Danny Lyon: The only thing I saw worth leaving

November 1, 2018


From November 2 through December 19, 2018, The David Winton Bell Gallery at Brown University in Providence, RI, is presenting a special exhibition of more than 100 photographs by Danny Lyon drawn from the its collection and four films on loan from the artist. “Danny Lyon: The Only Thing I Saw Worth Leaving” complements the Brown Arts Initiative’s “On Protest, Art & Activism” programming on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of 1968, a tumultuous year for the country. A survey of Lyon’s photojournalistic practice in the 1960s, the exhibition is organized around five topics that the photographer has referred to frequently when discussing his work: empathy, freedom, history, destruction and narrative.

It features photographs from four of Lyon’s most significant series: Memories of the Southern Civil Rights Movement (1962–1964), The Bikeriders (1963–1966), The Destruction of Lower Manhattan (1966–1967) and Conversations with the Dead (1967–1968), about the Texas prison system. The films include Llanito (1972), profiles of people living in rural communities in New Mexico; El Mojado (1974), following the plight of undocumented workers from Mexico; Dear Mark (1981), a tribute to the artist Mark di Suvero; and Born to Film (1982), featuring generations of Lyon’s family and friends.

While the subjects are disparate, the images are connected by Lyon’s solidarity and humanity, and his desire to draw attention to inequity and discrimination, especially among the marginalized. Interaction and personal participation in the lives of his subjects are a vital component of Lyon’s practice, enabling him to communicate their personalities and circumstances authentically and nonjudgmentally.

“We are delighted to present this important work from our collection that captures the volatility of the 1960s through Danny Lyon’s lens,” said Bell Gallery Director Jo-Ann Conklin. “His photographs eloquently amplify Brown Arts Initiative’s programming examining protest, art and activism on the anniversary of 1968. It was a pivotal year on campus, when 65 African American students walked out of classes to protest Brown’s limited enrollment of black students. This act of resistance led to the creation of the University’s Rites and Reason Theatre and Department of Africana Studies.”

The March on Washington, August 28, 1963, from Memories of the Southern Civil Rights Movement © Danny Lyon/Magnum Photos

Empathy: Memories of the southern civil rights movement

In 1962, Lyon traveled to Cairo, Illinois, the summer before his senior year at the University of Chicago to photograph demonstrators protesting segregation, many of whom were also students. John Lewis, then a field secretary for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), encouraged Lyon to get more involved with the Civil Rights Movement. The following year he returned, becoming SNCC’s first staff photographer. Over the next two years, Lyon followed the protests across the South, and his photographs distributed by SNCC helped form a public image of the movement. He published a set in his book, Memories of the Southern Civil Rights Movement (2010).

Scrambles Track, McHenry, Illinois, No. 6, 1963-67, from The Bike Riders © Danny Lyon/Magnum Photos

Freedom: The Bikeriders

The photographs published in his celebrated photobook, The Bikeriders (1968), were made between 1963 and 1966 to both record and glorify a classic American lifestyle. It was a way of life that Lyon experienced personally as a member of the Chicago Outlaws bikers club, photographing and bonding with those with whom he rode. Lyon’s photographs of the bikers reflect the quest for freedom that is an essential part of American identity. As such, they serve as a stark contrast to the photographs portraying the experiences of prisoners enduring years of incarceration and activists fighting for equality.

Shakedown, Ellis Unit, Texas, 1967-68, from Conversations with the Dead © Danny Lyon/Magnum Photos

Destruction: Conversations with the Dead

Danny Lyon was given open access by the Texas Department of Corrections to photograph in six prison units in 1967—working prison farms, a penitentiary, and a treatment center. He worked for two years with free access, developing lifelong friendships along the way. Lyon’s intention was to “somehow emotionally convey the spirit of imprisonment.” To this end, Lyon published Conversations with the Dead: Photographs of Prison Life with the Letters and Drawings of Billy McCune (1969), incorporating the writings and drawings of a prisoner he befriended. A year later, Lyon organized an exhibition of his photographs and McCune’s drawings at Rice University with the support of Dominique de Menil, a Houston patron of the arts. McCune later appeared in Born to Film.

80 and 82 Beekman St., New York, 1967, from The Destruction of Lower Manhattan © Danny Lyon/Magnum Photos

Narrative: Films and Other Work

Stories are essential to Lyon’s work. He accompanies his photographs with written content in his photobooks, a combination of his own and those of the subjects. Whether in films, books, collages constructed out of photographs and snapshots from throughout his life, or individual photographs, Lyon has presented countless narratives. This section of the exhibition features three films alongside a casual portrait of John Lennon, Civil Rights activists like James Baldwin and James Forman, doomed buildings in Manhattan, biker friends, a collection of photographs from a new prisoner’s wallet, and, poignantly, an open road in rural Mississippi.

“Lyon’s oeuvre evokes many stories—collective and individual— explicitly detailing a particular reality in time and place and revealing chapters of American history, elements of identity and a diversity of human experiences”, explained Allison Pappas, a Graduate Curatorial Assistant at Brown University. “The narrative power of Lyon’s films and photographs helps to encourage empathy, define freedom, recount history and admonish destruction. As he said in 1967, ‘I am left feeling the people I photograph are the best people in America. I leave to the future the only thing I saw worth leaving.’”

Danny Lyon: The only thing I saw worth leaving

November 2 to December 19, 2018

David Winton Bell Gallery
Brown University
64 College Street
Providence, Rhode Island 02912


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