Photo: Building shakedown. Ellis. © Danny Lyon, courtesy of Edwynn Houk Gallery
Danny Lyon was just 25 years old when he moved to Midway, Texas, in order to be near the prisons that he planned to document. The year was 1967 and Lyon had spent the better part of the decade in the Civil Rights movement as a participant and a photojournalist.
Recognizing the inequities in the penal system, Lyon decided to delve in deeper for a closer look. With full access granted by the director of the Texas Department of Corrections, Lyon visited seven different prisons over the course of two years. The photographs were first published in Lyon’s seminal book, Conversations with the Dead: Photographs of Prison Life with the Letters and Drawings of Billy McCune in 1971, which is being republished as a facsimile edition by Phaidon this September. To coincide with the release, Edwynn Houk Gallery, NY, presents “Danny Lyon: Conversations with the Dead: Vintage Prints”, on view through October 17, 2015.
Lyon, a self-taught photographer, writer, and filmmaker, has always employed his art in the service of activism. As he writes in a new afterword for the book, “I simply did not believe I could convey the reality of prisons through my own writing alone. I wanted to drag the reader in with me. I wanted to put the reader through what I was experiencing emotionally. I wanted it to be real, and I became convinced that the best way to do that was to use these document and count on the basic humanity of my pictures.”
It is in this intense humanity, this understanding of his subjects, and the empathy that he shows for the conditions under which they must live that we begin to understand the lengths Lyon has been willing to go in order to find these dark hidden truths, these terrible secrets and unspoken stories to which his photographs bear silent witness. With his uncanny ability to discover the humanity that exists in some of the darkest circles of hell on earth, Lyon allows us to reexamine our assumptions about criminals and the corrections system.
As Lyon writes, “If, back in 1968, I thought I could bring down the mighty walls of the Texas prison system by publishing Conversations with the Dead and the work of Billy McCune, then those years of work are among the greatest failures in my life. In Texas I photographed a world of over 12,500 men (and women). Within a generation that number exploded to over 200,000.”
He continues, “For years prison has been used to remove voting rights from African Americans. It’d been called ‘the new Jim Crow.’ In Alabama fifteen percent of black voters have been disenfranchised because of felony convictions.” Additionally, there is also the clearly written clause in the Thirteenth Amendment, legalizing slavery in case of a criminal conviction. As Lyon’s photographs brutally reveal, slavery never stopped but rather became an active, if not vital, economic and political force throughout the United States.
In Lyon’s photographs, we see slavery in the age of Civil Rights. We see what happens to men and women who become not names, but numbers, and what life is like when people are stripped of their humanity and legal rights. We see the lengths capitalism is willing to go, and who it is willing to sacrifice. We see one man’s willingness to engage in a world where no one really belongs, and bring the evidence to us, so that we may look, feel, and decide.
Lyon was right. We cannot bring the system down through art and activism alone. Slavery has been in place since this country was founded, and it is written into the very Constitution itself. The vast expansion of the prison industrial system in just four decades is evidence that a highly aggressive government agenda remains in place. “Conversations With The Dead” reminds us that humanity is worth the fight, for we will surely lose more than our humanity if we continue to turn a blind eye.
Danny Lyon: Conversations with the Dead: Vintage Prints is on view now through October 17, 2015.
Conversations with the Dead, Danny Lyon, £45 / $69.95 US / €59.95 / $79.95 CAN / $99.95 AUS, Phaidon 2015, www.phaidon.com
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.