Danny Lyon: The World Is Not My Home

Mississippi Police
Danny Lyon—Magnum
Police pose for a photograph as ministers from the National Council of Churches march to a local church, Clarksdale, Miss, 1963

For the past five decades the photographer Danny Lyon has produced a mix of documentary photographs and film – both politically conscious and personal. As the artist turns 70 this year, a new exhibition called The World is Not My Home: Danny Lyon Photographs will celebrate his lengthy career at the Menil Collection in Houston from March 30 to July 29.

In the early 1960s when many photographers where working the poetry of the streets and snubbing their noses at the tradition of “photojournalism,” Lyon embraced both the lyrical potential of photography as well as its ability to raise awareness to current political issues. Some of his earliest images as a staff photographer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) documenting the civil rights demonstrations against segregation in the South (later published in the book The Movement) made their way into the mainstream press and also onto SNCC posters and brochures. “My camera was my entrance into another world…I had the rare privilege to see history firsthand.”

The Menil Collection has played an important role in Lyon’s career as it was one of the first institutions to acquire his prints as early as 1974 and the Collection currently holds 246 of his photographs. “Addie and Ted de Menil [Adelaide de Menil and Edmund Carpenter Snow] made a large contribution of my work to the Collection, and that morphed into this larger show,” Lyons said of the exhibition. The photographer’s cousins Leon and Ginette Henkin also gave the Collection 20 vintage prints that Lyons had given to the them in the sixties and early seventies. The World is Not My Home: Danny Lyon Photographs will consist of approximately 45 photographs covering his career from 1962 to the present including recent montages and his Polaroid albums which have never been shown.

Lyon lived in East Texas and Houston for 14 months while photographing within Texas prisons. This work would eventually be published in his 1969 book Conversations With the Dead: Photographs of Prison Life, with the letters and drawings of Billy McCune #122054. Lyon’s virtually unrestricted access to several prisons and their inmates went as far as conceiving the idea of having his book printed by the inmates working in the Huntsville prison print shop. The fruit of this idea, a smaller and necessarily less ambitious book of 15 images called Born to Lose (printed by Don Moss #150590 and with layout and lithography by ‘Smiley’ Renton #189994 and Ed Carlock #192204) will also be on display in this exhibition at the Menil.

John and Dominique de Menil started their collection in 1945, focusing on European painting and American contemporary works including Minimalism and Pop Art. The collection holds nearly 16,000 works of art. “I met Dominique when she was a teacher in Houston,” Lyon recalls. “She knew of my work in the prisons and helped me get art supplies to Billy McCune. In 1974, Mrs. de Menil was one of the first to ever purchase prints from me, and then in 1975 paid for the making of my film Los Ninos Abandonados. She handed me a check and said, ‘Don’t tell anyone.’” Los Ninos Abandondos is a film about street children in Colombia which has been recently been digitally restored and will be shown at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts as a companion piece to this show.

Los Niños Abandonados (1975) – Restored 2012 (Trailer) from Watchmaker Films on Vimeo.

“Dominique de Menil said to me many years ago that there was always something ‘happy and sad’ in my photographs,” Lyon says. “The announcement card shows a man gleaning coal walking down a long and sad railroad track. It could have been taken in America during the Depression, but it was made in China four years ago as part of my Phaidon book Deep Sea Diver. The hymn The World is Not My Home is a sad one, but it also implies an existential relationship to life and the world around us.”

Danny Lyon is an American photographer. He blogs at this address (http://dektol.wordpress.com) where he posts his current work with the Occupy movement, and more of his work can be seen here on his website. The above photographs are from the show The World Is Not My Home: Danny Lyon Photographs, on view at the Menil Collection in Houston, March 30 – July 29. 

Jeffrey Ladd is a photographer, writer, editor and founder of Errata Editions. Visit his blog here.

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