Danny Lyon

Bleak Beauty

Went to a bookstore closeout sale yesterday and picked up a bargain—Danny Lyon’s Indian Nations. Pretty much the entire book is available for viewing on Lyon’s Bleak Beauty web site. But looking at a book is different. Thinking about the fact that only 2,500 copies were produced, and that only a limited audience exists for this sort of thing puts a spin on the experience. These pictures are sincere. I suppose that sort of thing is only apparent to those who have done this sort of work. Looking at the ragged edges of the Polaroid negatives, I can’t help but think of the dust and the smells of these places, and of the feeling of being an outsider which persists no matter how well people accept you as a person who takes the job of recording existence seriously.

Larry McMurtry’s introduction rings true:

Photography has flourished for a century and a half with only two real subjects: beauty, and bad news. Cameras have been at every war since the Crimean, and also at every court since Victoria’s, a great boon to those of us who like to know what historical eminences looked like. Thanks to cameras, we no longer have to depend on the chance existence of a Leonardo, a Rubens, or a Goya at the centers of power. In our time somebody—Avedon, Eisenstadt, Karsh, Beaton, Cartier-Bresson, Gisele Freund, even, in a pinch, Roddy McDowell, will manage to snap the great and glorious before they pass from the scene.

Most photographers will be lead by their own instincts either to beauty or to bad news.

Looking at the book, I couldn’t help but think of a wonderful duet by Steve Wynn and Johnette Napolitano, Consipracy of the Heart:

photographs fade easily
they need to be locked away
I don’t ask much of anything
but conspiracy
conspiracy of the heart
of the heart

The fragility of human life, and the way we represent it bothers me. Always subject to constant reappraisal and critique, even the most well-intentioned documentary workers fall under the lens of clever critics who tarnish the audacity of those who would dare to say—this was here, I experienced it. And yet we have to try to create these precious objects, records that say “I was here.” The only thing which seems reasonable to expect is sincerity, and yet that quality is the hardest to establish firmly as a matter of record. I admire the fact that I’ve never felt “duped” by a Danny Lyon photograph. I believe him, and I believe his heart. And I take him seriously when he says (in a postface to his series on the destruction of lower Manhattan to make way for the WTC) that there should be action to prevent the spread of pernicious ideology:

Photographers and journalists of the world, unite and fight. You have nothing to lose but your jobs. If you do not agree with the ideology presented along with your work, then take your work elsewhere. Present it yourself. Create your own magazines, your own networks and your own channels. Write your own text and captions and editorials. Do not serve the gods of war.