New Danny Lyon Exhibition Looks at Two Americas in the 1960s

Photo: Danny Lyon. Crossing the Ohio, Louisville, 1966. ©Danny Lyon/Courtesy Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York.

Brooklyn native Danny Lyon came of age in the 1960s as the nation underwent radical upheavals that have defined the era in which we live. As the Civil Rights Movement came to the fore, Lyon headed south to join the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in 1962 at the age of 20. His time with SNCC put him on the frontlines of the movement, where he was able to document the horrific reality the fight against government-sanctioned apartheid.

Also: Exhibit | Danny Lyon: Conversations with the Dead

“It was my good fortune to stumble into the story early,” Lyon told The Guardian in 2012. “Being in SNCC politicized me. Having said that, I wasn’t black and I was free. My agenda was photography and books, and what is now called media.”

Danny Lyon. From Lindsey’s room, Louisville, 1966.

Lyon is one of the first photographers to practice New Journalism, to embed himself within the cultures he was documenting in order to tell the story from the inside. At the same time, the camera defined his role: he was a journalist using photography to question the practices of the government, the media, and society as a whole.

In the tradition of Walker Evans and Robert Frank, Lyon found his way to the margins of society and took to them like a moth to the flame, creating a body of work that influenced generations of photographer to come. Galerie Edwynn Houk Zurich presents a selection of photographs from the series Civil Rights and The Bikeriders now on view through July 29, 2017.

The exhibition reveals Lyon’s movements during the mid-60s as he made his way across the United States. After completing his work with SNCC, he published his first book, The Movement (1964), which showed the lengths he was willing to go for the cause, including being incarcerated with fellow protesters in Albany, Georgia, with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in the adjoining cell.

By the end of the year, Lyon was ready to move on and traveled from Selma, Alabama to Chicago on a Triumph TR6 motorbike. In the Windy City, he joined the Chicago Outlaws motorcycle club, and went on to document the underground culture before it became popular in films like Easy Rider. In 1968, he published The Bikeriders, which easily became his most influential body of work.

The anti-heroes of The Bikeriders came to define not only an era in popular culture but a style of photography wholly its own. It was more than just documentary work or reportage: it was the sense that as viewers we were on the inside of a world we could not otherwise access. Stripped of the formality that pseudo-objectivity demands of those who like to believe it exists, the photographs capture the freedom, the intensity, the glory and grandeur of what had been a thoroughly maligned subculture.

In this way, Lyon’s spirit is evident in the photographs, as he told The Guardian, “I wanted adventure and I wanted dirt – all the things my parents didn’t want. I wanted freedom for myself. I had a huge sense of adventure and I wanted to experience it.”

These two bodies of work standing in striking counterpoint: one side showing the fight for freedom that has been systematically decimated and denied; the other revealing what happens when freedom goes unchecked and the criminality it engenders and why. Perhaps most tellingly is that it is the criminality that holds so much appeal to so many Americans, a revelation wholly worthy of deeper consideration.

All photos:  ©Danny Lyon/Courtesy Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York.

Miss Rosen is a journalist covering art, photography, culture, and books. Her byline has appeared in L’Uomo Vogue, Vogue Online, The Undefeated, Dazed Digital, Aperture Online, and Feature Shoot. Follow her on Twitter @Miss_Rosen.