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Fotomuseum Winterthur opens comprehensive retrospective view of the work of Danny Lyon
Danny Lyon, Occupy Oakland, City Hall, Oakland, 2011 Danny Lyon / Magnum Photos. Courtesy Gavin Brown‘s Enterprise.

ZURICH.- Message to the Future presents a comprehensive retrospective view of the work of American photographer and filmmaker Danny Lyon (*1942). As a dedicated and sharp-eyed observer fascinated by outsiders and subcultures, Lyon has spent more than fifty years documenting sociopolitical issues, delving deep into the heart of the matter and always building a close rapport with the people in front of his camera. Determined to counter the one-sided preoccupations of the mainstream media by offering an alternative viewpoint, he has developed an increasingly subjective and participatory form of documentary photography in the tradition of Walker Evans and Robert Frank. In addition to his iconic images, this wide-ranging retrospective exhibition also includes, for the first time in Europe, some of his lesser-known films, collages and fascinating material from Lyon’s own archives.

Lyon’s earliest photographs were created against the backdrop of the US Civil Rights Movement. In 1962, at the age of 20, he hitch-hiked to Illinois, where he photographed his first demonstration. Having been appointed official photographer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee – one of the foremost organizations in the Civil Rights Movement – he went on to produce iconic images documenting the violent clashes between demonstrators and police in the southern states. His photographs capturing the Occupy demonstrations in the autumn of 2011 in New York, Los Angeles, Oakland and Albuquerque, recall his pictures of the early days of his career.

The son of Jewish immigrants, Lyon grew up in Queens, New York. Influenced by the Beat Generation and by his father’s photo albums, he became interested from an early age in socially marginalised groups. In 1965, he joined the Chicago Outlaws, one of the world’s biggest and oldest motorcycling gangs, and in the course of the following years he documented their life on the road and beyond. During his time in Lower Manhattan (1967) he photographed the demolition of the area where the World Trade Center would later be built. For another project, he spent 14 months visiting inmates in Texas prisons to document their everyday lives up close. In the 1970s and 1980s, his self-described “advocacy journalism” took him to Bolivia, Mexico, Colombia and Haiti, where he documented the lives of illegal workers, street children, and the revolution overthrowing the dictator Franois “Papa Doc” Duvalier.

In the late 1960s, Lyon shot his first short films Ramsey Cell Block (1968) and Ellis Shakedown (1968), and started to develop a strong interest for moving images. Soc. Sci. 127 (1969) is his first elaborate 21-minute film portrait of tattoo artist Bill Sanders. In the following years, he went on to create longer cinematic works such as Los Nios Abandonados (1975) and Willie (1968). Being self-taught, Lyon has never subscribed to any particular school of documentary film. Instead, he films just the way he photographs: up close, direct and candid. The approach he takes in his films expresses empathy for those on the margins of society. Lyon intuitively finds the cinematic language that lends a voice to individuals and groups who previously had no place on the screen.

The exhibition presents some 150 photographs alongside films and ephemera, including many objects that are shown for the first time. Message to the Future delves deep into Lyon’s personal archives and includes important loans from leading public and private collections in the United States.

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