Danny Lyon

First international retrospective

Danny Lyon: Filming Against Exclusion Procedures

(foto Danny Lyon con créditos)

The Displaced
Notes on Danny Lyon’s films
Written by Philippe Azoury for our catalogue

I prefer to give this text the appearance of notes taken neatly, but retaining their spontaneity. It seems impossible to me to do otherwise here: in the end, I know just too little about Danny Lyon’s cinema, nothing about the modes of production that have allowed him to make so many films over a period of twenty-five years, and nothing about their mode of distribution either (cable TV networks?, a militant circuit?). And there is a lack of documentation (which is essentially American), or it is still almost inaccessible. To present a massive, vertical text on Danny Lyon as a filmmaker might produce something like a lie: a discourse of mastery.

But it is not to shy away from these films to refuse to propose anything other than a series of notes. On the contrary, it is to observe their very meaning: if there is one thing that seems to direct Danny Lyon’s gaze, it is precisely a profound, original, deeply-rooted disgust for all forms of domination. Texts that impose on men the physical, cartography layout of their movements. Ministerial or regional decrees that dictate that certain bodies, of a certain colour, or speaking certain languages, must not cross this or that border, or else pay the price of abandonment: that they must accept to live in no other way than in hiding, with all that this implies in terms of poverty, danger and inequality. Legal texts written by the victors and delimiting zones; to enter these is to give up something of one’s own original freedom. The rejection of control is embedded in the very writing of his films.

Danny Lyon’s films have not been seen for decades. What if this lack of recognition came from the very embarrassment these films were to their sponsors in the United States, whether it was televisions, institutions, militant networks or critics? Lyon’s films did not spontaneously respond to the work of caricature of reality that all such sponsors, for often opposing reasons, expected from them. Watching them today, one can see that they were neither condescending nor simplistic enough. What were Danny Lyon’s documentaries criticised for? Perhaps the fact that they believed too much in Reality.


They did not want to use a nice emphatic voice-over to support a point or a cause that was just asking for it. No, Lyon must have told himself each time that putting a voice-over there to talk about illegal immigrants crossing the border through Arizona, as in that extraordinary scene in El Otro Lado (his most beautiful film?, in my opinion, yes), would be like speaking in the place of the other.

Not hiding behind the commentary was still very much of a minority decision, then, in the documentary cinema of the 70s. Only Frederick Wiseman seemed to stick to it. In the case of Danny Lyon, given the populations that inhabit his films, the absence of voice-over is a determining factor in the films’ political position. The essential question of Danny Lyon’s films since the late 60s was put in luminous and powerful terms by Gayatri Spivak in 1985: Can the Subaltern Speak?

Yes, can the subaltern speak?

A political question and a philosophical question. But it is also, and first of all, a filmmaker’s question: a documentary filmmaker who asks the question of exiles, migrants, illegal immigrants or prisoners throughout his life also asks, in the first place, the question of speaking: who will speak? Who will assign the turn to speak?

Lyon could steal that voice, the minority’s voice. Who would notice? However, Lyon decides not to do so – not to speak for them. He forbids himself to do so. From then on, he finds a place for himself as a filmmaker, a very small and tight but precious place: he is the one who reports an experience. He does not film in order to speak but to transmit what is spoken.

But how does he transmit that? He stands next to them; he films from their side but without making it look like he is one of them. The place from which he films always reminds us that he is external to them, different from them. He is not going to play the Mexican migrant, the illegal immigrant or the prisoner. His position determines something else, something very subtle: it tells us who he is, i.e. an American photographer and filmmaker, white and free. His situation is not comparable to theirs. But his freedom would not have the same taste if it did not reflect lives other than his own, lives that struggle to move freely from one space to another. And Lyon turns this question of the possible movement in space into a filmmaker’s question. It is the question that obliges him, at certain times in his life, to leave photography for a moment to record movements and render them sensitive.

The question of the possibility (migratory flow) but also of the impossibility (prison, clandestinity) of movement, of crossing from one space to another, becomes the central question of his cinema. And Lyon poses this question to America, the great country that has made the crossing of its territory and its conquest into a history, a moral doctrine and a mythology.

His films always seem to have begun without us, and in a way they end as they began: without concluding anything definitive, without punctuation. Lyon hates conclusions. Danny Lyon’s films are all very careful not to build on the illusion of a climax.

There might be two Danny Lyons: the photographer and the filmmaker. No, sorry, there is only one Danny Lyon. The one we knew was a photographer. The one we did not know was a filmmaker. That is all; there, and only there, is where the difference lies.

On the back cover of his book The Bikeriders, a daring book on the Hell’s Angels, one can read this presentation:

In 1965, Danny Lyon, a 23-year-old veteran of the southern civil rights movement, joined the Chicago Outlaws Motorcycle Club, riding a 650-cc Triumph and shooting with a Nikon Reflex and a Rolleiflex. His pictures of prison life, the southern civil rights movement and American Indian nations are legendary. His many books include The Destruction of Lower Manhattan, Conversations with the Dead, Knave of Hearts and Indian Nations. He divides his time between the Hudson Valley of New York and the Rio Grande Valle of New Mexico.

Lyon was living with Robert Frank and Mary on W 86th Street in New York when he made his first film, Social Sciences 127, about a Houston tattoo artist, Bill Sanders. It was 1969. Robert Frank, too, liked to vary his mediums, to switch from photography to film. But in a way, Frank never sought to extend his photography into his documentary work. He used his films to turn America into a small theatre, whether hysterical (Pull My Daisy) or mythological (Candy Mountain). Lyon, for his part, drew no divisions. It is as if he had both eyes on a scene – one eye for photography, another eye for the camera.

What, they are not the same?

Of course not – they are two eyes working at different times. One is for Laocoön, that is, it goes in search of the most beautiful pose, the precise moment when the subject is shown in its statuary perfection. The other one is, for the moment, no longer specific but ‘no matter which one’. It is the eye of cinema, and the pose is melted into a series of twenty-four photographs per second in which another power emerges: that of continuity, of movement and space seen in its disturbances.

It is interesting to see what Lyon the filmmaker brings to Lyon the photographer. Or vice versa – what his cinema perpetuates from his photographs. Only a systematic examination of the two archives would allow us to theorise about this, so let us make do with one mere intuition: documentary cinema may have taught him to be less compositional. The photographic tradition to which Danny Lyon belonged dreamed of a journalistic writing style that nevertheless carried with it the rules of classical composition. His photos in The Bikeriders or Conversations with the Dead import classical composition into the energy of everyday life.

Documentary cinema is quick to distrust images that are too beautiful or too solidly composed. Especially a cinema which, like his own, as can be seen in El Otro Lado or in Little Boy (this funny, almost experimental film, in which he shows a white America invaded by television, which he confronts with an unrepresented, invisible America: that of the illegal immigrants, of the people of the reserves), will very quickly learn to locate its research elsewhere than in composition, but in a way in which it locates itself within a series of displacements that decide the survival of its subjects. It is not so much the frame, then, as the space and duration that become his crutches for making the image.

I return once again to his richest film, El Otro Lado. However, all of Danny Lyon’s films are films that seek to go to the other side. He no longer shoots them from his own space: he enters a space, separated from us by the border drawn by the law – a space graduated in millimetres, in which a Mexican was still a Mexican a few seconds ago and becomes an illegal immigrant a few metres further away.

What is this space that photography cannot cover and that cinema can try to save in extremis? It is a space where sounds are paramount because they alert. The sound in Lyon’s films carries the information that those who live in secrecy need to survive.
This space is always in confrontation with an external sound that raises the alarm. The off-screen decides everything, Eisenstein noted. And Eisenstein knew a thing or two about playing with the rules of politics and the political.

The very little editing in his films is also a result of this: to intervene as little as possible, so as not to move around in space in the place of the person being filmed, but also to allow the time for the information brought by the sound to enter the image, unfold and become useful to the action he is filming, which is always an action of survival.

A note at the end of the credits of El Otro Lado: ‘The desert walk was re-enacted by the following undocumented workers’. This is important: he does not work as a journalist to capture the moment, but as a filmmaker, of fiction if need be, who allows himself to redo the shot, elsewhere, at another time, but according to the parameters of space and movement that he was able to observe without a camera, during a situation where it was dangerous for the migrants for him to come with a camera (they could have been spotted). This does not change the aim of the films one bit: to give the feeling of an experience. But by the time the cinema arrives, it is sometimes too late – it has already happened. However, the problem is still there and it still has not been filmed. So the action needs to be staged a second time to make it heard in reality.

From this first viewing of Danny Lyon’s films, I have the impression that for him, cinema only exists to capture experience: there are lives, invisible lives, and his duty is to capture these lives in order to tell a story. And thus to give these clandestine lives the possibility of perhaps existing in the visible space one day.

That is what filming against exclusion procedures is all about.