Over the course of a six-decade career making
images, the Brooklyn-born, Kew Gardens–raised Danny Lyon has been a tireless pulse-taker of an ever morphing landscape, documenting pivotal scenes in American history. He was there in the South, in the early Sixties, photographing black bodies being manhandled by helmeted police officers; in Lower Manhattan, in 1967, snapping the razed ruins atop which the World Trade Center would be erected; and in Oakland as recently as 2011, capturing Occupy protesters’ confrontations with geared-up cops.
These photographs, in addition to dozens of others organized by subject (“Civil Rights,” “The Bikeriders,” “The Destruction of Lower Manhattan”), now make up an exhibit called “Message to the Future,” on the Whitney’s fifth floor. Some of the stills will appear familiar: Lyon’s appointment, at the age of 21, as the “first official photographer” of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee led to landmark protest shots like Arrest of Taylor Washington (1963), which SNCC then slapped on the front cover of its 1964 book The Movement. Other works, like his open-highway shots of the rugged Chicago Outlaws
Motorcycle Club, have amassed a cult
following. But the show’s true revelation is in Lyon’s terribly overlooked and seldom screened work as a director.
A couple of Lyon’s shorts punctuate the array of images: His famous photo series
on the Texas prison system, for instance, has a natural companion in the four-minute Shakedown, Ellis (1968), which documents, in real time, the process of prison officials examining inmates: strip-searching them, banging their shoes together, fondling gloves and socks. (One prisoner sticks his tongue out at Lyon’s camera as he’s being patted down.) The four-minute Ramsey Cell Block (1968), meanwhile, zeroes in on the inmates’ downtime domino-playing (which Lyon also captured in still form).
A few of his longer movies get their own darkened screening rooms. The 21-minute Soc. Sci. 127 (1969) follows the Houston-based tattoo artist Bill Sanders, depicting him both hard at work — drawing an eagle on a man’s buttocks or flowers on a woman’s bare breasts — and reclining sweatily when off the clock. The film, Lyon’s first moving-image character piece, established his
ability to draw his subjects out in candid conversation; Sanders muses drunkenly on off-color topics (at one point calling the
offscreen Lyon a “certified Brooklyn Jew”) and swigs straight from the bottle in a room whose walls are lined with nude Polaroids he’s taken of various customers.
But it’s with the 82-minute Willie (1985) that the show comes full circle, demonstrating both Lyon’s passion for social justice and his affability as an interviewer and listener. The main character, a New Mexico man Lyon befriended years earlier, is Willie Jaramillo, who has spent much of his life in and out of prison. The movie views his circumstances as an illustration of law-and-order idiocy in America: a self-sustaining world in which small-time infractions stick to nonviolent people like a devil on the shoulder.
Lyon expresses his outrage not through blunt didactics but by way of a warm,
observational vibe; for all the pictorial richness and political importance of his images, he’s first and foremost a finder of people and their stories. He visits the cemetery where one of Willie’s childhood friends is buried and lingers on a cracked, heart-shaped stone. He lounges under a bridge near a river, asking questions as Willie — dressed only in his underwear — knocks back cans of Budweiser and occasionally lapses into song. He follows Willie into prison and spends time in the rec room, panning his camera among the weightlifters and boxers, the basketball players and ping-pong enthusiasts.
And he lugs his lens into the other hallways of the complex, training his attention on anyone who welcomes it. In one of these scenes, an inmate asks Lyon what he’s doing there, and the artist replies with a humorous, nonchalant “That’s a good question” — a perfectly low-key, good-natured encapsulation of his approach. Like those Chicago bikers sweeping across the never-ending highway pavement, Lyon is a true American character, on the road to nowhere and everywhere at the same time.
‘Danny Lyon: Message to the Future’
Whitney Museum of American Art
99 Gansevoort Street
Through September 25