Photography Review

Taking the camera behind bars

Danny Lyon’s “Electric Chair.”
Danny Lyon’s “Electric Chair.”

LINCOLN — A grim irony shadows the 25 black-and-white photographs in “Danny Lyon: Conversations With the Dead.” The show runs through June 18 at the Clark Gallery, as does “Richard Ross: Juvenile in Justice.” If it seems odd to find exhibitions of prison photographs in the sylvan western suburbs, consider that MCI-Concord is less than 7 miles from the gallery.

Lyon’s best-known pictures, from his 1968 book, “The Bikeriders,” evoke that state of mind in which American space intersects with American possibility. For Lyon’s motorcyclists, escape and openness are only a kick-start away. Escape is not an option for the Texas inmates Lyon recorded over the course of 14 months documenting the Texas Department of Corrections during the late ’60s for his 1971 book, “Conversations With the Dead.” As for openness, it’s there, all right, but at dire cost, for those on outdoor work gangs.

It’s a parallel society that Lyon shows, with some 12,500 residents — and that’s not counting prison guards and other law-enforcement personnel. In that society, people live and eat and work, as they do on the outside. It’s just that that living and eating and working are punitively circumscribed and so much harsher. You don’t find electric chairs on the outside. The soft, even sweet expression on a guard’s face in the background of Lyon’s photograph of the apparatus simply underscores the chair’s awful purpose.


Lyon, who has a major retrospective opening next month at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art, manages to bring together past and present. An image of prisoners picking cotton could be from the antebellum South. The sight of guards on horseback and wearing 10-gallon hats summon up the Wild West. Not that Lyon could know it then, but he even offers a glimpse of a surveilled future, as prisoners pass before a bank of closed-circuit monitors.

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Past and present coexist within a single frame when a crane hoists up guards’ revolvers after they’ve brought back a work crew. Shot from above, the sight is jarringly surreal: black guns, white-garbed prisoners, a pickup truck, a pair of horses.

The 22 photographs from Richard Ross’s “Juvenile in Justice” series feel more immediate than Lyon’s pictures. They’re less distant in time, shot between 2007 and 2015. They’re in color. They’re larger, 24 inches by 38 inches (or vice versa), as opposed to 11 inches by 14 inches (or vice versa). They’re unframed and unmatted, pinned to the wall. They’re not restricted to a single state. There are images from California, Indiana, Mississippi, Oregon, Washington, Nevada, Wisconsin, Idaho, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and, yes, Texas.

Maybe that immediacy comes most from the knowledge that the people confined within these walls are little more than children. Some are children, as young as 10. D.P., whose eyes stare out from behind a slit in a lavender-colored door in the King County Youth Service Center, in Seattle, is 16. Already he has what Marines call “the thousand-yard stare.”

The most powerful pictures show isolation rooms. Most of them have as sole amenities, if that is the right word, a fluorescent light overhead and a drain in the floor. There’s something almost medieval in their grim blankness, though not as medieval looking as the sets of handcuffs attached to a Los Angeles police booking bench. In neither instance does Ross include any people. The images would surely be unendurable otherwise.

DANNY LYON: Conversations With the Dead

RICHARD ROSS: Juvenile in Justice

Clark Gallery, 145 Lincoln Road, Lincoln, through June 18, 781-259-8303,

Mark Feeney can be reached at