Own Research 4 – Danny Lyon @ Beetles & Huxley 2016

Danny Lyon…it’s a name I have heard, but couldn’t put any images to the name or name to the images, so when I received an email from Beetles & Huxley saying that they had a late evening, private viewing last night, 25 October, I thought it an idea to trot along.I have several observations from this viewing…and some of them not polite…but that was only about the other people there!

Oh my goodness me, I’d say 99.9% of them were the type of people who give photography and the arts the reputation they have, of being for the upper-classes/wealthy/snob brigade. Possibly I am falling into the trap of stereotypes but there I was in jeans and a flying jacket, smart casual like, surrounded by people in their best bib n tucker – or come straight from work, so were suitable attired (no dissing them on that point) and every single one of them had cut-glass accents…oh except the man in a t-shirt and dreads…I didn’t feel quite so obviously out-of-place walking past him.

It all did feel slightly intimidating, until I noticed that not many of them seemed to be looking at or discussing the work itself? They took the time to stand there, with their free glass(es) of wine clutched in hand, stood IN FRONT of it…sorry love, didn’t you know this was an exhibition of Danny Lyons work, not “let’s count the ways I have to ask a polite version of ‘excuse me luv can you move your arse outta the way so I can see the images not you?’ ” It wasn’t as if it was an ‘oh let’s stand here and talk about the picture and move on’ type of standing there…no, it was a full-blown ‘let’s all stand here in a huddle, 2mm away from the wall, and discuss what we had for dinner/where we met last/how the kids are doing in school, fnah fnah’ type of blocking. By the time I wanted to deck a few I no longer felt intimidated ;o)

It’s a shame, as I like Beetles & Huxley, they hold really good exhibitions and book signings, offer reasonably priced exhibition catalogues, don’t mind you taking photos of the gallery set up and the staff are always so very helpful. However, if anything, I think I have learnt to wait until the first night is over and go up as and when I can at a weekend. Working and studying, weekends can get full so the late night seemed an ideal time to fit it in…

Having moaned about all of that I did enjoy the exhibition and doing some closer analysis of Lyon’s work. Another downer was that they did not have – and will not be producing – a catalogue of this exhibition. I guess I should have asked why, but at the time I was annoyed at the other patrons and irritated that they didn’t have one! I think I shall email and find out just from a learning point of view… jumps into email compose box…back in 5…ok sent, hopefully they will respond and I will do an update. With 37 prints on display, although there was no catalogue, they did have an A4 sheet with the numbered prints, titles and prices, which came in handy for me jotting down some notes…and realising that in the scheme of things he is quite affordable, with starting prices at £5000.oo and the highest £6750…affordable for some but not me ;o) The gallery itself is a largish space with plenty of white walls and spotlights to show the work off to its best advantage. The photographs themselves were mounted in plain black frames, of two types, with large white passepartouts, all mounted at the same height. I was surprised to see quite a few of the frames were chipped and damaged, I guess in transit. I’d hope for a replacement frame if paying £5000 per print!

*Update* email sent and response received:

potted versions –

Q…I was disappointed to learn that there was not a catalogue for this exhibition. I am currently undertaking a BA Photography course and in completing my write-up of the visit I commented that there was no catalogue and wondered why. I’d be grateful if, from a learning point of view, you could tell me who usually makes the decision to produce one? The artist? Their agent? The gallery itself?…

A…Exhibition catalogues are very expensive to produce and the gallery takes this entire cost. They are also very time-consuming to put together and all our catalogues are written and designed in-house. We are a small team and sometimes cannot justify the time and the money it takes to produce catalogues when the exhibition is not of significant commercial potential. Photojournalism is incredibly hard to sell, particularly in the rather underdeveloped UK photography market, and we could not guarantee its financial success at the planning stage…

See, I told you they were helpful and friendly!

Anyway to continue…Still working today, Danny Lyon has his own blog called Bleak Beauty and is said to be, “one of the most important American documentary photographers of the second half of the twentieth century.”  He probably is, but sometimes I wish publishers et al would coin a new phrase. From the gallery blurb:

Utilising a style that would become known as New Journalism, Danny Lyon immersed himself in the lives of his subjects. We will be exhibiting photographs from several of Lyon’s seminal projects, including his photographs taken during the Civil Rights Movement, and his groundbreaking explorations of American biker culture and the Texas prison system.

  • on looking up New Journalism the definition given was  ‘meaning that the photographer has become immersed in with, and is a participant of, the documented subject.’

And immerse himself he certainly did. Lyon was born in Brooklyn in 1942, gained a BA in history in 1963 from the University of Chicago, and since 1967 he has worked as an independent photographer and an associate at Magnum Photos. He has numerous credits and awards to his name including: Guggenheim Fellowships in photography and film-making, a Rockefeller Fellowship, Missouri Honour Medal for Distinguished Service in Journalism and a Lucie Award. There is a lot of debate as to what baggage we bring with us, does our background influence why, what and how we photograph things. I think it always does and possibly this applies particularly well to Lyon, whose parents came to America, escaping both Hitler and the Soviet pogroms.

He has stated that ultimately:

all of his projects are “about the existential struggle to be free”

In Memories of the Southern Civil Rights Movement,  shot using a Nikon Reflex and an old Leica, he reveals ‘how a handful of dedicated young people, both black and white, forged one of the most successful grassroots organisations in American history.’  Lyon was employed as a staff photographer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in Selma, Alabama. In an interview he said:

It was my good fortune to stumble into the story early…Being in SNCC politicised me. Having said that, I wasn’t black and I was free. My agenda was photography and books, and what is now called media

It is interesting to note that the book also contains certain ephemera, for example: press releases, telephone logs, letters, and minutes of meetings, pictures and eyewitness reports therefore ‘creating both a work of art and an authentic work of history.’ He strongly believes that “the young people who created the Civil Rights Movement are directly responsible for Barack Obama being our president today.”

I think this adds to the argument that an image “of history” does not need a long time to pass before being labelled a document.

Described as ‘a photographer interested in those on the outskirts of American society’ Lyon then went onto join the Chicago Outlaws motorcycle club, purchasing a Triumph TR6 motorbike along the way. I liked the quote:

Photographers show character through how people look and the bikers were a perfect subject because they were what they looked like…They had leather jackets, they were dirty, they had weapons and boots.

Finally published in 1968, the book was not an instant commercial success, I guess because it was so different from things that had gone before and a lot of the book, like Memories… is ‘filled with highly personal moments that reflect the violent and extreme lifestyle of the club.’  I shall comment more on the actual photographs later on, as this post grows ever longer I think I shall make a separate post just for them.

It has been written that his ‘only formal training…was studying Bruegel’s mastery of composition in an introductory humanities course at university’ and, in looking at the images in the exhibition, it is like looking through a masterclass on how to compose your photographs. Not that I mean that in a critical sense, he just used traditional compositional rules to the fullest and in the most effective of ways i.e. implied triangles, leading lines, perspective, different vantage points, figure to ground ratio and many more. I found this was particularly noticeable in his  images from Conversations with the Dead,: Photographs of Prison Life, with the letters and drawings of Billy McCune #122054. published in 1971. This was photographed with the full co-operation of the Texas Department of Corrections, with Lyon embedding himself in six Texan jails for just over a year.

Having reviewed this style of documentary work and that of other photographers I can see the benefit of photographing a subject that you are either embedded in, or feel passionately about. In the foreword of The Seventh Dog, Lyon underscores the fact that he has never made a photograph that he hasn’t been a part of he writes:

Everything depicted in this book happened usually to me or close enough for me to picture it.


Beetles and 2015, H. (2015) Beetles & Huxley. Available at: http://www.beetlesandhuxley.com/exhibitions/danny-lyon.html (Accessed: 26 October 2016).
Butcher, S. (2014) Looking back at Danny Lyon’s Iconic 1960s photos of bikers | VICE | United Kingdom. Available at: http://www.vice.com/en_uk/read/danny-lyons-bikeriders-are-back (Accessed: 26 October 2016).
Helmore, E. (2012) Danny Lyon: ‘I put myself through an ordeal in order to create something’. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2012/may/15/danny-lyon-interview-photography (Accessed: 26 October 2016).
Kim, E. (no date) Start here. Available at: http://erickimphotography.com/blog/2013/10/07/street-photography-composition-lesson-2-figure-to-ground/ (Accessed: 26 October 2016).
Memories of the southern civil rights movement: Danny Lyon (no date) Available at: https://daylightbooks.org/blogs/news/17203601-memories-of-the-southern-civil-rights-movement-danny-lyon (Accessed: 26 October 2016).
Written and Seymour, T. (2016) Danny Lyon – soul of a radical. Available at: http://www.bjp-online.com/2016/06/danny-lyon-soul-of-a-radical/ (Accessed: 26 October 2016).


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