He trained his lens on heated events of the 1960s.
PROVIDENCE, R.I. — The exhibit of 100-plus black-and-white photos by Danny Lyon on view through mid-December at Brown University’s Bell Gallery is as much about the man as his images.
Lyon, a white, Jewish New Yorker, not only trained his lens on the heated events of the 1960s, but he lived them, as a member of a Chicago motorcycle gang and as a civil-rights activist who photographed the funeral of four black girls killed in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.
Now 76, he was one of the pioneers of New Journalism, where reporting was a matter of getting up close and personal, of being embedded with the players. And that gives his images a certain gravitas, even if they are not always remarkable.
Most of the shots, which fill three rooms, are straight-on views of lost souls locked away in Texas prisons and angry cops armed with rifles keeping a wary eye on civil-rights protests, all familiar subjects offering few surprises.
True, some of the people Lyon encountered as house photographer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee were stars, like Fannie Lou Hamer, a black Mississippi sharecropper evicted when she tried to register to vote; a young John Lewis, then chairman of the SNCC and now a Georgia congressman; and Bob Dylan, who serenaded protesters. All standard portraits.
But it’s only the occasional photo that grabs you, that’s fresh, striking and makes its point loud and clear, like two drinking fountains, a fancy electric model for whites and a pathetic ceramic bowl in the corner labeled “colored.” The horror of the bombing by the Ku Klux Klan of the 16th Street Baptist Church is summed up in a shot of shattered stained-glass windows.
Then there is a stark portrait of a Texas prison inmate undergoing a pat down. His arms are raised above his head, but all we see of the correctional officer are his two hands wrapped around the prisoner’s chest. And it’s hard not to be moved by the inmate talking to his wife through a partition, as his two bewildered children look on from the background.
The show contains photos from four of Lyon’s books, major areas of interest that range from bikers to the Texas prison system to civil rights and the large-scale demolition in Lower Manhattan during the late 1960s.
Many of those shots of New York are of solitary buildings and grimy construction workers that could be taken anywhere. But again, Lyon now and again snaps a keeper. An ornate, sun-struck radiator is a thing of beauty amid the bleakness of an empty apartment apparently slated for demolition.
Lyon, whose photos have been shown at New York’s Whitney Museum and the Art Institute of Chicago, got interested in the tumult of the times when, as a junior at the University of Chicago, he watched a black girl run down by a truck while protesting a segregated swimming pool.
The following year, he was invited to cover voter registration in Greenwood, Mississippi, and was subsequently hired as a photographer for the SNCC, the organization formed by young civil-rights activists in the wake of the sit-ins by black students challenging segregation in restaurants and other public accommodations. The job gave Lyon access to the major events of the civil-rights movement, including the 1963 March on Washington. He once spent a night in jail, in a cell across from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
But much of his work is clichéd, like the numerous shots of bikers — proud punks with slicked-back hair, tattoos and black leather outfits. Again, no surprises.
Even his pictures of fellow bikers seem tame. A cocky man named “Cockroach” stands proudly in from of his home as his expressionless wife and kids are huddled behind a chain-link gate.
The photos, just two of which are in color, come from the Bell Gallery’s holdings. Four nonfiction films lent by Lyon are also on view, including footage of the plight of undocumented workers from Mexico and a tribute to artist Mark di Suvero.
The show is part of the Brown Arts Initiative’s look at art and activism on the 50th anniversary of 1968, a tumultuous year the saw 65 African-American students walk out of classes to protest the school’s limited enrollment of blacks.
— Channing Gray can be reached at email@example.com.
If you go …
What: “Danny Lyon — The Only Thing I Saw Worth Leaving”
Where: Brown University’s David Winton Bell Gallery, 64 College St., Providence
When: Through Dec. 19. Gallery hours are Monday to Wednesday and Friday 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., Thursday 1 to 9 p.m., Saturday and Sunday 1 to 4 p.m. Closed Nov. 22-23.
Information: (401) 863-2932, brown.edu/bellgallery