photo albums.

Lyon2Arrest of Taylor Washington, Atlanta, 1963

Lyon3Cover of SNCC Brochure

Lyon hitchhiked to the segregated South in 1962, while still a student at the University of Chicago. So powerful was Lyon’s work of the Civil Rights movement that James Forman, executive director of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), recruited Lyon to be the organization’s first official photographer. His images were used in posters, brochures and leaflets to raise money and recruit workers.

Lyon4“Is He Protecting You?” Image taken at the University of Mississippi in 1962 and reproduced as a poster in 1963 by SNCC

Echoing war photographer Robert Capa, who said, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, it’s because you’re not close enough,” Lyon has said, “You put a camera in my hand and I want to get close to people. Not just physically close, emotionally close, all of it.”

Lyon5Subway, New York, 1966

A member of the street photography movement of the 1960s, Lyon was – and remains – renowned for his immersion in the lives of those he photographs.  He believes in “advocacy Journalism,” and is instinctively drawn to people, issues and stories left out of the narrative of prosperity and upward mobility.  His feel for people on the margins of society, from transvestites to those incarcerated in prisons, turns out to echo many of today’s political issues.

Lyon6Pumpkin and Theresa, Galveston, 1967

Lyon7Joselin, Santa Marta, Colombia, 1972

Lyon882 Beekman Street, 1967

In 1966 -67, Lyon witnessed and photographed the destruction of a large portion of downtown Manhattan to make way for the World Trade Center, an urbanization effort spearheaded by David Rockefeller and others eager to “restore” the primacy of Wall Street and downtown New York as the capital of world finance.

During the 1970s, Lyon left New York, moved to New Mexico, and built a traditional adobe home in a community north of Albuquerque. Though he moved back to New York in 1980, he returns every summer with his family to photograph and make films.

For over five decades, Lyon had found himself drawn to men in Texas prisons, street children in South America, undocumented workers on the Mexican border and, more recently, victims of pollution in Shanxi Province, a coal-producing region of China, where he made six trips between 2005 and 2009.

Less well known – and to some a revelation – are Lyon’s films, including a portrait of tattoo artist Bill Sanders, sculptor – and friend – Mark di Suvero, and Willie Jaramillo, who can’t stay out of trouble and prison.

Lyon9Julian Cox, Chief Curator and Founding Curator of Photography, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

Lyon10Adam Weinberg, Director of The Whitney Museum

For those of us who grew up in Lyon’s New York and America, its fascinating and dispiriting to see how so many of the issues he focused on – racism, incarceration, gentrification, migrant workers, the poor in South America – remain relevant to today’s New York and America. Hence the appropriate title of this show, “Message to the Future.”

Photos by Eleanor Foa Dienstag

Top photo: Self Portrait, New Orleans, 1964

Danny Lyon: Message to the Future
Whitney Museum of America Art
June 17 – September 25, 2016

About Eleanor Foa Dienstag (36 Articles)
Eleanor Foa Dienstag is a veteran author, journalist, photo-journalist and award-winning corporate writer. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Harper's, the New Republic, the New York Observer, Ms., Travel & Leisure, and many other websites and publications. Eleanor is the author of three books. Her most recent, available on Amazon and Centro Primo Levi is MIXED MESSAGES: Reflections on an Italian Jewish Family and Exile. It is a multi-layered memoir about Eleanor’s personal journey, her father’s exile from Fascist Italy and the Foa Family journey, whose Italian-Jewish roots go back to the 1500s in northern Italy where her ancestors were famous printers. WHITHER THOU GOEST: The Story of an Uprooted Wife, also a memoir, was acclaimed by Business Week for its insights into corporate life. Her third book, In Good Company: 125 Years At The Heinz Table, offered a unique view of a quintessential American company. Eleanor served as staff speechwriter to the Chairman and CEO of American Express. In 1983, she founded Eleanor Foa Associates (www.eleanorfoa.com). It provides a wide variety of corporate writing and marketing services. Eleanor is past president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA), received speechwriting awards from IABC, and was awarded literary residencies at Yaddo, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts (VCCA). She resides in Manhattan.