NEW YORK — There are some 175 photographs in “Danny Lyon: Message to the Future.” They range in date from 1962 to 2014. A much-welcome retrospective of a vital career, the exhibition runs through Sept. 25 at the Whitney Museum of American Art.
The show also includes three films, several audio clips, and such ephemera as book jackets, brochures, correspondence, even Lyon’s Texas Department of Corrections ID. He needed it for a late-’60s photographic project on the state’s prison system. There’s also a bulletin board, more than 4 feet by nearly 9 feet, that Lyon used between 1985 and 2005, with prints and negatives and note cards and letters.
“After fifty years of this work,” he’s said, “I still have not improved on the bulletin board as the best way to express myself.” That may be an overstatement, but within those confines are displayed many of the qualities that make Lyon’s work so compelling: intense juxtapositions, simultaneity, informality, unpredictability.
In his 1981 book, “Danny Lyon: Pictures From the New World,” he wrote of starting out in the early ’60s. “Photography then seemed new and exciting, and all America, which I regarded with mystery and reverence, lay before me.”
That sense of newness and excitement fills the show. What we’re discovering now, Lyon was discovering then — not just seeing or observing, but discovering, with the sense of revelation that brings. Mystery and reverence are here, too, but complicatedly. Framing them — debating with them? — are the clarity of precision the camera affords and a skepticism born of a forthrightly ’60s sensibility. Several photographs of the Occupy movement attest to how vigorous that sensibility remains.
Born in 1942 and raised in New York, Lyon took up photography as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago. When he went South in 1962 to join in Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee protests, he had his camera with him. SNCC hired Lyon as its first official photographer.
He was just a kid, and in his civil rights images you find a kid’s vitality and idealism and intensity. The you-are-there quality of “Arrest of Taylor Washington, Atlanta,” from 1963, is all but overwhelming. Distance and detachment are nowhere to be found in these photographs. Which is as it should be, since distance and detachment are nowhere to be found in the events and moral issues Lyon’s camera was confronting.
He was working as a documentarian but not a photojournalist. That’s an important distinction. These images are implicitly polemical — inevitably polemical, too. Rarely in our nation’s history has the distinction between what’s right and what’s wrong been as clear cut. Yet then as now, people matter more to Lyon than any ideological stance.
That’s true even when his subjects are National Guardsmen or police. Noticing that Lyon is photographing him, a Mississippi cop stares at the camera and grabs his crotch. The way Lyon captures it, the gesture is as much humanizing as offensive. “You put a camera in my hand,” Lyon has said, “I want to get close to people. Not just physically close, emotionally close, all of it.”
Famous sites and events appear among these photographs: the bombed-out 16th Street Baptist Church, in Birmingham, Ala.; the March on Washington. Famous people do, too, both from this period and later: SNCC’s Stokely Carmichael, the novelist James Baldwin, John Lennon, the sculptor Mark di Suvero (a close friend). That said, fame is never more than an incidental consideration. What draws Lyon is something else, the daily life of average people — not that anyone is truly “average.”
Outsiders attract Lyon and populate the show: civil rights demonstrators, transgender people (in Galveston, Texas, of all places), lower Manhattan demolition crews, inmates, undocumented workers, Indians, Appalachian whites transplanted to Chicago, motorcycle gangs.
Almost as important as Lyon getting his first camera was getting his first motorcycle, a 1953 Triumph TR6. That was in 1963. He started hanging out with the Chicago Outlaws Motorcycle Club, which led to his celebrated book “The Bikeriders” (1968).
The riders are at once mythic and mundane — people, like you and me (and Danny Lyon), people with families and jobs — except that they also happen to wear leather and like loud, two-wheeled motor vehicles. The one truly funny picture in the exhibition shows the Outlaws in a gallery at the Art Institute of Chicago looking at a 1966 show of Lyon’s pictures of them.
The biker photographs include two of Lyon’s most famous images: “Route 12, Wisconsin” (1963) and “Crossing the Ohio River, Louisville” (1966). They rank with Dorothea Lange’s and Robert Frank’s photographs of New Mexico highways as emblems of American openness and possibility. Here we see — spiritually, spatially — the Territory Huck Finn lit out for. Truly, all America seems to lie before these bikers — and us, too.
The two photographs startlingly contrast with the deserted stretch of highway in “The Road to Yazoo City,” from 1963. Instead of openness and a horizon-reaching flatness, we see enclosure (thanks to thick vegetation and the rolling terrain). It’s lush, yes, but also confining and cut off, its sense of fertile entrapment more Old World than New.
No, enclosure and entrapment are not for Lyon — nor, for that matter, is the absence of people (a very rare condition in his work). A larger restlessness in Lyon’s career reflects the energy so often evident within the frame — within the frame being another form of enclosure and entrapment. The South, Chicago, lower Manhattan, Texas, New Mexico, China, Haiti, Latin America share space in the show.
Even so, sense of place doesn’t signify as much for Lyon as a sense of a place’s inhabitants. More likely he’d say that the two are indistinguishable. Looking at his pictures, you can see why he’d think so.
DANNY LYON: MESSAGE TO THE FUTURE
At Whitney Museum of American Art, 99 Gansevoort St., New York, through Sept. 25. 212-570-3600, whitney.org