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danny lyon’s powerful portraits of forgotten people

The legendary photographer captures the misery and optimism of disenfranchised communities in a large-scale exhibition at the Whitney museum.

by Hannah Ongley
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Jun 16 2016, 7:35pm

The last time a Danny Lyon retrospective took place, Williamsburg was still dangerous and The Spice Girls didn't exist yet. But that doesn't mean the Queens-born photographer has been letting his camera collect dust since documenting the civil rights protests, biker gangs, and squalid tattoo parlors of the late 60s. At 74, Lyon is as immersed in the stories of social outcasts and outsiders as ever, having spent the last few years capturing the bleak beauty of disenfranchised communities from Oakland (where Occupy protesters eat off paper plates in crowded tents) to China (where miners glean coal from the train tracks of Datong). These more recent photographs are now being combined with archival ones to form Danny Lyon: Message to the Future. The massive exhibition of approximately 175 photos opens at the new Whitney Museum of American Art this weekend. 

Danny Lyon, "Occupy Oakland, City Hall, Oakland," 2011. Archival pigment print. 24.6 x 33 cm (9 3/4 x 13 in.). Collection of the artist. © Danny Lyon, courtesy Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York

The exhibition will also include three rare videos, absorbing viewers in a form of expression that Lyon found himself drawn to when he returned home after six years of following the Chicago Outlaws Motorcycle Club. These videos include a 21-minute portrait of the late great tattoo artist Bill Sanders and his "painless" tattoo studio, a 15-minute one of the sculptor Mark di Suvero, and an 82-minute documentary detailing the past and present of prisoner Willie Jaramillo. Willie combines footage of the repeat minor offender's early life with powerful scenes of his penitentiary's worst jail cells. Danny and Nancy Weiss Lyon gained exclusive access to the prison to portray its inhabitants with an immediacy that still photography could never fully facilitate. 

Danny Lyon, Bill Sanders, Tattoo Artist, Houston, Texas, 1968. Vintage gelatin silver print. 20.7 x 20.7 cm (8 3/16 x 8 3/16 in.). Collection of the artist. © Danny Lyon, courtesy Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York

Danny Lyon, Crossing the Ohio River, Louisville, 1966. Vintage gelatin silver print. 20.3 x 31.8 cm (8 x 12 1/2 in.). Silverman Museum Collection. © Danny Lyon, courtesy Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York

Danny Lyon, John Lennon and Danny Seymour, The Bowery, New York, 1969 Gelatin silver print, printed later. 11 x 14 in. Collection of the artist. © Danny Lyon, courtesy Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York

Danny Lyon, "Leslie, Downtown Knoxville," 1967. Vintage gelatin silver print. 28.7 x 19.1 cm (11 1/4 x 7 1/2 in.). Art Institute of Chicago, Gift of Mr. Danny Lyon. © Danny Lyon, courtesy Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York

Danny Lyon, Maricopa County, Arizona, 1977. Vintage gelatin silver print. 22.8 x 33.5 cm (9 x 13 3/16 in.). Collection of the artist. © Danny Lyon, courtesy Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York

Danny Lyon, "Occupy Demonstration on Broadway, Los Angeles," 2011. Digital inkjet print. 13 x 15 ¾ in. Collection of the artist. © Danny Lyon, courtesy Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York

Danny Lyon, "Shakedown at Ellis Unit, Texas," 1968. Vintage gelatin silver print. 21.6 x 31.3 cm (8 1/2 x 12 1/4 in.). Museum of Modern Art. © Danny Lyon, courtesy Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York

Danny Lyon, "Weight lifters, Ramsey Unit, Texas," 1968. Vintage gelatin silver print. 7/8 x 13 1/16 in. (image). Collection of the artist. © Danny Lyon, courtesy Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York

"Danny Lyon: Message to the Future" runs from June 17 through September 25, 2016 at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.

Credits


Text Hannah Ongley
Images courtesy of Whitney Museum of American Art