Danny Lyon at SBMA


Every once in a while, I go to a museum to see a particular exhibit, usually because I am already familiar with the artist or the genre and know I will enjoy it, but then i stumble across something I knew nothing about, which ends up taking over the day.  Once, decades ago, I went intending to see an exhibit of Utrillo at the Hayward Gallery in London, and got sidetracked by the paintings of someone I had never heard of before, but now have never forgotten.  The Utrillos were lovely to look at; the work of Michael Andrews, though, moved me to write what I think of as my first piece of amateur art criticism, on “Melanie and Me Swimming” in a letter to my cousin.

Today I went to the Santa Barbara Museum of Art because I thought it might be my only opportunity to see some beautiful landscapes, by California plein-air painters (the show is up into June, though); and indeed, they were certainly worth going to see, and lovely to behold.  If that was all that I had done, I would have left happy.  But before I got to them, they had already been overshadowed by some interesting conversation with two young staff members, and by the exhibit “This World is Not My Home”, several rooms of the work of photojournalist Danny Lyon.

According to the info provided, Lyon is most celebrated for his photographs of motorcyclists, particularly in a book, Bikeriders (1967);  these are at the entrance end of the exhibit.  As you walk through, though, there are also groups of photos of various other subjects, mainly of people who are marginalized for some reason or another, always demonstrating to us, the viewers, their individuality and humanity, a humanity we so often can miss.  There are, for example, people who are displaced or otherwise affected as buildings below Canal Street in New York are demolished to make way for the World Trade Center.  There are abandoned children in Columbia, the subject of his 1975 film, Los Ninos Abandonados. 

Two other groups I found particularly moving.  The first group was the photos from a project working inside the Texan penal system in l968.  One placard quotes Lyon on his aim: “to make a picture of imprisonment as distressing as I knew it to be in reality”. He shows shakedowns and he shows field gangs all wearing white prison suits against their black skins.  He shows, in one shot from overhead, two men sitting in a bare, drab space at a table, with two empty very plain seats on the other two sides, and untidy dominoes spread out in front of them;  one man is leaning his head on his hand.  We can’t see their faces; we can see the waste and sense of desolation.

But the most striking images of all for me were those at the far end of the exhibit, taken during demonstrations in the South during the Civil Rights Movement in the early 60’s.  Lyon was involved in demonstrations, and so was on hand to document what was going on.  There are shots of George Forman, the Executive Secretary of SNCC, the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee, which Lyon had joined; of Bob Dylan strumming his guitar outside a meeting place; of Martin Luther King, before speaking at the funeral for the four little girls killed in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, and of people standing along the route to that funeral, mourning.    Another arresting image shows one woman amidst two groups of men – those she has joined, the demonstrators, and those she is arguing back against, those who are harassing them.  The angle of the shot helps further focus our attention on her, her passion, her open mouth; her bravery is palpable.  There are shots of sit-ins, of lines at “white only” swimming pools, of police, of violent arrests of demonstrators, of teenage girls locked up for over a month with no charges against them. 

And in one shot I can’t imagine I will never forget, there are no people at all, no leaders, no marchers, no police — only two water fountains in a county court building.  That doesn’t sound like a promising picture, perhaps, but as you look at it, you realize in a visceral way what it must have meant to have, as you may only have read about, different water fountains for the different races.  One has a sign, “White,” above it: it is a real water cooler, one of those upright rectangular grey metal things, plugged into the wall so the water will be cold, surely a welcome thing on a hot summer day in the South; you merely push a button on the top, or push down with your foot, and that nice cold water is yours; the cooler is tall, so you hardly have to bend over to have the pleasure and relief of it.  Next to it is the one with the sign, “Colored”: it is a small porcelain fountain, on the adjacent wall.  We can see the round metal handle to turn the water on (on the left as a person would face it to get a drink: convenient for the few who are left-handed, not so easy for the rest).  It is mounted quite low on the wall, so the thirsty one will have to really bend over to get anything to drink, and the water will not be cooled as the White people’s water will be in that other one right there beside her.  The people of that county, then, could find it in their budget to have a modern water cooler, but could not find it in their hearts or minds to let the “colored” people drink from it.

Go and see this exhibit, up through June 2nd, at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art!  If you read this in time, you might like to go meet the photographer at a book-signing/conversation event on Thursday April 4th.  (I only wish I could go! It would be such a honor to meet this man. If you go, write and tell me about it!)  There is also a film series connected with the exhibit.  The website, http://www.sbma.net has samples of the audio clips that accompany some of the photos in the civil rights group, clips of speeches by King and others, songs, comments by others involved, etc.  It also has info on all the current exhibits, events, directions, etc. The museum is open Tues. – Sunday, 11-5, students and seniors can get in for a mere $6, and anyone for free after 5 on Thursday evenings.  

And if you go to this exhibit, and see these pictures, you may be tempted to shake your head but then remind yourself that things are better now.  Don’t kid yourself. 

Because no, there are no longer separate drinking fountains in the South for “Whites” and “Colored”.  But remember those black men in the Texan pictures and look up Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.   (for one interview, see: http://www.democracynow.org/2010/3/12/part_ii_michelle_alexander_on_the)

And ask yourself, since many prisons in our country are now being privatized, those who make money on them will likely vote, let’s see..for less harsh sentencing laws? Here in the US we lead the world in numbers of people in prisons already. 

Remember the teenage girls held for over a month with no charges in the civil rights pictures.  Think also of the men, over half of those in Guantanamo, who have been cleared for release but are still being held; ask why, as of two weeks ago, 100 inmates were on hunger strike.  (http://www.democracynow.org/blog/2013/3/13/starving_for_justice_at_guantanamo)

Remember those you see in the pictures from New Mexico, now going through its worst drought on record, and reflect on this: “Incomes for the bottom 90 percent of Americans only grew by $59 on averagebetween 1966 and 2011 (when you adjust those incomes for inflation)… During the same period, the average income for the top 10 percent of Americans rose by $116,071.” (http://www.salon.com/2013/03/25/incomes_of_bottom_90_percent_grew_59_in_40_years.  If that seems unimportant, look up this book: The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better[1]by Richard G. Wilkinson and Kate Pickett.

Remember the pictures of those abandoned children in Columbia.  And think of any child, well-loved and well-fed or not, and wonder about their future: the arctic ice is melting much faster than the scientists who spend their lives studying it ever imagine.  If that seems unreal, go and see Chasing Ice (Tues. Apr 2nd at the Ventura Film Society) for the time-lapse photographs of James Balog, documenting what the blurb refers to as the biggest story in our history.  

We need more like Danny Lyon, now more than ever.

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