Reading: Like a Thief's Dream by Danny Lyon

Danny Lyon is one of a great generation of American documentary photographers that emerged during the 60s, not coincidentally the decade when easily portable professional cameras became ubiquitous. Guys like Lyon were very much a part of the upheavals of the time, and they carried their cameras along with them to Selma, or to Woodstock, using photography as just another tool to question authority, confront the system, or simply observe the world around them.

Lyon was the one-time disciple of, and assistant to, Robert Frank, the Swiss-born creator of The Americans, perhaps the single most influential volume in the history of American photography. But where Frank always maintained the distance of an outsider--we feel in his photographs the voyeuristic regard of the visitor, peering through plate-glass windows as he passes through small-town America, quite horrified by the self-congratulatory flag-waving and pompous parading he found there--Lyon threw himself wholeheartedly into participatory documentary. He resides in the worlds he photographs.

Photographing the civil rights movement in the south brought Lyon his earliest notoriety; immediately in those early images we understand that he was working inside the movement. These are not pictures made by a reporter on a deadline or an expense account, simply paid to crystallize a compelling moment. Lyon is in the thick of it, part of the struggle. In the context of the fight for civil rights, photography is the contribution Lyons identified for himself, but even if he hadn't owned a camera it seems obvious from the images that he would still have been there, ducking the blast of fire hoses and warding off the police dogs.

After his time in the deep south, Lyon bought a motorcycle and moved to Chicago. In The Bikeriders, his recently reissued classic (and now expanded) collection of images of motorcycle gangs, Lyon is clearly one of the boys. The bikes, thunder rolling down the road, are snapped from another bike, throbbing beneath the photographer, who was doubtless wearing an embroidered leather jacket of his own as he snapped away. We are among friends, not subjects; in some of these images Lyon's biker buddies look as if they are on the point of handing him a beer. (Larry Clark's photoessay, Tulsa, is another example from this participatory documentary epoch. Despite the nightmares implicit in the images of his Oklahoma cronies and their pregnant girlfriends playing with guns, shooting heroin, and nodding off with needles dangling from their veins, the pictures are shot without any distance at all. One of the reasons they are both so creepy and so compelling is that Clark seems at any moment likely to put the camera down so he can tie off and pick up a needle and get his own fix.)

Towards the end of the decade, Lyon went to Fayetteville, Texas, to teach photography to the inmates there, beginning a lifelong friendship with one of his students, Jimmy Renton, a bank-robber and felon who later, on one of his few brief sojourns outside the walls of a prison, would be accused and then convicted of cop-killing, winning him a terminal bid. Lyon doesn't explicitly say when he decided that the story of their friendship would make a great book, but it might have been the day he was lounging on another friend's couch in East Hampton, idly flicking through the television channels: "I was staring out at the white-sand dunes and the crashing ocean waves beyond, when a voice from the television said something about an extremely dangerous man.... 'James Ray Renton has escaped.' I stared incredulously at the set. An advertisement came on. 'That's impossible,' I thought."

Many of Lyon's paragraphs contain these sorts of oblique criticisms of our daily reality--the news, when it finally has something to say that we want to hear, is inevitably interrupted by a commercial. Such remembered details perhaps come naturally to a photographer of Lyon's caliber. Photography is a forensic process, and in writing Like a Thief's Dream, he brings to bear a lifetime of digging and looking at images. Interested in the way that information is presented, he exumes not only the cop-killer court case that put his friend away for life, but also dissects their relationship and its meanings. He looks at old court records, he analyzes his letters and postcards to and from Renton, and he tries to imagine what happened on the night a police officer died. The result is part autobiographical musing, part whodunnit, and large part criticism of the justice system and the prison apparatus that appears to have both enabled and condemned Renton. What it is not, is a photo book; apart from a few mugshots, assorted crime scene evidence photos, and some snapshots, this is all text, Lyon's first such effort.

…and if convicted, you will at last be allowed to enter these premises.

The Rashomon-like swirling narratives, the conflicting accounts and tortured memories, are focused on one fateful night in northwest Arkansas. A robbery was certainly committed that day. A young state trooper was certainly murdered that evening. His body was found in the Ozark woodland, next to a torched van. Beyond these established facts, it already begins to get murky. Renton had likely been in that van, along with three others. They almost certainly committed the bank robbery and torched the van. One of them, at least, killed the officer.

But this is not a true-crime potboiler, even if, at times, Lyon seems to be seeking for the truth. He essentially apologizes for failing to ask a sickly, incarcerated Renton what actually happened that night, but only because he feels the weight of not knowing pressing down on him after Renton has passed. The truth is lost. What is left are wasted lives: the dead officer's, Renton's, his convicted co-conspirators, at least one of whom was almost certainly not involved in this particular crime. And many, many other lives, now that all pretense of rehabilitation has been long-jettisoned by our prison system. Our refined twenty-first century society's approach to crime is to keep the criminals off the street, at any cost, for as long as it takes.

That distant thing in the background that looks like a couple of dozen Best Westerns, crammed together in a barbed wire corral, is the Wallkill correctional facility, tucked away on the back roads of Ulster county.

I'm in upstate NY, working on a documentary about a circus. To my friends and associates in Brooklyn, "upstate," means weekends in the Catskills visiting friends who have fled the city to their summer homes. But in the Red Hook projects, and other great swaths of Brooklyn and the city, "upstate" is shorthand for prison. "Gone upstate," means locked up, doing a bid. In many of the state's most rural counties, "corrections" is the only growth industry, the prisons the biggest employer. One in one hundred adult Americans is behind bars, but this grotesque, staggering percentage of our population, now fully 1%, hits some communities much harder than others (how many people do you or I personally know who are locked up?) As Lyon notes, the penitentiaries are hidden out of sight, lost in the hinterlands, off the radar screen of the average white American. But they are there, and astonishingly numerous.

If our 2.2 million prisoners were all living in the same place, it would be the fourth largest city in the country. As a nation we are now said to have a greater percentage of our population behind bars than any other culture in history. Minorities are disproportionately incarcerated, and many of the nation's prisons are now in private hands, contracted out to stock-issuing public companies that build and administer correctional facilities on a for-profit basis. Just like a chain of hotels, they don't make much money if their thousands upon thousands of cells are empty, and one can only imagine in horror the myriad potential areas in which corners and costs can be cut in deference to the bottom line. Such companies lobby Congressmen much better than their tenants; few constituencies have less voice than the great mass of American imprisoned.

What emerges from Lyon's account is a portrait of a deeply dysfunctional and inhumane prison system. Even as he confronts his own unqualified youthful opposition to authority and questions Renton’s fitness to walk amongst the rest of us in society, even as he comes upon evidence that his friend likely killed, if not the trooper, others, as part of his career, Lyon never loses his contempt for the way our society copes with crime. What does it say about us and our goals, aspirations, desires and values, that we have so many people locked up? What are we protecting, and from whom? Why do so few of us ask, or know? This is a compelling, fascinating and altogether unique and uncharacterizable volume, a document worthy of a rare documentarian mature enough to admit, confront and grapple with his own inevitable subjectivity.


Andrew said...

This is a beautifully written essay about one of my favorite photographers.

They say it's a cold world said...

thanks for that!