Danny Lyon: “Conversations With the Dead” series
Published: April 6, 2011
When you see Danny Lyon’s penitentiary series or you see the series he did on bikers, these are things that take a long time to do—speaking from experience. I’m thinking of that series I did about gunshot wounds for the paper, that took a year and a half just to get eight interviews done (“GSW,” Feature, March 30, 2005). How long does it take not just to get inside a prison, not just to get access to these places, but to get inside the culture, just to be so interior that they’re not even noticing you anymore—to where you’re either part of the world or they don’t even see you?
In these prison pictures, no one is looking at the camera, really, or engaging with the photographer. They all look very spontaneous, nothing looks posed. In fact, there’s only one or two images where the subject is looking directly at the camera, and I think that has something to say about the culture in which the photos are taken. So this is an amazing interior look into these lives.
I would say the entire piece is about an unstated power structure. Just this image of the boss standing there with a naked guy standing in front of him completely vulnerable, at the mercy of the long arm of the law. There’s that power structure in a lot of these pictures. The boss on the horse—that slack-jawed, redneck, I-don’t-give-a-fuck attitude, but I’m the boss and you’re not. You’re on the chain, I’m on the horse. I’m just here to do a job. It just screams of the iniquities that go on in these systems. It’s just a powerful image, and it’s indicative of the power structure that’s there.
From another standpoint, look at the symmetry and the uniformity that these prisoners have. The parade of prisoners across the courtyard and up the steps in a single white line, the chain gang digging in one line of work, lines in the cafeteria—everything is regimented, everything is uniform, everything is laid out in grid patterns, even the dominoes, even the games they play, are linear and uniform. It’s really remarkable these little things the photographer can see within the scene to make them that much more interesting.
Just being able to get into a place like this to do these types of pictures is a monumental amount of work. This summer I tried to get in to photograph the empty Jessup prison and they were like, “You have to pay for a guard to go with you”—because there’s still women who are incarcerated on the other side, and if something happened they would be responsible. And if it’s that hard to get into an empty prison, what’s it like to get into something that’s occupied and working? So just to get inside those walls is amazing, and once they’re in there, to be able to get right up against these convicts and get the pictures that they’ve got—in the shower. It doesn’t get any more close than that. So just the amount of effort that it takes to get inside, and then the amount of work it takes to get the shots—these are obviously the result of a lot of work.
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