I have to believe that for every serious photographer, there comes a time where a desire for artistic growth kicks in. That desire may develop as slowly as a moving glacier or it could come as a swift kick in the butt, but many of us will confront this desire at some point in our photographic endeavors. The direction that growth takes, of course, depends on the genre and the person, but it usually points down a path that extends beyond your current comfort zone. For me, a devoted street photographer, that path leads to the world of documentary photography.
My method of street photography is tantamount to non-invasive surgery – get in, capture the moment, get out, leave nary a trace. If not totally invisible, I try to be nothing more to my subject than a fleeting presence in their peripheral vision that was hardly worth notice. The Rule of Engagement is no engagement. Delving into documentary photography, however, will turn that street methodology right on its head. I regard documentary photography as all about engagement, telling a story by becoming intimately involved with the subject. This is totally out of my comfort zone of complete anonymity, but if I am to grow, I need to try it. The way I see it, it can only help my street photography in the end. I just need to get started down that path.
I’ve always admired the work of some of the famous documentary photographers, Diane Arbus, Robert Capa and Dorthea Lange just to name a few. But recently I discovered another one that might have provided the impetus for me to finally start down that path. His name is Danny Lyon.
”You put a camera in my hand, I want to get close to people. Not just physically close, but emotionally close, all of it.”
I recently discovered the work of Danny Lyon at an exhibition of his work at the de Young Museum in San Francisco. He was a disciple of the New Journalism movement of the ‘60s and the ‘70s, where the photographer is totally immersed in the documented subject. The de Young exhibition, “Danny Lyon: Message to the Future”, is a fascinating study of his role in that movement. It explores facets of his most important documentary projects, demonstrating how his active participation with his subject matter produced such insightful bodies of work.
Lyon began his journey along the path to documentary photography while a student at the University of Chicago. He traveled to the southern United States in the early ‘60s to participate in and photograph key figures and events in the American civil rights movement. He became the first official photographer of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), one of the most important organizations behind the movement at the time. From his position within the SNCC, Lyon documented sit-ins, marches, funerals and violent clashes with the police.
His documentary series on Chicago area bikeriders was the epitome of photographer immersion and intimacy with the subject. After his association with the SNCC, Lyon returned to Chicago and joined the Chicago Outlaws Motorcycle Club. From the inside of this biker subculture, he documented the violent and extreme lifestyle of the club with his camera. He also used a tape recorder to document the bikers’ stories in their own words. His efforts resulted in the now-classic book, The Bikeriders (1968), which included the images and the edited transcriptions of the taped interviews.
In 1968, Lyon applied to the Texas Department of Corrections for access to the state prisons. Over the next 14 months, he photographed and filmed life in the Texas penal system, following prisoners out into the work fields and visiting with convicts in the mental facility. His effort documented the brutal truths of prison life and, as he put it “make a picture of imprisonment as distressing as I knew it to be in reality”.
“The use of the camera has always been for me a tool of investigation, a reason to travel, to not mind my own business, and often get into trouble.”
Lyon’s body of work covers a multitude of subjects and continents. His immersive style representative of the New Journalism movement is an effective way to bring out the story behind the subjects. It could be worth your while to examine his work, even if you aren’t contemplating diving into documentary photography yourself. It’s all about the story and how effectively you convey it, whether you do it in hundreds of frames over the course of a year or in a single frame in the flash of a moment.