Great piece from Ubikwist Magazine by Nemo Librizzi


“I can imagine a world without prisons, but I can’t imagine a world without murder.
A friend killed a policeman and is now one of the Ten Most Wanted Men in the United States. I hope they never catch him. I hope he runs forever. Not because I hate prisons and not because I am glad he killed a policeman… but because in this world, where man, who can fly so high, lies so broken and chained in spirit, how glad am I that there is at least one outlaw out there, running free and murderous. He is running for us all.” (Danny Lyon) 

And this is a link to the astounding film he and his buddies shot, I think, in Tomkins Square in the East Village.

Karma is about to release Lyon’s book of writing, AMERICAN BLOOD. This work was done by Ubikwist Magazine on that new book.

When asked by Ubikwist to write this review, I objected, confessing that I knew nothing about photography and less about Danny Lyon, in particular. Not realizing that only cemented my nomination, since this placed me squarely in the photographer’s target audience: uninformed pedestrians who might be thrust into a deeper sense of democracy, surprised by a glimpse of humanity in its raw form. Danny Lyon no longer grants interviews, and though I might have enjoyed meeting him, after spending time reading American Blood, tracking down his other publications, 

and speaking to photographers about his work, I feel I have gotten to know the man (he cuts some figure as represented by his words and images). And that knowing him has changed my life for the better. 

And that’s before I even got to the end of the book, where he quotes a bit of his own youthful bombast: “We dream of works of art and social realism that have the power to change men and transform society.” This is when I learned that had been his intention all along. So many people are famous for being full of shit, and then some get famous for doing great things and become phonies somewhere along the way. But a line from one of the inter- views featured in the book are a testament to just how real the man has remained throughout: “Do you think we could finish maybe in 10 minutes? I got a truck of gravel sitting out here.” 

Danny Lyon speaks of the “heroism it takes to be even a small, insignificant failure.” An iconoclast by nature, Lyon never aimed his lens where he might have been paid handsomely by what we now call the corporate media, for filling the swelling quota of mind-con- trolling propaganda, but rather continued to focus intimately on subjects that captured his 

interest in earnest. And these stories told themselves, not from mansions nor Holly- wood film sets but in uncomfortable spaces where the rest of us would prefer not to look. He lost himself in the ranks of Mexican terrorists, riding in battle formation with an outlaw biker gang, and locked himself in with Ameri- ca’s inmate population. And wherever his rest- less eye explored, the photographs and ideas that fueled them have stacked themselves into sacred artifacts, his photo books. 

You can sense it in his photos, but it’s there in his language too. His commitment to reality, as though creating advertisements for the Truth: he doesn’t take a photo, as Crazy Horse may have feared, capturing along with it the human soul, but he “makes” a photo, the creative act of an artist, and with the loving touch of a humanitarian, showcasing all the pathos and yet preserving, unexploited, the mysteries that dwell within the faces he meets. 

Eschewing any temptation towards prejudice for his models, his work is never concerned with what he has to say about them, but what his subjects have to say for themselves. And included are their own writings and drawings, any evidence of a stirring human soul that 

might shock the volume to life, like a handprint on a cave wall. Sometimes these stories are collaged, and become a sort of amorphic mandala of human smiles, grimaces – all sweating, grunting, farting Nature. 

As a child, when a commuter train crashed near his house, he begged to be brought to the scene. There he witnessed, among the general carnage and mayhem, a man’s head that had burst through a window on impact. This image haunted him, and, as it turned out, was then reproduced as the newspaper photo representing the horrific accident. And what is the head of some anonymous suffering man, framed by a shattered window, but Lyon’s first photo, even if that photo had never been taken by him? And as that image haunted the child he was then, the sensitive viewer will continue to see in Lyon’s oeuvre images to shock their own inner-child. 

Although he is not a photographer from the Sixties, continuing to produce relevant and compelling work for every decade leading up to this latest endeavor, he did distinguish him- self at that crucial moment in American history. And he was one of those forces of human nature that would shape that history. He once spoke to a graduating class, admonishing them not to believe as they have been taught “that most things in the world are over, and that you missed them.” 

To that end I feared until recently that my generation had very little in common with those idealistic savages of the 1960s. And yet all of the sudden, hordes of beautiful, unmanageable young people have taken to the streets in defense of a seemingly insignificant life lost. For all the brand name flashing, and celebrity name dropping that had begun to de- fine our current era, we were somehow one senseless death away from bloody revolt all the while. So maybe Danny Lyon wasn’t so crazy in his sacrifice, but like some foreseeing and patient Noah, recognized that humanity was always just a single image away from a galvanizing revelation. 

His writings teach us how best to look at this photograph that we might actually see it clearly for ourselves. His books had always featured in- terstitial text in support of the pictures, as a jeweler forges a discreet gold setting to mount a precious stone. Only this time American Blood collects his colorful prose about the art of photography, and the life he lived in between those choice moments of making photographs. 

What makes a subject resonate in our mind’s eye just as miraculously as the ear converting arranged sound into music? After read- ing, we see the metaphoric connection be- tween an old building condemned to be demolished, and the “feebleminded” prison- er, Billy McCune sentenced to death in the electric chair, reflected in Lyon’s eyes. Small, nondescript disappearances the world scarcely would have noticed if not for the camera and revolutionary gaze of Danny Lyon. 

Here we will read about his photograph of a prisoner’s heat exhaustion. In the text it is built up to be a shocking image, but what might have unsettled the Life magazine crowd of the 60s hardly seems to threaten or disturb today’s desensitized mind… except that it did. How can we look at a man, criminal or otherwise, who has been worked like an animal, in an age when animal cruelty itself is a crime, dumped in the back of a pickup truck… a modern tortured Christ? And yet how can we look away? 

And those prisoners who trust Lyon enough to turn their backs to him in the shower, their soapy asses, their assassin’s tattoos. The genteel odalisques of a Columbian whorehouse – melancholy faces with distingué traces, relaxed and sultry yet not presently plying their trade. 

Or those macho bikers who embrace with an illegal homosexual tongue kiss. The arrest of a Black student protestor performed with just as much kindness and tenderness as it might be performed today… and the officers in the aftermath on a cigarette break, taunting the camera with obscene gestures. Family members in their most awkward intimate moments, children photographing their father just as he films them – a meta Las Meninas in miniature in rapturous black and white. 

Faces in the crowd like petals on a wet, black bough that transfer to your retina as readily as to contact paper, training the eye to follow along unflinchingly, non-judgmentally. The workers, nonconformists, and good-for-nothings we pass by as strangers in the street. 

If it’s normal to be fascinated by the mysteries of the Sphynx, then Lyon is preoccupied with it’s missing nose. His work falls squarely in the tradition of Caravaggio and Velázquez, of Petro- nious Arbiter, Eugene Sue, and the anonymous author of Lazarillo de Tormes – a paean to plain old human beings, in all their squalid grandeur. Perhaps the popes and kings of this world elevate to some state of being more than simply human, but Danny Lyon is not intrigued by these 

great figures. Except, of course, Muhammad Ali. Yet the passion that sends a sycophant lust- ing after the superstar may not have any magnetic equivalent to mining stories from the underworld. In a letter to his parents, a young Lyon expresses reluctance of covering the civil rights movement from the dangerous front lines: 

“Frankly, I’d love to leave,” he admits.
It was while documenting the lives of our incarcerated citizens Lyon first observed that “prison walls are as much to keep us out as the inmates in.” And after making friends with convicts, Lyon took it as a great compliment when one of them remarked how amazing it was that Lyon was not himself in jail. Don’t think it be- cause the photographer fancied himself a rebel or a tough guy, but rather this admission is testimony that the unseen walls between the have and have-nots, photographer and subject, captive and free man had been successfully breached. And in the end, “there is no message. There is only humanity. And that is you and me.” 

American Blood published by Karma Books https://bleakbeauty.com 

IG @dannylyonphotos 

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