"You put a camera in my hand, I want to get close to people. Not just physically close, emotionally close; all of it."
American photographer Danny Lyon (*1942) is influenced by the realism of photographer Walker Evans and author James Agee, as well as the writings of the Beat Generation. From the beginnings of his career in the early 60s, when he became the staff photographer for the SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) to document the civil rights movement, his work deals with sociopolitical issues.
His documentary photography is subjective and engaged in the subject matter. It’s intuitive not impulsive. Even the capturing of bleak moments is never voyeuristic, instead one can feel the connection and empathy Lyon has with his subjects.
"My greatest strength has been empathy with others different from myself.”
The exhibition “MESSAGE TO THE FUTURE” amasses some 175 photographs, related films and other pieces of writing and documentation (included are objects that have seldom or never been exhibited before plus it’s the first time the artist’s accomplishments as a filmmaker are shown), to feature Lyon’s concern with social and political issues and the well-being of people on the edge of society.
It displays the fascination with outsiders and subcultures which led to long term documentations of the respective subject matter. In 1965 Lyon joined the Chicago Outlaws, one of the world’s biggest and oldest motorcycling gangs, documenting their life on the road and beyond over the course of four years. He even had his own 1%er patch with the term Nikon embroidered (one of the many personal things that are shown).
His next project “The destruction of lower Manhattan” started in 1967. He photographed the demolition of the area where the World Trade Center would later be built.
For “Conversations with the Dead” a documentation of the Texas penitentiary system, Lyon spent fourteen months photographing inmates in 1967 and ’68. He had access to every prison in Texas and immersed himself totally in this endeavour, befriending many of the incarcerated men. Lyon developed a special relationship with an inmate named Billy McCune, who send him drawings and letters, some of which are also on display.
In the 1970s and 1980s, his self-described “advocacy journalism” took Lyon to Bolivia, Mexico, Colombia, where he documented the lives of illegal workers, and abandonded street children. In Haiti he witnessed the political turmoil overthrowing the dictator “Papa Doc” Duvalier.
In the 70s he moved to New Mexico where he documented the life with his family in the mixed Native American and Latino community Bernalilloi.
Most recently, Lyon captured the Occupy movement in New York, Los Angeles, and Oakland. In such a way, the circle closes as his pictures recall the early days of his career.
Always the rebel, Lyon advised students to leave school and join Occupy during his 2011 acceptance speech as recipient of the Missouri Honor Medal for Distinguished Service in Journalism.
"Slowly I have come to an understand the meaning of that word, Imperialism. As a citizen of the United States I must dedicate my work to her enemies, the guerilla fighters and student liberators of America…And most of all I would like to dedicate my work to the liberation of my fellow countrymen, by delivering them the truth."