Lyon imagines how he would edit the National Geographic Magazine

What follows is the  transcript of the talk delivered

to a standing room audience of six hundred photographers, journalists and editors on

January 9, 2014 at the National Geographic in Washington DC.   Lyon and Julian Bond then shared the stage while sixty images

were shown.Image

“I  wanted to talk a bit about Norman Mailer, whose biography, by J Michael Lennon , called,

A Double Life  I have been reading . The most time I spent around Norman Mailer was when we were both in a jail cell across the Potomac river in Alexandria Virginia.  This was 1967 and I was near  the end of  The Destruction  of Lower Manhattan, and about to do my work in the  Texas Prisons. I had driven down  from New York early that day with the sculptor Mark di  Suvero, who was walking with a cane. We both planned to be arrested that day, and since Mark was walking with a cane, we parked as close as we could to the Pentagon, and arriving at the massive building very early,  far in front of the marchers and protesters, which I now read reached 100,000 people. Just think of that astounding number.

This was an early protest against the war that would go on for another seven and a half years. The Pentagon has long flat steps leading up to it, and  that morning they were covered with interlocking rows of US Marshall’s, and Military Mps. Soldiers held out rifles with  bayonets affixed into  the face of children that would stuff flowers into the barrels, while the Marshall’s and Mps stood in  rows holding long batons, what we had called Billy Clubs in the south.   After making some pictures with a Nikon F Reflex,  I  had removed the single 35mm lens, and buried it in one pocket of my blue jeans, and did the same with the flat body. Two  more rolls of Tri X were deep inside another pocket. I might have removed the prism and wrapped that in a handkerchief. The idea was to get my   inside the jail with my camera. When di Suvero crossed the line and was being man handled by the baton swinging MP I went to defend him. Two U.S. Marshall’s  grabbed my arms, while another , standing directly   in front of me, hit me   across the crown  of  my head with his club,  knocking me unconscious. .

It took either four or six stitches to close the wound,  I  don’t remember.  When I awoke I had been dragged over a thousand feet around the building, the  largest in America. At the rear of the  building, at what looked like a loading dock,  I was handed a number to hold before my chest as I was photographed, then motioned    into a waiting and near empty prison bus. My  number was four,   a mark of honor on a day that would see 700 protesters going to jail, the largest  tally so  far in the  struggle to stop the  war. Inside the   bus I re-assembled the camera and began making pictures, first through the window of other prisoners being brought in. The number placed on Norman Mailer’s chest was Ten.   Eventually this group was driven to   the Alexandria county jail, and  left in a  holding cell of about 15 by 15 feet,  where I  proceeded to make pictures of the dozen  other protesters  and Mailer, who was playing chess with a board someone made from paper. When  an attorney appeared outside the bars to speak with Mailer,   I pulled the exposed film from my pockets and camera, and handed them to  the attorney with a note, “get them to Magnum” where they were processed and quickly published, mostly in Europe. What we now call the media here at home had almost no interest in the anti-war movement.

I was at the time in between  my second and  third book,   books conceived  in

a picture world dominated by Magazines all of which I objected to. If I was going to  work  so hard, to risk my life, to devote  my waking consciousness and time to a single object, making  pictures, how could  I turn  them over to some else to  select, to crop, to arrange, and worse to place  words with pictures that were not mine?   My pictures had to be protected.  A silver print is among the most fragile objects in the fine arts. A grain  of sand can ruin one, and I have ruined my own slides  with a spec of  saliva, which burns a hole in them. The   image itself is fragile. It is an anonymous rendition of reality to which the viewer   brings     emotion  and feelings.  And the  caption, the layout, the sequence, the  text, the setting they are presented in? I  was  determined to do that myself. The Bikeriders   was published in 1968  . I received the book in  Texas, seven pictures were out of register, the result of running  the book off in a single night in a New Jersey print shop that probably paid a kick back to someone in MacMillan to get  the job in the first place.


It is now forty years later and I  am  still  making  books. Only now I control  everything, including the printing, and great expense and time and work is devoted by my publishers and the people that  make my books to do this properly….

I have always seen myself as a Realist,    someone that takes everything he needs directly from reality. My weapons are first of all the camera, also tape recorders and  motion picture cameras, and now digital video  cameras.

I am also a deep romantic. The  works I do are works of dreams and vision, and in that sense   the only  reality they actually listen to is the reality inside my head.

Reality to  me is made up. I make it up. I entered the Texas prisons determined to destroy them. And once I began to read about  prison, and people said things like “what  are you going to do with them?”, meaning the inmates,  I thought, “I do not want to be a criminologist”.  I was  not interested in improving prisons, I wanted to destroy them. Now we are in the future.  The population of the Texas prisons where I worked  was 12,500. Now it is over 200,000.  So that body of work, which took two years of my life, was not a success.My life, and I suspect the lives of many of you, and I say this with a nod to Norman Mailer, has been about action, about risk,  about adventure.  That is why we love this life. It takes us outside of  ourselves. We escape our personal  miseries .We lose ourselves in a world much vaster than our own  .

Looking back  now,   I can say I have devoted most of my life to making photography books, a form that is  not even recognized as a form.  Photography books   have never been reviewed  the way  novels, and non fiction are although they are a branch of non-fiction. In the literary world that Mailer was part of, the  reviews, the vicious in fighting between  the  writers, and the critics  of the time is legendary. Nothing like that existed for us, not in my life time.

Over twenty years ago, SNCC had a rare re-union at Trinity College and Clay Carson was there. He had published an  early account of the SNCC – Howard  Zinn had of course done this  even earlier.  By then Carson   controlled  the King Archives. We sat down together, and  someone  said something, and I said “America will never change until there is a revolution  in the Media”.  A few years later I put it  in writing where it still sits buried in my website , titled Revolution  in  the Media, addressed to something  I called “The Media Worker” .  . (Is there anyone from the NSA in the audience?)

1, To change society, change the media.

2) To change the Media, change yourself 

3) Personalize the media, personalize yourself.

And finally, something that has been known since the Greeks:  4 – Beauty is power.

I  could  argue standing  here,  that  technology, something Mailer hated, has in effect, if not  made that revolution, has created a form  for  it. Young people do not take any of  our old  forms seriously. They   communicate  among  themselves in mysterious  ways.  The  problem remains, where is the vision?

I have always loved what I did  . I wanted more than anything to leave a mark, to return something to the country in which I and my immigrant parents, both of whom came here from certified dictatorships, flourished.    I wanted  to do that by myself, as an  individual . My own preservation as an individual was central to my contribution to journalism and photography. I’m  the generation that  had to crawl  under  my little wooden  desk at school to protect  myself from the blast of  hydrogen bombs. I’m  the  generation  that  had to wear  a dog tag, so my incinerated  body could be recognized.  I never took  my life for granted. What I did take for granted was that someone wanted to destroy me, and not only me. They wanted to control  what I thought and how I lived. My mission was to defy them.  I took it for  granted that  all the magazines lied, and since I chose the Media as my field,  I  was determined to create an American media that was truthful.    In my America people were all different, they were handsome, and everything around  them was beautiful.  And most of all they were free. None of my films are about

Chicanos,  or poverty, or  prison, on  the border, all of which I deal with. They  are about the existential struggle  to be  free.  That is what unites everything I have done. And the first person that has to be free, is me.  By  the time  I was finished, about 1971, all my books  were remaindered, meaning the publishers chose to dump  the books on the market .  All remaining copies were sold for a dollar. I   bought a case of The Bikeriders in 1970 for 16 cents a copy.

Younger people cannot  imagine  how  someone like me views our present world. Edward Snowden is to me  a young man with the stature of John Brown, though   is  presented to us  more like a John Wilkes Booth.  When, many years ago I first heard the term, “Virtual Reality”   I thought, are they kidding? Every morning I awake to an electronic version of  chess I play with my son  2,000 miles away.

They were not  kidding. Many people seem  to feel  that  an  experience on a  electronic  screen  is an experience.

I have tried to imagine  what I might do if I were allowed to  edit or control  an  issue of the NGM. What   reality would  I  present?  What would  I do, other than get rid  of running images across  the center fold, and forbidding bleeds? I think a Gone to Pot issue would be good, ideally with a joint   stamped with “Welcome to Colorado”   stapled in a baggie inside the back cover. This special issue could include a lot of out door stuff, with  20% of the issue interviews with the  destroyed lives of young people in jail for selling weed, something considered a public service by my generation. Perhaps  another 20% on  the tens of millions  of successful Americans like myself who spent   at least a third of their  lives as Pot Heads. The Border would  be another  good  issue,  the present militarization of the South West including Albuquerque  where I live where the police have shot and killed 20 people recently, a truly life threatening  place  to encounter a cop. You know the problem of police  is not that you might get shot. The problem is fear. If you are afraid you do what you are told.  The Southwest is being occupied by the police, “a quasi military force”, all in the  name  of  stopping Mexicans from coming  here to clean the house and plant the garden.


And I would suggest a historical issue on  Vietnam showing all the publications and photographers, with the correct publication dates, who   beat the drum beats  off war. Then close  with   a long piece on the bankers who  like to take cycling trips to Vietnam with their wives.

When Vince asked me to come here we spoke  on the phone and I said “you  know I  started as a journalist but I ended up in the art world.”  And he said all photographers wanted to do that, to have a gallery. Be careful what you wish for. It is of course the so called Art World that has really driven the nails into the coffin of photography.

So  what then is the point of this all?  I think the  point remains what it was for me as a boy.

I wanted to change America. That is the point. That is the point of all good books.

As Mailer wrote, and I use my words here, not his, the point is to replace the rotten, hysterical, fear and  greed driven myths, that have so much power — with our own myths.

The good  myths.  The  myths that are made out of courage, not out of fear,   The myths we believe in: Truth —– Justice —-and the   Beauty  of this,

our Mother Earth.

Thank you..Image

Caption: The above  photo made from the audience shows Lyon and Bond with the  cover of Lyon’s new

book, The Seventh Dog, to be  released by Phaidon Press in April 2014

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