A child of Russian and German immigrants, the photographer Danny Lyon was born in Forest Hills, Queens—“like the Ramones,” he would later write—in 1942, and enrolled in the University of Chicago as a history student in 1959. Three years later, in a career-defining decision, he dropped out to participate in the civil-rights movement. Critics often link this move to his historical awareness. (They claim he “wanted to participate in history.”) But Lyon himself explains it in far simpler terms. “In the summer of 1962,” he wrote in his photobook Pictures From The New World,
my motorcycle broke down and, looking for something to do, I hitchhiked to Cairo, Illinois, where civil rights demonstrations had begun. It took about one demonstrating speech by John Lewis, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s twenty-two-year old chairman, to win me over to “the movement”… Taking shots at SNCC workers and brutally intimidating people attempting to vote was commonplace at the time, and it was impossible for me not to admire the courage of the people I was meeting in the south.
Lyon sounds like a naive idealist discovering politics—“it took one speech”—not a historically aware thinker. But following his simple, even simplistic, intuitions to their profound conclusion, he dropped out and committed himself to SNCC. Soon he was documenting protests. Impressed by the prints, John Lewis made him the organization’s official photographer. Sometimes idealism can be a good thing.
Today what’s most striking about Lyon’s photographs is how calm they are. His autobiography may suggest a man keen to provoke and denounce, but, with the exception of two shots of police manhandling protesters (and a famous profile of a helmeted cop that was published with the prescient caption, “Is he protecting you?”), he did not depict confrontation at all. Neither did he go looking for suffering. His focus, rather, was the SNCC’s day-to-day functioning: children picketing a whites-only swimming pool; voting-rights demonstrators outside the state legislature; a Selma choir in performance; a lunch-counter sit-in. From SNCC’s perspective, Lyon’s photographs made for excellent propaganda. But as an artist, he accomplished something more.
By following SNCC’s operations with single-minded devotion, Lyon created an aesthetic of dignity, not of anger. The March on Washington, Aug 28, 1963, for example, is a frontal close-up of two protesters. It’s shot from a low angle—Lyon seems to be bending or kneeling—and one marcher’s arm rises into the sky with the dramatic economy of a woodcut. More strikingly, both marchers have their eyes closed. Calm and struggle coexist in the image. One seems a result of the other.
Lyon joined SNCC on a whim. So how did he take such profoundly empathetic photographs of its members?
In a 1978 essay titled, “Uses of Photography,” John Berger observed that an engaged photographer should think “of her or himself not so much as a reporter to the rest of the world but, rather, as a recorder of those involved in the events photographed.” This distinction was crucial to him. Explaining the merits of certain war photos from the Russian front, he theorized that