In 1967, a group of construction workers in Lower Manhattan grew suspicious of a man taking pictures of half-demolished buildings. Was he some antiwar hippie? Actually, he was Danny Lyon, a photographer who wanted to capture a neighborhood in flux—a place where old industrial buildings were being displaced by Wall Street–style skyscrapers. Unwilling to let these workers harbor negative feelings toward him, he gave them the pictures he was taking. He befriended them.
Closeness, both physical and emotional, is a recurring theme throughout the 175 works in “Message to the Future,” Lyon’s Whitney Museum retrospective, a quietly brilliant affair curated with panache by Julian Cox. (Later this year, the show will travel to the Fine Arts Museums in San Francisco, which organized it; Elisabeth Sussman oversaw the Whitney installation.) We see here a photographer who was witness to a changing America and, occasionally, other places in the world. Since the early ’60s, Lyon has been infiltrating outsider groups—talking to and photographing bikers, Texas prison inmates, and hippies, and learning from them by becoming close with them. It’s as if Lyon has no sense of personal space. That, as this revelatory show proves, is his greatest attribute.
It’s also what makes him very difficult to classify. Not quite a photojournalist, yet not quite a formalist like Henri Cartier-Bresson, Lyon is a deft stylist who cares deeply about his subjects, to the point of exchanging letters with them for years after taking their pictures. What results is something more intimate, more political, and, in some ways, better than traditional photojournalism—a fuller portrait of America since the ’60s. (And what better venue than the Whitney for this retrospective?)
The show begins with Lyon’s photographs for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in the early ’60s, which he produced when he was just 20. As documents of the Civil Rights protests in the American South, and simply as images of political upheaval, they are masterpieces; seeing them in history books doesn’t do them justice. Consider Arrest of Taylor Washington, Atlanta (1963), a bombshell of a photograph in which a white police officer arrests a black protester. Lyon photographs the scene at close range, turning this dramatic moment into a Caravaggesque tangle of bodies, torsos, and legs. What pushes this image over the edge are the out-of-focus spectators in the background who stare directly into Lyon’s lens, unaware that they’ve been caught on camera doing nothing. Being on the front lines of this battle for racial equality, Lyon proposes, is where we want, and ought, to be.
Lyon was clearly on the right side of history, and his art continued to stay that way throughout the ’60s and ’70s. So much of his work continues to resonate in America’s current political climate. A series taken at Texas prisons is a clear cry for reform. A 1967 portrait of a transgender black woman named Pumpkin Renée, shown here suggestively posed against a bed frame with a Dionne Warwick record, is a more potent examination of how we construct identity than are most images produced today.
When he couldn’t pack enough intimacy into a still image, Lyon went beyond photography. Sussman wisely devotes two galleries to showing Lyon’s film works, which are typically done on a smaller scale than his far-reaching political statements made in the form of photographs. Edited using a machine borrowed from Robert Frank, Lyon’s films occupy some weird space between documentaries and impressionistic essays. Rather than simply presenting information about his subjects, he portrays them as products of their environments. Willie (1985), a film about a New Mexican man who spent his life in and out of prison, features interviews with Lyon’s titular character, but the film often cuts away to views of the run-down city that surrounds him. We’re given to consider that while Willie seems doomed to die behind bars—he did, in the early ’90s—it may not have been entirely his fault.
Although this retrospective may be too long (setting aside 90 minutes for this show may not be enough), the sheer quantity of works on view is actually to the show’s advantage. Photographs from different decades rhyme with one another, as in a 2011 picture of Occupy Wall Street protesters in Los Angeles and a 1962 image at the University of Mississippi taken during Lyon’s SNCC days. In both we see authority overseeing protesters, yet the position of the policemen in these two works has changed. In 1962, Lyon captured a policeman crossing his arms, coolly looking at protesters; in 2011, he captured another policeman from behind, with the protesters standing up to him. Nearly 50 years apart, these two works show just how far we’ve come in the fight for the rights of marginalized people—and how much further we still have to go. Consider this show a message to the future, indeed.
CORRECTION 08/18/2016, 3:08 p.m.: An earlier version of this article misstated the curator of “Danny Lyon: Message to the Future.” The show was curated by Julian Cox, not Elisabeth Sussman, who oversaw the Whitney installation. The post has been updated to reflect this.