The highlights of Danny Lyon’s career have been celebrated in reissued books and recent shows, but a new exhibition, “Message to the Future,” on view at the Whitney Museum in New York City until September 25 and then traveling to the De Young Museum in San Francisco, presents a comprehensive survey that includes writing, films and photographs from five decades spent investigating subcultures built by people pushed outside the mainstream.
In those 50 years, Lyon has stayed busy. In 1962, he became the first official photographer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and traveled through the South documenting the Civil Rights movement. He next turned his attention to biker culture, joining the Chicago Outlaws Motorcycle Club and recording their fiercely independent way of life. In 1967 he was granted access by the Texas Department of Corrections photograph in the state’s prisons, where his goal was to “make a picture of imprisonment as distressing as I knew it to be in reality,” and in photographs and films, made an intimate recording of the brutal system. In the 1970s and 80s, he traveled to Central and South America, pursuing what he called “advocacy journalism” in Bolivia, Mexico, Colombia and Haiti, and experimenting with 16mm film. He traveled to Colombia to make a film about street kids, and made films about undocumented workers from Mexico. More recently, Lyon made trips to China, documenting people living in regions polluted by the coal industry, and to hotspots in the 2011 Occupy movement in the U.S. Along with his documentary photographs, the show includes more experimental images that incorporate handwritten texts squeezed into the photos’ borders, or combine multiple images into collages. Seen together, the show reveals Lyon’s relentless drive to record as much of life as possible.