Review: Danny Lyon—Present Future, the Silverman Museum Collection

A black-and-white New York City skyline that's receded from the vantage of a helicopter. Once the city resembled something one could hold in a fist, the photograph is snapped. It’s 1966. Yet the photo vibrates for contemporary eyes as contemporary thru its darkness. It's a sight of the '60s we can enter, because its black-and-white noir world conveys a '60s we now live with—a '60s not nostalgically dreamt of in day-glow face-paints, psychedelic celebrations and love-ins, but one whose heart beats in this haunted aerial shot. It resonates with photographer Danny Lyon's other '60s American subjects, like Texas prison life, the civil rights movement, biker gangs, migrant workers. The photo is from Lyon's series The Destruction of Lower Manhattan.

It can be seen seen as a translation of the 1960s, as a past darkness that never lightened, one that's only darker now. Lyon's photographic contraction of Manhattan in size, expands it into something ominous, a feeling of something wrong, that makes the present day observer viscerally feel something like what Mia Farrow's character suggests in Rosemary's Baby, the premonition of the city as metallic belly of things to come: a rising of towers, a falling of towers, elections without paper trails, results of such elections, more planes hitting towers.

We see it there, waiting in New York City, way back in 1966, having contractions, shrinking the future's promise, a past more futuristic dystopia than many a wised-up observer has yet seen manufactured for the screen.

Danny Lyon's first hit book, The Bikeriders, put him in high position. From 1963 to 1967, Lyon became part of the Chicago biker club/gang The Outlaws. What those photos capture are so truthful to human nature they represent the occult side of our here and now. Every "model" in The Bikeriders, whether posing for the camera, or ignoring it, or half following what Lyon asks them to do or not do, gives a look of irrevocable distance in their eyes. This isn't right-time-right-place photography. This is pure sensitivity and truth in documentary.

Lyon later explained that he became one of them during the shoots, and that they were always the rare type of guys (and gals) who didn't want to be photographed. That's part of the record. There's also the death threats involved in some of the exhibitions of the photographs.

This show at the Etherton gives a good example of how Danny's work stays alive some 40-plus years later. When you look at the photography of Danny Lyon, you see clearly the dark America that TV sitcoms helped parents erase from their children's view of the world, the darkness they feared. Erasing facts always backfires. Looking at America thru the lens of Danny Lyon, delivers a picture of the past America that shows us who we still are.  Then, as in this very moment, we are the heart of darkness.

Danny Lyon: Present Future, the Silverman Museum Collection runs through Aug. 31 at The Etherton Gallery, 135 South 6th Ave.; 624-7370.