Curator Julian Cox explains how photographer Danny Lyon put his images to work for social causes, including the civil rights movement, in the early 1960s. See the exhibition now at the de Young Museum, open through April 30, 2017.
Put to Work
In the summer of 1962 Lyon hitchhiked to Cairo, Illinois, to witness demonstrations and a speech by John Lewis, chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), one of the most important organizations driving the civil rights movement of the early 1960s. Inspired to see the making of history firsthand, Lyon then headed to the South to participate in and photograph key figures and events of the movement. There, SNCC executive director James Forman recruited Lyon to be the organization’s first official photographer, based out of its Atlanta headquarters. Traveling throughout the South with SNCC, Lyon documented sit-ins, marches, funerals, and violent clashes with the police, often developing his negatives quickly in makeshift darkrooms.
Lyon’s photographs were used in political posters, brochures, and leaflets produced by SNCC to raise money and recruit workers to the movement. Julian Bond, the communications director of SNCC, wrote of Lyon’s pictures, “They put faces on the movement, put courage in the fearful, shone light on darkness, and helped to make the movement move.”