Danny Lyon: Message to the Future

Danny Lyon, Tesca, Cartagena, Columbia, 1966

Danny Lyon, Tesca, Cartagena, Columbia, 1966. Cibachrome, printed 2008. 25.7 x 25.7 cm. Collection of the Artist. © Danny Lyon, courtesy Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York

West Coast Premiere
November 5, 2016 – April 30, 2017 | de Young

SAN FRANCISCO—The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco are thrilled to present Danny Lyon: Message to the Future, at the de Young. The exhibition, which enjoyed a critically acclaimed debut at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, is the first comprehensive retrospective of the career of American photographer Danny Lyon (born 1942) to be presented in 25 years. The exhibition was conceived and organized by Julian Cox, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco’s chief curator and founding curator of photography.

For the last five decades, Lyon has documented individuals considered to be on the margins of society. A leading figure in the American street photography movement of the 1960s, his work is distinguished by a personal intimacy with his subjects, and a determination to provide a charged alternative to the bland vision of American life often depicted in the mass media.

“I am trying to make a record . . . but I discover my facts through forms and beauty. In the most beautiful pictures the truth is easiest seen, which to me seems like out and out magic.” 
—Danny Lyon, in a letter to his parents, 1964

The exhibition assembles 175 photographs alongside films and ephemera, including many objects that have seldom or never before been on public view. The films in particular are a revelation, and this is the first exhibition to celebrate Lyon’s achievement in this medium. The exhibition draws deeply from Lyon’s personal archives and includes important loans from major public and private collections in the United States.

“We are honored to present this in-depth examination of Lyon’s work,” states Max Hollein, Director and CEO of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. “Our museums have a rich history of fostering the region’s engagement with this enticing medium. Lyon’s films and photographs are the epitome of vigor and invention. They deserve to be seen and celebrated by the widest possible audience.”

“Danny Lyon is one of the great artists working today,” adds Cox. “For more than a decade, I have held a deep admiration for his work and wished for it to be better known and understood. Lyon’s dedication to his art and his conviction to produce work underpinned by strong ethical and ideological motivations is truly what sets him apart. I hope our audience will be inspired and moved by what they see and find connections with many of the issues—social justice, civil rights, and immigration—that are central to the artist’s concerns and so relevant to our lives today.”

Danny Lyon: Message to the Future showcases the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco’s commitment to the medium of photography, and to art that sheds light on the pressing social and economic issues of today. The exhibition will be on view at the de Young from November 5, 2016, through April 30, 2017. Following its San Francisco presentation, it will travel to the Fotomuseum Winterthur in Basel, Switzerland (May 20–August 27, 2017), and then to the C/O Berlin Foundation in Berlin (September 15–December 10, 2017).

IN DETAIL
The exhibition begins with photographs made early in Lyon’s career, when he headed to the South to participate in and document the civil rights movement in the summer of 1962. There, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) Executive Director James Forman recruited him to be the organization’s first official photographer based out of its Atlanta headquarters. Traveling throughout the South with SNCC, Lyon created photographs such as Arrest of Taylor Washington, Atlanta (1963), as he documented sit-ins, marches, funerals, and violent clashes with the police, often developing his negatives quickly in makeshift darkrooms.

In 1965 Lyon joined the hard-riding and hard-drinking Chicago Outlaws Motorcycle Club and began making photographs like Crossing the Ohio River, Louisville (1966) with a goal to “record and glorify the life of the American bike rider.” The resulting photographs were gathered into the now classic book The Bikeriders, published in 1967.

After moving to a loft in New York City, Lyon began to document the demolition of some 60 acres of predominantly 19th-century buildings below Canal Street in lower Manhattan in late 1966 and into the summer of 1967. The exhibition includes work made during this period, including 82 Beekman Street, New York (1967) and 55 Fulton Street, New York (1967). The resulting photographs, together with Lyon’s journal entries from the period, became the book The Destruction of Lower Manhattan, published by MacMillan in 1969.

Lyon applied to the Texas Department of Corrections to gain access to the state prisons in the fall of 1967. Dr. George Beto, director of the prisons at the time, granted Lyon the right to move freely among the various prison units, which he photographed intensely over a 14-month period. Works such as Shakedown, Ellis Unit, Texas (1968) highlight this searing record of the Texas penal system. Lyon’s aim was to “make a picture of imprisonment as distressing as I knew it to be in reality.”

Tired of the hectic pace of the big city and in search of new surroundings, Lyon headed west from New York in 1969, settling in Sandoval County, New Mexico. He immediately felt a kinship with its close-knit communities of Native Americans and Chicanos. In photographs such as Maricopa County, Arizona (1977), and increasingly in films, Lyon captured a sense of the cross-cultural flow between these disparate groups and how they interacted with the geography of the Southwest.

The exhibition also includes work made in the 1970s and 1980s, as Lyon’s self-described “advocacy journalism” took him to Bolivia and Mexico, where he photographed undocumented workers; to Colombia, where he chronicled the lives of street children; and to Haiti, where he witnessed firsthand the violent revolution overthrowing François “Papa Doc” Duvalier’s dictatorship, as seen in Boulevard Jean-Jacques Dessalines, Port-au-Prince, Haiti (1986). More recently, Lyon made six trips to Shanxi province, in the northwest corner of China, where he photographed the people living in this highly polluted, coal-producing area between 2005 and 2009.

A selection of films dating from 1969 to the present includes Willie (1985), Lyon’s longest and most ambitious film.  Willie Jaramillo was a young boy living in Bernalillo, New Mexico when Lyon first met him in 1970. Willie picks up years later, just after Jaramillo’s release from the Penitentiary of New Mexico after a five-year sentence. The film follows Jaramillo’s tragic life and documents how an adolescence spent in and out of prison has transformed him into a paranoid and disturbed young man. Jaramillo died in the early 1990s inside the Sandoval County Detention Center.
Alongside his deep engagement with film, Lyon turned to assembling family albums and creating collaged works he describes as montages, referencing the practice in filmmaking of editing individual sections of film to form a continuous whole. 

The exhibition concludes with Lyon’s recent work, which continues the themes he has engaged with throughout his career: documenting social and political change, the people in his community, and the Western landscape. In the fall of 2011 Lyon visited Occupy sites in New York, Los Angeles, Oakland, and Albuquerque. His photographs of the protesters’ camps and their confrontations with police, such as Occupy Demonstration on Broadway, Los Angeles (2011), recall his pictures of the civil rights movement.

ABOUT THE ARTIST
Born in 1942 and raised in Queens, New York, Lyon was shaped by the prose of Beat-generation writers and the photo albums of his father, an immigrant from Germany. He also was inspired by the unvarnished realism of photographer Walker Evans and writer James Agee. With the support of early mentor Hugh Edwards, a curator at the Art Institute of Chicago, Lyon developed the restless, compassionate vision that marks his work in all media. Lyon’s photographs are held in public and private collections throughout the United States and internationally. Examples of Lyon’s writings and related information about his work in photography and film can be found on his website: www.bleakbeauty.com

Media image gallery here.
deyoungmuseum.org/danny-lyon | #DannyLyon | @deyoungmuseum

Related Programming

An Evening with Danny Lyon
November 4, 7 p.m. | Koret Auditorium
Program includes full screenings of Lyon’s Soc. Sci. 127 (1969, 21 min.) and Leesburg (201516, 8 min.), followed by a discussion between the artist and exhibition curator Julian Cox. Lyon will also sign exhibition catalogues. More information is available here.

Film Screening: Willie
November 11, 7 p.m. | Koret Auditorium
Willie (1985, 82 min., color and b&w), by Danny Lyon and Nancy Weiss Lyon, was shot with stark realism in Bernalillo, New Mexico, home of the filmmakers and their subject, Willie Jaramillo. Defiantly individualistic and implacable in the face of authority, Willie is repeatedly thrown into jail for relatively minor offenses. The filmmakers gain access to jail cells, day rooms, lunatic wards, and the worst cellblock in the penitentiary, where Willie is locked up next to his childhood friend Michael Guzman, who has been convicted of murder. More information is available here.

ArtPoint Lecture and Reception: Photography and Journalism Today
November 17, 7 p.m. | Wilsey Court
Award-winning photojournalist and documentary photographer, Darcy Padilla, will join Julian Cox in discussion. A reception and after-hours viewing of the exhibition will follow the conversation. More information is available here.

Film Screening: Los Niños Abandonados (The Abandoned Children)
November 25, 7:15 p.m. | Koret Auditorium
Lyon filmed Los Niños Abandonados (1975, 63 min., Spanish with English subtitles) in Santa Marta, Columbia. The film shows the daily rhythms of a gang of urchin boys who live on the city’s streets. Their wily survival skills and errant lifestyle command attention as they beg for scraps to eat, wheel and deal, and play together. More information is available here.

Free Educator Day
December 3, 9:30 a.m.
Local educators receive free admission to Danny Lyon: Message to the Future and Frank Stella: A Retrospective. Advance reservation is required. More information is available here.

Curator Lecture: Up Close and Personal: The Photographs and Films of Danny Lyon 
January 21, 2 p.m. | Koret Auditorium
Julian Cox will give a lecture on the work of Danny Lyon.

Bearing Witness:  An Afternoon with Bay Area Veterans of the Civil Rights Movement
Saturday February 11, 2 p.m. | Koret Auditorium 
Chude Allen, Ron Bridgeforth and Bruce Hartford will join Julian Cox to share stories of participation in the 1960s civil rights movement and perspectives on the ongoing struggle for racial justice today.

Visiting | de Young
Golden Gate Park, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, San Francisco
Open 9:30 a.m.– 5:15 p.m. Tuesdays–Sundays. Open select holidays; closed most Mondays.

Tickets
Adults tickets start at $22 and include general admission; discounts are available for seniors, students, and youths. Members and children 5 and under are free. Prices subject to change; for more information, visit deyoung.famsf.org/visit.

Exhibition Catalogue | $65
Danny Lyon: Message to the Future is the first in-depth examination of this leading figure in American photography and film, and the first publication to present his influential bodies of work in all media in their full context. Lead essayists Julian Cox and Elisabeth Sussman provide an account of Lyon’s five-decade career. Alexander Nemerov writes about Lyon’s work in Knoxville, Tennessee; Ed Halter assesses the artist’s films; Danica Willard Sachs evaluates his photomontages; and Cox interviews Alan Rinzler about his role in publishing Lyon’s earliest works. With extensive back matter and illustrations, this publication will be the most comprehensive account of the artist’s work. Copies are available for purchase in the on-site and online museum stores.

Exhibition Organization
This exhibition is organized by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco in collaboration with the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Presenting Sponsor: Anonymous. President’s Circle: The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts. Patron’s Circle: Anonymous.

About the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, comprising the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park and the Legion of Honor in Lincoln Park, is the largest public arts institution in San Francisco.

The de Young originated from the 1894 California Midwinter International Exposition and was originally known as the Memorial Museum. Thirty years later, it was renamed in honor of Michael H. de Young, a longtime champion of the museum. The present copper-clad landmark building, designed by Herzog & de Meuron, opened in October 2005. It showcases the institution’s significant collections of American painting, sculpture, and decorative arts from the 17th to 21st centuries; art from Africa, Oceania, and the Americas; costume and textile arts; and international modern and contemporary art.

Media Contacts
Miriam Newcomer | mnewcomer@famsf.org | 415.750.3554
Francisco Rosas | frosas@famsf.org | 415.750.8906