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.

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).