Conversations with the Dead
Gastausstellung Galerie Thomas Zander
anlässlich der ART COLOGNE:
17.04. - 31.05.2015
Galerie Thomas Zander is pleased to present the exhibition Danny Lyon: Conversations with the Dead featuring works from the Botland Collection, curated by Thomas Zander.
Danny Lyon (born in Brooklyn in 1942, lives and works in New York State) is widely considered a significant representative of the artistic and literary movement New Journalism that emerged in the US in the 1960s and ‘70s. Since Lyon photographed the American Civil Rights Movement in the early ‘60s, he addresses issues of social justice and the judicial system of the United States through photography. Conversations with the Dead (1967-69), a series of more than 70 images, is Lyon’s first examination of the American prison system and poignantly portrays the everyday life of prison inmates in the Southern States.
In 1967, the then 25-year-old Danny Lyon was given unrestricted permission to photograph the convict life in Texas. According to the principles of New Journalism, which called for the photographer to immerse himself in the living conditions of the death row inmates, Lyon spent fourteen months moving freely among six prison units, where he became friends with prisoners and documented his experience through photography and writing. The result of this journey is a series of images that testify to the artist’s ambition to break away from an objective photojournalistic approach. Instead, due to the close contact of artist and inmates, Danny Lyon’s photographs are marked by a high degree of emotionality and subjectivity. His emphatic investigation of life in prison results in an unprejudiced portrait of real people who society pays hardly any attention to.
The series was first published as a photobook in 1971 in combination with interviews, letters, narratives and artworks of the detained men. Phaidon Press is republishing the book later this year.
The exhibition focuses on the photographic part of the series from the Botland Collection and gives opportunity for insights into the cinematic work of Danny Lyon which also plays a major role in the artist’s oeuvre. On view is one of his more recent films, Murderers (2002), which tells the story of five convicted murderers in the US states New York, Arkansas and New Mexico. The 30-minute film stands in close relation to the series Conversations with the Dead and Lyon’s 2007 book Like a Thief’s Dream, in which the photographer accompanied the bank robber James Jay Renton who was sentenced to death and awaited his execution. Murderers contrasts the tragic stories of five very different men with idyllic images of the American countryside and carefully selected music, thus stressing the contradiction of prison life’s daily routine and society’s ignorance of it.
Artistically, Lyon draws a line to the late 19th and early 20th century: It was then that so-called “muckrakers”, or investigative journalists, attracted attention by immersing themselves in urban slums and crime scenes in order to point towards political and social injustices. Well-known examples are the photographers Jacob Riis and Arthur “Weegee” Fellig. Lyon’s works, however, are also an expression of his personal response to the situation, while he makes conscious use of the documentary style. Robert Frank, Walker Evans and the writer James Agee are among Lyon’s most prominent influences. During the Depression, Evans and Agee lived with a poor tenant family for several weeks in order to draw attention to the severe conditions for sharecroppers in the American South through their photographs and prose. What Lyon shares with these artists is the aspiration for a comprehensive understanding of the individual social conditions. That is why Danny Lyon’s images are not only aesthetic documents of a past time but also make a highly topical political statement.
Lyon’s works are the subject of solo and group exhibitions in international institutions like the Museum of Modern Art, New York, the Moderna Museet, Stockholm, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington DC. They are part of renowned collections including the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and the Museum Folkwang in Essen.
Photographies © Danny Lyon