Photographer, Writer, & Bookmaker
A photographer with an opinion is
a dangerous combination. It is the
fear of any great regime that a single
individual has access to the tools
of propaganda, which can be used
to call attention to the problems hiding
under our noses.
Last Minute Change
Its always confusing meeting someone for the first time. Everyone always looks like a distant relative of their photo. The park on Mulberry and Spring is a small city park. Benches line the street with the jungle gyms in the center. My guess was Danny would be sitting in the quietest corner possible. Sure enough, on the far corner of the park was Danny Lyon. He wore a baseball hat, scruffy beard, and glasses. He could have been an undercover C.I.A. agent.
Danny’s career is difficult to categorize. He is an important photographer of the civil rights movement, he document “The Destructions of Lower Manhattan” just before the Twin Towers were built, he took on the Texas Prison System, and he just spent a few months traveling through Shanxi, China. Like any real artist he does not fit in a box. He sees himself as a journalist, sometimes. He said “Its no accident that we have a black president. There is a direct connection between the civil rights work and Obama, so in that way the project was a success. My work in the Texas prisons, I would see as a failure. The prison system, which I used to think was bad, is now even worse.”
“I am interested in journalism as far as affecting people.”
A constant concern of many artists and photographers is answering the question “What do you do?” Unlike being an accountant, for example, the artistic process has multiple layers. Danny is a photographer, writer, book maker, with a strong side interest in history & politics. Danny never limited his projects because he was afraid of not being marketable. It is encouraging to know that a successful career can be carved out in multiple fields at once.
The other day I was with a young girl from Magnum Photo. I told her that I had cataracts, to which she replied “The great Danny Lyon, blind…?!” He said he could have explain it to her, but basically he sees spots. He joked that the spots were the reason he was working on his writing.
“Writing is a terrible practice. You sit in a chair, at a desk for hours. Photography is athletic. I used to be jumping on and off motorcycles, climbing in and out of buildings, getting a real workout. With writing, you just sit. Its horrible. I understand why so many writers are alcoholics. But writing has always been very important to me. I am getting older and I am setting up for the next phase in my life. Writing is a large part of the plan.
“There are no second acts in America.”
-F. Scott Fitzgerald
F. Scott Fitzgerald said “There are no second acts in America.” Do you know what that means? Its means I’m not supposed to be writing, but I don’t care. I contain multitudes. There I said it! Walt Whitman wrote that just down the street. Before Soho turned into a shopping center, Broadway used to be a real destination. People came from all over the America to find Whitman at Pfaff’s Bar on Broadway. President Lincoln and the future President Teddy Roosevelt used to come here. Now Pfaff’s is a deli. But Whitman had it right.”
Every generation laments the good old days. They have been complaining about this since Socrates. In fact they probably complained about it before him, only no one wrote it down. One way or another, New York was probably cooler than it is now. But fifty years from now, a young photographer will certainly say, “Ah, back at the turn on the millennium New York was the place to be.” We missed Whitman, Kerouac, but all we can do is make the best of our experience. A great photographer always has to be a reflection of their era. Its not worth living in the past.
On Book Making…
As Danny and I changed gears, I was surprised to learn that most of Danny’s works were originally conceived as books. In spite of the fact that MoMA has been purchasing his work since he was in his twenties, each project is envisioned as book.
“Now we are starting to re-release some of the older books. They are out of print and the publishers want to make another run. When they do a re-release the publishers always want to change something. But for me, they were done right the first time. I don’t want to change a thing.
Book making is important to me. I work with the printers on the production line so I can understand the process. Otherwise the finished product is a surprise, usually a bad one. One thing you need to understand about a printer is that they deal in blank sheets of paper. They want to fill every square inch. White is their enemy. The process of making a book can be quite a battle, but its worth it.
As a photographer, we need to select a final format for our work. Jpegs are not a finished product. The photography is not complete until you can hold it in your hand. I was surprised to hear that all of Danny’s projects were conceived as books. I would have expected a MoMA/Guggenheim photographer to envision exhibitions. But to my surprise, Danny looked for a way to include his writings, image, and love of books into one package. The advice I take from him is, whatever you do, do it well. Don’t make photos for white gallery walls or bookshelves. Explore the real desire behind each project. The outcome will be unique.
“A few years back I was talking to William Klein. You know him, right? He’s a Leica guy, did that series on Rome and also the New York City Subway? Yes, him. Well he produced a book and complained about the quality of the images. I asked him if he worked with the printer during production? He said no.
I asked him if he worked with the lab on his photos? He said yes. Well in my mind they are the same. Whether your images are in a book or a gallery, you need to work on the production at some level otherwise they will never be quite right.
At the moment I am making another book with Phaidon. We have done two books already, Deep Sea Diver and Memories of Myself. For Deep Sea Diver I worked with Sue Medlicott and Nerissa Dominguez. They were critical for the production of the book. The book has so many small details, in the scans, that without their help the quality would not have been possible. There are all types of details I wanted to include in the book because the project is like a travel journal. At some points I was very excited while other times, I wanted to pack it up and go home.
We decided each image needed to be photographed with a unique mount. Some were held with corner tabs, others were held with masking tape, and my hand written notes are in margins. If we cheated the quality of the book, it would have ruined the final product.
A side note: When Phaidon sent me a copy of the book, I showed it to my girlfriend. Her first comment was that it was very cool that Phaidon sent me a copy with Danny’s hand written notes. The book has printed pencil notations that are done so well it looks like an original. She had to touch the page to believe it was a printed scan.
“You can take the text from Moby Dick and make it an E-book because the text is the whole thing. But my books are about the photographs, the writing and the book itself. They could never be translated into a digital version. Its something that I am entirely conscious of when designing the books. They are made in a way that they must be understood in the final book form.
I don’t have anything against the internet or technology. I run a website and a blog for my work. But when it comes to the books, they are physical objects.”
Lets take a few lessons from history. After the wheel, the book might be one of the most important inventions of humanity. They are not going away. Electronic books are great, but books have a lasting value that can be passed through generations. We were not alive when photography was invented, but everyone thought painting would die. There were books and essays written every year on the subject from the late 1800’s onward. Almost two hundred years later, people are still painting. Lets not forget that E-Books are great, but they are an addition not a replacement.
Life as a photographer is funny. When I was in my twenties John Szarkowski, head of photography at MoMA, bought a few of my prints for a show. They offered me $25 an image. When I said I wanted $35, I was accused of being an ego maniac.
At the time, it was very trendy to mount the photographs on masonite. That is a one way process. Once that picture is mounted, its not coming off. The show traveled to a few locations which was great for my exposure. But afterwards, some idiot wanted to save money on shipping, so they pulled the photos from the masonite. The picture was completely ruined. It was such a foolish move. This was in the days before interns, so I was really upset when the pictures were ruined by a full time professional.
Then to make matters worse, they offered me the replacement fee for each image. Printing in those days cost about $2.50 for a picture. I ended up with about $5.00 for both of the ruined pictures. Back in those days I was totally broke so I used the money for living expenses and never printed the photos. If I had those prints today they would be worth somewhere around $30,000-$50,000 each.
I used to find professional negligence shocking. But after my years in construction I have witnessed (all too often) that stupidity knows no bounds. When we face the unbelievable, we curse, yell, and occasionally try to choke it. But years later its healthy to look back and laugh. And if someone gives us the money to reprint a damaged image, DO IT! Cause you never know…
Danny and I had been on the bench for nearly two hours. Later that evening the Anthology Film Archive was having a private screening of Danny’s film Dear Mark. It was a fifteen minute film he made about his friend and fellow artist, Mark Di Suvero. He invited me to the screening. We left the park and walked through the Soho shopping mall until we found place to have a cup of tea. We continued to talk about photography, his family history and his interest in building.
The afternoon was a crash course in Danny’s work, life, and insights. Part of being a young photographer is making mistakes. The missteps, the success, and the doubts are all part of the process. The stories of more senior photographers reveals something about their work which only a fellow photographers can understand.
A philosophy teacher in London once told me, “Self pedagogy is unnecessarily difficult. Its better to work with someone.” This way we are not re-inventing the wheel with every project. As we all continue with our work, its helpful to experience a few choice words from a man like Danny. We are not the first ones to take a camera into the streets and certainly will not be the last. There is an exchange between overlapping generations of photographers. We share an oral tradition, which holds valuable lessons. The only requirement is that we “Show Up.”
I would like to give a special thanks to Meg Parsont, from Phaidon, who patiently set up this interview. Danny would like to thank Sue Medlicott and Nerissa Dominguez for their attention to detail and making “Deep Sea Diver” a reality.
Upcoming Danny Lyon Events
Book Signing: Saturday November 5th, 2011 from 3pm-5pm at the Edwynn Houk Gallery. I encourage all of you to join me.
Radio Spot: Live on Marry-Charlotte Santa-Fe Radio Cafe KSFR 101.1 Monday November 7th, 2011
Time: 8:05AM-9:00AM (mountain standard time)
Streaming Live at: www.ksfr.org
Archived Podcasts: santaferadiocafe.org
Menil Collection, Houston Texas
March 30th-July 29th 2012
Danny’s Website: Bleak Beauty
Danny’s Blog: Bleak Beauty Blog