"It is a very weird thing to be a photographer." - Danny Lyon
The Tampa based Florida Museum of Photographic Art (FMOPA) current exhibition: Danny Lyon: People presents an assortment of the artist’s photographs culled from The Ringling Museum of Art’s permanent collection. The collaborative exhibition showcases the Ringling Museum of Art photography collection and offers visitors to the FMOPA a body of photography work that represents the marginalized and outcast members of '50s and '60s American society.
Lyon was "an examiner of American identity and community." He has been Identified as a "documentary photographer known for working in the style of New Journalism, an intensive immersion based approach to reporting, and is heralded as a vital contributor to 1960’s documentary photography and by extension 20th century cultural history."
As with all exhibitions, a curator or artist talk offers visitors a deeper understanding of the work beyond the viewers first impression. Chris Jones, Ringling Museum of Art Curator of Works on Paper, did not disappoint during a recent talk at FMOPA. Besides sharing perspective on Lyon as an artist; Jones detailed the societal impact of Lyon's photographs, which changed the flow of information and perspective on the civil rights movement.
Lyon's was a student, then graduate, of the University of Chicago, when he became interested in the civil rights movement. Lyon's perspective on photography was as "tool to connect with people. You put a camera in my hand, I want to get close to people," he said. "Not just physically close, emotionally close, all of it. It is part of the process. It is a very weird thing to be a photographer."
He was the photographer of choice for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Lyon followed the organization and was present at almost all of the major historical events during the African-American Civil Rights Movement. Once the movement's focus changed from forms of protest, to voting rights and voter registration, Lyon moved on to his next subject.
Jones presentation elaborated the role Lyon's photography in magazines such as Life, along with other photographers of the era, illuminated the Civil Rights Movement and other causes. Jones explained, "Photography was used to present causes and issues like the Civil Rights Movement. Images had become as important as the written word; magazines like Life were designed to be read through quickly. The photographs were being presented as photo essays." (Photo essays are groups of photographs, of the same subject on a page, often with little text.) "These photographs gave visibility to issues people did not see in their everyday life."
Lyon's subject matter changed from Civil Rights to a new disenfranchised community during the mid '60s. Continuing with his New Journalism style of photography, Lyons became a member of the Chicago Outlaws motorcycle club; he traveled with them, shared their lifestyle and documented their activities. Lyon self- published his Outlaws motorcyclists photographs in The Bikeriders. According to Lyons, "the photographs were an attempt to record and glorify the life of the American bike rider." The photographs were very popular.
Yet another interesting fact offered during the presentation by Jones, who displayed an in-depth knowledge of the era: the Outlaws moniker originally came, not because of society's label, but because they did not respect the rules and regulations of the motorcycle association.
Lyon's photographs were influential, he continued to use his camera to connect the public to subjects that interested him as an artist. As the decades went on he continued to publish more books: documenting prison life in Conversations with the Dead; photographing and publishing the large scale demolition of lower Manhattan, and the aftermath, under the title The Destruction of Lower Manhattan. The FMOPA exhibition photographs include Lyon's photographs from Chicago. These images feature "deadpan" faces, similar to the straight on presentation seen in Farm Security Administration photographs. The Chicago portraits again document the plight of the improvised and disenfranchised: migrants from the south seeking employment in Chicago.
He stated, "No one else is going to tell the story for them."
Perhaps like me, you were not aware the Ringling Museum of Art had a photography collection, let alone one large enough to warrant a Works on Paper Curator. Jones stated, "while the museum had photography works for a long period, during the last decade or so it has been bequeathed additional works including the Danny Lyon photographs."
The exhibition will be on view through June 30, 2016 at the Florida Museum of Photographic Art in Tampa.
Some photos courtesy of: Edwynn Houk Gallery, www.dektol.wordpress.com, and Magnum Photos; Gift of Sally Strauss and Andrew Tomback, 2012, Collection of The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art