Danny Lyon at The Whitney

June 05 2016

Opening on the 17th of June, a new exhibition of the works of American photographer Danny Lyon will become the first major showing of photographic works since the museum’s relocation in 2015. Entitled Danny Lyon: Message to the Future , the show will be the first major retrospective of Lyon’s work in nearly 25 years.

Lyon’s work is a lies at the intersection of photographic practice and social justice. While still enrolled as a student at the university of Chicago in 1962, Lyon hitchhiked across the country to document the burgeoning civil rights movement. His first publication, The Movement, was the result of his role as the lead photographer of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC. The images he made of the movement and it’s participants was keenly human, rife with emotion and understanding of his photographic subjects. The drive to immerse himself in the culture of his subjects, to understand, empathize and report the issues at hand compelled him throughout his career. The method of empathetic photography places Danny Lyon throughly in the photographic process for New Journalism, an extension of the journalistic reporting of the midcentury that acknowledged the place of a Journalist as an active participant in the event they were capturing. Stepping slightly away from the traditions of photojournalism – namely the vouyeristic tendency to avoid any interaction with subject matter or events – makes Lyon’s images controversial in the traditional journalistic world that he inhabited.

It’s a prescient body of work in a time when race politics are at the forefront of the national conversation. In relation to the successful employment of social media and imagery in the growth of movements in the modern era, the photographs that Lyon captured in the early days of the civil rights movement become a precedent worth study. The representation and illustration of messages – through soundbites video and imagery, is an ever evolving field of study and conversation. Lyon’s own photographs of current candidate for the democratic nomination, Bernie Sanders – taken at sit-ins and protests in the early 1960’s in Chicago – have become some of the iconic images of the campaign and the current race. He continues to photograph movements and issues of social concern – Lyon’s images of the Occupy protests will be included in the exhibition alongside work from the 1960’s onward. At first glance, it is difficult to distinguish the different between eras within Lyon’s photography. Forty years exsists between images of protesters in the south in the early sixties, and Chicago in the twenty-teens, yet little difference exists in the spirit of the images.

“Lyon’s dedication to his art and his conviction to produce work underpinned by strong ethical and ideological motivations sets him apart from many of his peers” noted Julian Cox, Chief Curator and Founding Curator of Photography at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. The show was organized in collaboration with the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, where it will be traveling later this year for display at the de Young museum in November.