Own Research 4 – Danny Lyon – Images

Above are some of the 37 photographs from the three bodies of work on display at Beetles and Huxley. As ever, the smaller, compressed, online images do not show the finer detail of the originals and if you are able to get into London it is an exhibition worth taking in.

From the sample I shall select a few, to comment upon the compositional elements, similar features within the images and discuss why I feel they are effective as photographs and contribute well to the body of work.

From Memories of the Southern Civil Rights Movement I selected four images due to their contrasting natures, the lone child has an air of vulnerability, the two group shots reveal a stark contrast in peaceful demonstration and violence, whilst the serene landscape shot hides the unrest of the civil rights movement happening at that time. Anyone viewing it, then and now – without reading the caption revealing the location- would not be aware of the turmoil occurring within the region at this point in history. In some ways this shot reminded me of the body of work Ceasefire, 6-8  April 1994 by Paul Graham. His abstract images of cloudy skies, taken above infamous flash points of sectarian violence such as Bogside, Newry, Omagh and Shankhill, were captured to depict a tentative halt in the Troubles.The images were shot specifically during the three-day ‘temporary cessation of hostilities’ by the IRA around the Easter weekend that started the peace process. I was lucky to see some of them at a retrospective exhibition of his work at the Photographers Gallery a good few years back. Without a caption they appeared meaningless, possibly a little pointless and I was quite honest back in 2011 about how I felt that Graham was jumping on the “I am famous, I can print anything” bandwagon. In some ways I still do, but I think I can better appreciate the sentiment behind them now, that occasionally you have to try a different approach to send a message or document a moment in time. But thank goodness for the captions is all I can say ;o)

Image result for Paul graham ceasefire
Paul Graham Ceasefire April 1994

Within the four images by Lyon, there is a varying degrees of eye contact; some people were aware others weren’t and there is some direct gaze at the camera. The various directions of the gaze help guide the viewer around the frame. Lyon has varied his depth of field, taken some portrait, others landscape, used natural light and flash, included people and captured landscapes. He uses diagonal leading lines and perspective to great advantage. The variety of techniques used make for a varied and more visually interesting body of work, which capture a range of feelings and behaviours within the civil rights movement and document this period in history really well.

Most reviews I read the next body of work, commented on how the images in The Bikeriders were taken a few years before the film Easy Rider was released, and I can see why they marry the two together; both encapsulate  the political landscape, social issues, and tensions in the United States during the 1960’s, such as the freedom of the open road, a biker lifestyle, drug use and a communal lifestyle. I really enjoyed this body of work, although some images held my interest longer than others. Yet again Lyon has captured contrasting shots of the Chicago Outlaw Motorcycle Club; used different light, photographed them relaxing in a field, riding along city roads, scrambling through dust tracks, socialising in a clubhouse, and maintaining their bikes.

Once more he uses a variety of compositional techniques, which I think I will include in my physical learning log as it would be too much to annotate on a blog, but I particularly liked his use of framing for example frames within frames. The Outlaws clubhouse shot was, for me, reminiscent of Don McCullin’s The Guvnors in their Sunday suits, Finsbury Park, London (1958)

The Guvnors in their Sunday Suits, Finsbury Park, London, 1958
The Guvnors in their Sunday suits, Finsbury Park, London 1958 Don McCullin

Both shots are of groups of people with ‘attitude’ claiming a property as their own, wearing clothes that identify them as part of a certain social group. The images are shot from the ground with some of the subjects in the clubhouse framed within the framework of the architecture.

Cal, Elkhorn, Wisconsin 1967 reminded me of Lee Friedlander: America By Car 1995-2009,  I wonder if he was inspired by this much earlier shot by Lyon?


America by Car Las Vegas, 2002 Lee Friedlander

Another ‘familiar’ shot was Racer Shererville, Indiana 1966, which made me think of the series of portraits Spencer Murphy took of Channel 4 Jockeys. The series as a whole won the Campaign Award at Sony World Photography Awards 2014. The portraits were commissioned by 4Creative as part of ‘The Original Extreme Sport’ campaign for the Grand National 2013. The portraits include jockeys A P McCoy, Ruby Walsh, Katie Walsh and Barry Geraghty, shot trackside at Kempton Park Racecourse. His image of Kate Walsh won the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2013.

Ruby Walsh 2013 Spencer Murphy

All which goes to show what made a great image then still does today, with the intense gaze revealing the physical exertion both men have gone through.Having said that, I prefer Danny Lyon’s image as it feels more dynamic; it contains background detail providing more context to the subject and a sense of place, there are leading lines to take your eye around the frame and a suggestion of movement provided by the blurred bike in the background. The subjects wear very similar expressions but the amount of mud splattered on the biker speaks volumes and adds a slightly humorous touch. But you have to take into consideration context; why were these images were taken and the eventual intended use. The image used in the advert below is slightly different to the standalone portrait.


I think that the photographs I saw illustrate the sub-culture of the Chicago Outlaw Motorcycle Club and successfully documents their  camaraderie, the freedoms they enjoyed, the communal life style they led and the risks they took.

Finally, we get to Conversations with the Dead, where Lyon embedded himself with the prison population. Compositionally,  I have so much to say about this set of images, but will annotate them in my physical learning log; I shall take some photographs of it and upload them when I get around to it…so many things to do , so little time.However, I will mention his mix of indoor and outdoor shots, the differing vantage points, angles, use of figure to ground art theory, capturing ephemera and interior shots void of people.

The starkness of the locks, prison bars and the glass separating loved ones at visiting time, constantly remind the audience of the men’s captivity. Even when ‘free’ to relax there is a constant guard presence, the prison uniforms remove identities, everything is controlled and regimented from working the line to queuing for meals.

Throughout these bodies of work Lyon pays attention to the smaller detail, as well as the larger picture, immersing himself fully into the lifestyle and environments of those he chooses to photograph. His insights and ways of capturing his subjects produce a cohesive body of work providing a strong narrative for his audience to follow and understand.

Although the assignments set have to be completed within a matter of weeks, rather than years, by choosing topics that are close to me I can, hopefully, by using a range of techniques, and choosing a ‘group’ in my local community that I feel I have some insider knowledge of, attempt to do the same.


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