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Born in New York in 1942 to German and Russian Jewish immigrant parents, Danny Lyon has always taken photographs. In the late ‘60s, after a life lived in and alongside the Civil Rights movement, detailed in his most recent film SNCC (2020), and further lifetime on the road following The Chicago Outlaws which was recorded in book form in the landmark, The Bikeriders (1968), he began to make images that moved. He is the author of 12 photo books (many still in print), three books and 14 films.

His subjects are often indexed as illegal or illegible in one way or another, and his films indeed seem to want to undo certain processes of looking that are naturalised or structured by the American justice system and by poverty. Their setting – for the most part in New Mexico in the earlier period of his filmmaking between the years 1969 and 1985 – itself becomes a kind of testimony about a kind of life, an imperfect and romantic archive, and, so cinematically attached as these deserts are to a different image of US mythology, it then accrues the suggestion of a counter-history. His association with New Journalism is affirmed in these films, which are not investigative so much as winding, revealing only in their enjambment.

More than half a century on from some of these films’ making, the Galician festival Play-Doc, now renowned for it’s deep-digging programs of lesser-known cinema in the realm of the real, brought together the first ever international retrospective of his work for its 2022 edition. I called Danny, who couldn’t be in Tui, to coincide with the occasion.

I’m curious about the starting point for you as a filmmaker as opposed to as a photographer for which you are much better known, so perhaps we could start there. You began filming the footage that ended up in Dear Mark (1981) four years before your first film proper in 1969. How did one practice evolve out of or in relation to the other? Do you approach the two modes of working in the same way? Do you find any value in the distinction between the two?

I began as a photographer, but at some point – I’m trying to think of when I actually got a 16mm camera in my hands, you’re right with Dear Mark I was holding a camera. That might have been about 1965-67. I drove to Colorado to Libra, a commune of artists when I was in Texas working on a photography book in a prison. I think a girl there had a Bolex and sold it to me for $50. That was probably my first movie camera, and I had that for a while. 

So, I owned a camera and shot some footage but didn’t make a film when I had access to the Texan prison, which was my great feat as a journalist, to get inside a maximum-security unit. I spent over a year doing it, and I thought, what I’m seeing is so extraordinary, I really should record it on 16mm film. So, I spent three days doing that. That stuff was never made into a film, but I’ve I showed it at Whitney, and at museum shows. 

In my head I thought of myself as an artist. But in 1960, photography was not considered an art form. I mean, it was a grey area. I had really good friends who were painters and sculptors; they were artists with a capital A. So, I aspired to be an artist with a camera. People made films and were considered artists; Stan Brakhage, Kenneth Anger, and of course Robert Frank did. At that time, you could be a painter if you could buy some paint and canvas, you could be a sculptor with something picked up in a junkyard and a photographer could buy a roll of film for a dollar, s/he could develop it at home, s/he could make prints her/himself for very little money, but films were very expensive. I aspired to something that was beyond my reach, which was to make films.

I got some money from the American Film Institute, and to get the money I basically lied to them, because I had my prison photographs, which were hot stuff. So, through my friend James Blue, I applied to get money and I said I wanted to do something called ‘The Texas Underground’. I implied I was going to go back into the prison and film but I knew I never would. I was burned out and I wasn’t going to go back. I got the money and I went to a tattoo shop. And that’s my first film: Soc. Sci. 127 (1969).

Soc. Sci. 127

There isn’t a great public record of the modes of production of these films. I’m interested in how you crafted these early films practically. Films are costlier than photographs as you say, how were they financed? In your photography you often shift format, and from colour to black and white. To what extent did these factors influence how you were composing these portraits?

Money was an enormous challenge, all through the time I was making films, really through my entire life of making films. For the first one, the grant was a very small amount of money. I think it was $3,500, something like that. Then when I added up what it would cost to develop, I went back and got another $1000. This second film I financed myself, it was a terrible film. But by then I was part owner of a camera. I hated renting equipment. I just felt like if I wanted to wake up in the morning and run out the door, because I saw a cow going sideways through the air, I wanted to have a camera nearby. Later I bought a camera that I shared with Robert Frank. It was a very sophisticated camera, a 16mm Eclair NPR with a mirror shutter and 400ft mags, and when I broke up with Robert, I bought him out. I then kind of fled New York and ended up in New Mexico. I arrived with a camera and a Nagra 4 I owned and a tripod, which was all you needed. Later I traded that for an ACL with smaller mags, and a smaller Nagra that Nancy [future partner] could handle. I never paid anybody to help, just used friends. I married Nancy 45 years ago and she immediately became the sound recordist. She went with me inside the New Mexico State penitentiary. Media Man (1994) for which she did all the audio and helped edit has an equal credit to both of us. In 1969 I used a lavaliere mic that was about three inches high. It was like a really fat cigar. In the tattoo film you can see a lump in his shirt, that’s a lavaliere and it required a wire going from the subject into the tape recorder. I still have it. 

Was there a fixed concept that was shaping your approach? It appears like they were instead spontaneous, that they instead came after, in the edit, as certain encounters, characters and ‘scenes’ even (in the case of Willie [1985] and Murderers [2005]) repeat. There seems to be a responsiveness to the developing threads of recognition between yourself and your subjects. This is particularly evident in your portraiture of Willie Jaramillo, who we know as a child, then time collapses and he is an incarcerated adult, in Little Boy (1977), Willie, and Llanito (1971) etc. I wonder about what it’s like to work with someone over such a long period, with these big ellipses between. Did your ‘protagonists’ get to see your films?

Willie is a character in my work. I saw them as subjects. I often thought of Bill Sanders from the tattoo film as Falstaff. What I cared about was the characters I saw in them that I could use in the film. Willie is dead. I had used him as a subject since he was a child, since he was 12. I’m going to have a show here in Albuquerque including the film Willie and pictures of his family. He died from neglect in the Sandoval County Jail. Nancy and I bought his headstone. On it is inscribed “When the call is made up yonder, I’ll be there.” It’s the song he sang to us under the Rio Grande bridge after he was released from prison. 

Little Boy

I have filmed my own family, though I’m not doing it now. The last film I made was with my dog, he was perfect. The film was called Wanderer. He was clearly a substitute for me but he’s the main character. But even when you’re filming your dog it’s different from just being with your dog.

The line that I didn’t care about my characters as human beings is not true. Of course, I cared about them. You know, I took people I’ve filmed into the hospital, I’ve buried people I’ve filmed, I’ve given money to people I’ve filmed – which you’re not supposed to do – of course, they’re humans. Bill Sanders gave me a tattoo, it was a butterfly. When I told the guys in the prison, they thought that was funny. But I knew while filming Willie, that he had issues. He was paranoid, he could be violent. I wanted Willie to be a certain kind of character that people liked. And if he’s on camera screaming that he’s going to murder the judge, it would turn people off so I just took it out. Someone might say that’s being dishonest, but I don’t think my kind of filmmaking has anything to do with honesty. It has to do with creation. 

Do you not think about these films in relation to this word journalism then, or as being more or less harmful types of journalism? Because your editing is very freehand, you’re still giving a lot of space, still resisting a layer of control. 

I think it’s a kind of honesty but it’s also like a theatre within the theatre. As if someone is producing a version of reality and one of the characters is a photographer named Danny. Of course, I like it because of vanity, but also because it puts another character in who’s observing the characters that we’re looking at. ​​When I came of age, I also really disliked abstraction in art. I was into a kind of realism, if not journalism.

I’ve done a number of books too that are similar to the films. They’re chronologically a bit strung out. I did one book backwards.

Your film work began sort of tangentially to prisons and I really think that it’s an interesting through line throughout. Your focus is on a place and people that were made invisible. ​​I read that the prison population in the US has grown from 200,000 in 1970 to around two million today. And these films were in a way prior to the camera eye having a newer tranche of sinister implications with regards to people who are marginalised or criminalised, through facial recognition and mass surveillance, so on. What if anything has changed in your approach to making images in this regard?

​​Well, my big work was in prisons. The racial components of prison have become an enormous issue. Though I didn’t focus on African Americans inside the prison. There were many photographs of Blacks that were imprisoned, but my three or four main characters are all white people. That was intentional, but in retrospect, it was probably a mistake. I had come out of the Civil Rights movement and I had a background of living in a Black world. Now I was in East Texas which was racist, which had never had a Civil Rights movement. And I thought if I make pictures and show primarily Black people in prison, that most of the audience for my book in 1969 would be white people who would see a black guy in prison and say, well, he probably belongs in prison, because so many white people were racist. I wanted to create empathy. I think in retrospect it was a mistake, the new Jim Crow has put so many Black people in prison and racism within prisons is a real issue.

You told me you began with photojournalism using separate audio recordings so let’s talk about what we hear. Everyone usually gets to speak, sometimes gliding between several languages, and at length in your work and then you don’t really use direct personal voice over until your latest film. 

That’s correct. I hated voiceover; it was used all the time by PBS. I believe in the power of a photograph. And I really hate celebrity. Because first of all, it’s phoney, most of us are not celebrities. Second of all, I think the media and celebrity has done enormous damage to our civilization. The emergence of fascism in the United States, and all over, is connected to celebrity. My films are, you know, they’re radical films, they want to undermine this. They’re anti-media, anti-television, anti-… I could go on forever. That’s why.

I think that treating people as people is what creates empathy, not a voice over telling you what you are watching and that you should care about somebody and why. Within every human heart, even in the worst among us, there is something that cares about each other and that’s what I try to appeal to. 

The South West has its own emotional presence in your films. The areas in your films appear to not be very populous and, I suppose it has a very different history and character to a lot of the US. You said you got there kind of by accident, but is there something specific about this geography besides autobiography?

I think you’re absolutely correct. It’s both intentional and autobiographical. The village I’m in is Llanito.

Llanito

I made a film called Born to Film (1982), which I liked a lot. It’s the first time I ever used any kind of personal footage, that my father had shot in Germany, and then later as an immigrant. (Since we’re all film buffs here, did you know, in the 1940s he would buy 16mm film with perforations on two sides that he would put in his 8mm camera, shoot, remove the roll – these cassettes were light-tight, you shouldn’t do it in the sun, but you could take it out in the closet – then slip it all back in the camera and shoot again, this time on the other edge of the roll. 8mm is half, with single perforation. Kodak would develop it and then slice the roll in half. That’s pretty fucking clever.) Those films survived. When he died, I went and grabbed the suitcase where there were rolls of film, which included my childhood. 

My father went from New York and volunteered to be in the American Army. He was a doctor, and was made a second lieutenant and stationed in Utah. Utah is 400 miles from here, it’s close. I was two years old. My brother was five years old. I loved that year in my life on a farm in Utah. Part of me always wanted to return and then finally when I was in my 20s, I did return. I came here and it’s almost exactly like where I was as a child. The West has been very fruitful for me, probably because I’m an outsider.

El Otro Lado

You’ve kindly put a lot of work up online. Can we talk about distribution? 

I never made things only for myself. I wanted to communicate with people and I wanted to influence people. I wanted my films to be seen but I had a rough awakening with my very first film. I soon found out that people who make films spend just as much time distributing the film as they do making it. I couldn’t do it; I didn’t want to. I wanted to keep working. They showed El Otro Lado (1978) that I’d made out in Arizona in a Public Theatre in New York, on Lafayette in Manhattan. When I arrived, I asked the projectionist why the film wasn’t running. He said because no one had come to see it. I’ve had that experience my whole life. 

I wanted them on television, even though they never were on television. Recently Criterion refused to show all of them. I hope the films have a life in the future. I think they will find one, if nothing else for the reason you mentioned in the beginning, for showing what human beings are like. What’s great about film is that once it’s done, it’s in the can as they say. They can take it out in 100 years and find a way to project it. They may need to if they want to see what life on Earth was once like. 

Danny Lyon’s blog is https://bleakbeauty.com/, his instagram account is instagram.com/dannylyonphotos.