Danny Lyon, “Bill Sanders, Tattoo Artist, Houston, Texas” (1968), vintage gelatin silver print, 8 3/16 x 8 3/16 inches, collection of the artist (© Danny Lyon, courtesy Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York)

“We are frail flowers in the field,” wrote Danny Lyon, the politically active, compassionate photojournalist, after leaving New York for Bernalillo, New Mexico, in 1969. Like he often did throughout his life, Lyon was traveling to live among those he wanted to document, this time the Mexican immigrants in the town of Llanito, for a project that would become the film Llanito (1970). Lyon’s use of “we” to describe his experience is essential to understanding the artist’s practice: though avowedly journalistic, his methods were bracketed by an explicitly Romantic world-view and personalized connection with his subjects. Although not the first photographer to embed himself for the sake of his practice, Lyon’s subjects became intimate companions to the extent that the hierarchy between photographer and subject dissolved. On the motorcycle gangs, political activists, prisoners, prostitutes, and transvestites he documented over five decades, Lyon wrote “I think these are the best people in America.”

Danny Lyon: Message to the Future, the first full-career retrospective of the artist in twenty-five years, organized by the Whitney Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts San Francisco, ties up a long and varied career into loosely coherent bodies of work using a large number of works – totaling 175 – to capture the artist’s irrepressible impulse to document the changing political and social climates around him.

The power of Lyon’s images lies in their emotive honesty and immediacy – which, for a 1960s and ’70s audience, differed radically from the sterilized images published in Life Magazine at that time. His work also differed from that of his better-known American contemporaries. Lyon’s photographs were unlike the psychologically narrative, otherworldly images of Diane Arbus, or the candidly documentarian work of Robert Frank. Instead, his strength was always in the individual emotions captured in his sitter – emotions brought out only through intimate connectedness and sincere respect.

Danny Lyon, “Arrest of Taylor Washington, Atlanta” (1963), vintage gelatin silver print, 9 7/16 x 6 1/4 inches, collection of the artist (© Danny Lyon, courtesy Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York) (click to enlarge)

With a bevy of quotations, montages, audio recordings, and previously unexhibited films, Message to the Future conveys the ways in which Lyon was both an artist and photojournalist. The films Dear Mark (1981), Soc. Sci (1969), and Willie (1985) attest to the melding of art and journalism, emphasizing Lyon’s avant-garde sensibility, fully aware of cinema verité – while also taking liberty with art’s capacity for fiction. Soc. Sci follows alcoholic tattoo artist, Bill Sanders, around his dingy Houston shop as he pontificates on the immorality of the Vietnam War and murmurs offensive sexist provocations to his female clients. Cut between the clips of the artist in his shop is a completely staged classroom lesson with young female students on the “history of the tattoo.”

The artist, born in 1942 in Queens and raised by a middle class Jewish doctor and educated at the University of Chicago, once admitted that as a boy, he had never worked a day with his hands. This self-awareness, combined with an admiration for Walker Evans’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), sometimes manifested into an overly romantic view of his subjects. But his own life did not lack for hands-on experience: Lyon began his career as a photojournalist at the age of twenty-one as the first official photographer of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), an experience that trained him to put “his body on the gears,” to quote Mario Savio. Often as a threat to his own safety, Lyon participated in riots and demonstrations alongside his subjects in order to get stirring photographs like “Arrest of Taylor Washington, Atlanta” (1963).

Lyon’s acute sensitivity for his medium should not be underestimated. One effect of this show is that it reflects how Lyon seems to have instinctively picked up different cameras for different subjects, The differences are at times subtle – for example, using color photography to capture the vibrant tiles and fabrics surrounding protestors and prostitutes in Columbia and Haiti, respectively – and at other times dramatic – using film rather than still photographs in order to record the slow transformation of Willie (1985), a prison recidivist, from his animated boyhood innocence into a mentally jarred adult unfit for society. For this attuned artist, the subjects dictated the medium and manner of depiction.

Danny Lyon, “Shakedown at Ellis Unit, Texas” (1968), vintage gelatin silver print, 8 1/2 x 12 1/4 inches, Museum of Modern Art (© Danny Lyon, courtesy Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York) (click to enlarge)

In many cases, the photograph works almost magically – a word that Lyon himself has used – wielding its uncanny power to make the invisible visible. In the book The Destruction of Lower Manhattan (1967) Lyon documented 19th-century buildings in downtown Manhattan that were facing imminent destruction. Also in 1967, he documented the abject prisoners of the Texas Department of Corrections with unprecedented permission from the state, and eventually published The Autobiography of Billy McClune (1977), about one of the prisoners. In 1965 he photographed the Appalachian migrants newly settled in Chicago’s destitute Uptown neighborhood, which culminated in an exhibition in the neighboring Art Institute of Chicago, Danny Lyon: Photographs (1966). What condemned buildings, prisoners, and the severely impoverished share in common is that they all could have existed and expired without society at large ever knowing or caring. It was Lyon’s project to render them visible.

Given the alarmingly violent events of civil unrest that have recently unfolded, the show’s title and narratives feel stunningly prescient. Message to the Future stands as a reminder that cycles of oppression and marginalization follow an ebb and flow, escalating to painful crescendos both in private and in public. Artists such as Lyon remain powerful and important instigators in bringing such oppression to light.

Danny Lyon: Message to the Future continues through September 25 at the Whitney Museum of American Art (99 Gansevoort Street, Meatpacking District, Manhattan).

Anna Tome is a freelance writer and MA candidate in art history at Hunter College. Her work has been published in the Brooklyn Rail, C Magazine and elsewhere.