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The Art of Empathy: Danny Lyon's "Message to the Future" - By emily-wilson - December 23, 2016 - SF Weekly
SF Weekly

The Art of Empathy: Danny Lyon’s “Message to the Future”

Danny Lyon, "Weight Lifters, Ramsey Unit, Texas," 1968.

You put a camera in my hand, I want to get close to people. Not just physically close, but emotionally close; all of it. ~Danny Lyon

In his 1966 show at the Art Institute of Chicago, Danny Lyon’s mentor, Hugh Edwards, wrote about his photos of poor people in Chicago, “The pictures do not ask you to ‘help’ these people, but something much more difficult: to be briefly and intensely aware of their existence.”

That’s what Lyon did in all his photos — of the Civil Rights era, of motorcycle gangs, of a Texas prison, of street children in Colombia, and of the Occupy movement. He got to know people and presented them to the world with dignity and compassion, says Julian Cox, photography curator at the de Young Museum and chief curator of this show, “Danny Lyon: Message to the Future.

Cox presents Lyon’s work over five decades with audio recordings, films and writing as well photos, including vintage prints. He says the exhibition shows Lyon’s vision of the issues concerning America over those 50 years, specifically about freedom – the struggle for it in the Civil Rights movement, bikers looking for it on the road, and the absence of it in prisoners’ lives. When Lyon, a native of Queens, New York, moved to New Mexico and got to know undocumented workers, he also focused on immigration in his work.

“It’s a fascinating thing his connectedness to the arc of American history,” Cox said. “That’s where the title of the show comes from – the notion that what he’s doing through making pictures and writing and making films is leaving a message for future generations to evaluate and consider.”

Cox first encountered Lyon’s photography when he was involved with an exhibition of Civil Rights photography in 2008. Seeing the uniqueness and power of Lyon’s photos, Cox began working with him s to put together a retrospective, the first in 25 years.


Danny Lyon, “Occupy Demonstration on Broadway, Los Angeles,” 2011.

The exhibition opens with Lyon’s photos of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). He became involved with the group in 1962 when he hitchhiked to Cairo, Illinois, and heard a speech by John Lewis, then SNCC’s chairman and now a Congressman from Georgia. Inspired, Lyon headed to the South to take part in the civil rights movement as well as documenting sit-ins, marches, funerals, and clashes with the police.

Lyon believed photography was about telling the truth, and along with taking photos, he documented what he saw around him through other means. Cox points out this was the time of Joan Didion and Norman Mailer, developing a new way and more personal way of journalism, and Lyon wanted to be a part of that as well. He kept journals, which are displayed in several cases of the exhibition, as well as making audio recordings of people he photographed, such as Nancy, a woman who was married to one of the Outlaws, the motorcycle gang that was the subject of many of Lyon’s photos.

Lyon made 16mm films as well, and six of them are included in “Message to the Future,” including Social Sciences 127, about a Texas tattoo artist; Dear Mark, about his friend the artist Mark di Suvero; and Willie, his longest film at 81 minutes, about a man who he first met as a boy in New Mexico who spent a lot of his life in prison.

The exhibition includes work Lyon did in the 70s and 80s in Bolivia, Mexico, Columbia, Haiti, and China, where he photographed workers, street children, violent overthrows of government and coal miners. Lyon began making family albums and collages, which he calls montages. He still continues with advocacy journalism, and Message to the Future ends with his photos of Occupy camps in Oakland, New York and Los Angeles.

Lyon stays engaged with the political and social, says Cox, who clearly put lots of time and love and effort into organizing the show. Cox calls it satisfying to work with the artist to provide a platform for his work, which he hopes will delight and inspire people.

“The goal is to show the arc of an artist’s life,” Cox said. “To show the totality of what Danny has accomplished not only in photography, but in filmmaking and also the important element of writing.”

“Danny Lyon: Message to the Future,” through April 30, 2017, at the de Young Museum, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, deyoung.famsf.org