While I do see my fair share of photography shows, it’s rare that I come out of one where I feel like I know the photographer personally. With painters, there’s the stroke of the brush, the erasures, the patched canvases, the drips and hesitations. Yet when you are viewing a photograph in a museum, you are looking through the viewfinder. There are the veiled self portraits: Lee Friedlander calls himself out, through shadows and reflections, yet those elements don’t really tell us what it’s like to be Friedlander. Cindy Sherman photographs herself, but she is all shifting identities.
With Danny Lyon, its different. Lyon brings us into the world he’s photographing, but he also brings himself to us. A lot has been written about his work covering bikers, the civil rights movement, and the lives of prisoners. And rightly so. Lyon wasn’t a casual observer of the groups he photographed. He became part of them. But he also became part of his photographs in a very unique way.
Early on we see Lyon creating montages: portraits of individuals (mostly) created out of a variety of different photographic sources. He arranged this patchwork of snap shots in a kind of cross structure. He would also write narratives in his cramped handwriting on the unexposed space around a photograph. None of these would seem surprising in a photo album (which Lyon also made) or on a teenager’s bulletin board. But in the space of a museum where we are accustomed to the meticulously framed and matted presentation of a single image, devoid of the trace of the artist’s hand, it’s strikingly, well, personal.
Lyon using Polaroid too. Which wasn’t unusual for a serious photographer. Polaroid had a program for getting its film and cameras into the hands of fine art photographers, what we now call influencer marketing. But Lyon’s work distinguishes itself by often looking like casual snapshots. He wanted to use Polaroid because he didn’t want his project to look like photojournalism, and so he could share his photos with the people he was photographing.
In short, Lyon’s work looks alive and part of his life, not just a product he crafted for consumption. He was often the subject of his own work too, photographing himself and friends in mirrors, the camera clearly in view.
Flick through Instagram right now and you’ll see users arranging photos in grids, adorning photos with text, photographing themselves in mirrors, sharing their photos, emulating that Polaroid look, and making their photography a seamless piece of their lives. Is it too much to say that Lyon invented how we Instagram? Probably, but it’s probably not a stretch to say that Lyon’s work prefigured the way so many of us practice photography in our lives. This photographer of freedom, gave us the freedom to be ourselves.