I stumbled across Message to the Future thanks, once again, to the #believeinfilm community on Twitter. Really, social media isn’t all bad. Mostly, sure, and it’s led me to spend more money on photobooks than I might otherwise, and for that I’ll forever be grateful.
Anyway. Message to the Future is a rather impressive exhibition catalog from the 2016 retrospective of Danny Lyon’s photographs at the Whitney Museum and Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, with selections from his classic 1960s photobooks, most of which have been in more or less continuous production since, plus his films, later photo series, and collage works.
For some reason, I had Danny Lyon, whose work in Texas Prisons in the 1960s, with the Outlaw Motorcycle club, during The Destruction of Lower Manhattan and as a sort of honorary staff photographer for SNCC during the height of the Civil Rights struggle, confused with a somewhat younger war photographer who died while covering the war in El Salvador, John Hoagland.
Don’t know where I got my wires crossed there, but once I realized I had Danny Lyon on my hands, and not John Hoagland (whose name I had forgotten), well, I put the book in the “to-review” pile (now shelf), where it was repeatedly shuffled to the bottom of the pile, largely owning to its size, and, as it turns out, to my loss.
Lyon seems to have just enormous empathy. His portraits, group shots, and street work from sit-ins and other SNCC activities are as sensitively portrayed as his work with the Outlaws, transvestites in Galveston in the late 1960s, migrants and border guards, prisoners and guards, prostitutes in Columbia, his family, and Occupy protestors. His first film, Soc. Sci. 127 is a sensitive portrait of an alcoholic tattoo artist with, what appears to be a very heavy hand. His work with SNCC does seem to portray some good guys and bad guys (see, for example his “The Police at Clarksdale, Mississippi,” 1963) but after that, it’s as if people have been leveled somehow, like he really believes and has internalized the “there but for fortune” attitude and then passed it on through his photographs.
Even his photographs of buildings, abandoned, demolished, in the process of being demolished, for the Destruction of Lower Manhattan have this sensitive, empathetic gaze, and we—or I, anyway—feel something for both the buildings and the crowbar-wielding demolition workers. The buildings were there, really, and physically, and what things they must have seen; the men were there, really, physically, there, earning a living destroying these old buildings: they’re just doing a job, and taking apparent pride in it. Shoot, there was a time when I went looking for a demolition job… not particularly seriously, but, and really, there but for fortune.
That said, actually existing me, here in 2020, look at the photographs of the Outlaws, with their Iron Cross necklaces, “13” patches, and know that these guys, in their 80s (if they’re still around) voted for Trump and went to Sturgis during Covid. I don’t see them as cool or interesting or in any way as heroic as Lyon’s photographs make them appear. I might have once, but I know better, now. They’ve shown who they are. I mean, I’m old enough to remember “The Dukes of Hazard” and the confederate battle flag painted on top of the General Lee with its horn that whistled Dixie. We called that flag “the rebel flag” back then, and from an early age, I equated it with political and cultural rebels, as in James Dean, not the fucking Proud Boys. Yet it’s clear, with hindsight, here in 2020, that Bo and Luke and Daisy and Uncle Jesse and Cooter, hell, and Roscoe and Boss Hogg, for that matter, all voted for Trump* and are simultaneously convinced that Covid is a hoax, and I have a hard time feeling any empathy for that whole crowd.
I feel bad about this. I wish I could “there but for fortune” like I used to. I know I’m wildly privileged and that, without many of the opportunities I’ve had, I might also be looking for someone to blame or, given other opportunities, I might be far more successful and only interested in getting more for me and my offspring. I might also vote Republican. I may even think Covid a hoax or that Hillary Clinton drinks baby blood to stay young, and despite visibly aging over her 30 years of public life. That I know better, on both counts, really is only the luck of the draw, and were it not the will of Allah, it could easily be otherwise.
Looking through the magnificent photographs in Message to the Future brings this all up for me. Really, it all popped up in the first few essays and first third of the plates, and I struggled to read the other essays look through the rest of the plates. I’ve either heard a podcast discussion on Lyon, or read other literature, that has been critical of his wholehearted embrace of the Outlaws, while simultaneously praising his sensitivity and commitment. The essays in the book, of course, mention nothing of this, but also don’t go too much into the Outlaws or spend many words—fewer than I have here—on Lyon’s time with The Bikeriders.
I get it. It’s a catalog for a major mid/late-career retrospective. It needs to convince (or at least preach to the choir), and has no need to go into much detail. Leave that for, maybe, the essay(s) that you find at the end of a fascimile edition, perhaps, or, more likely, a blog. And, really, for me to go on so long about just this little bit—a couple of necklaces and patches, worn by men who are older than my parents by 10 or 15 years—gives it too much importance. In and of itself, Lyon’s project with the Outlaws is just a single episode in his long career creating moving portraits of people and places that most of us walk right past or actively ignore. Sure, some of those people and places should be walked right past or actively ignored, but most of them, from transvestite Galvestonians to Chinese migrant workers, have a story worth hearing, and all of them are worthy and worthwhile.
Lyon’s photographs are really, on the whole, quite incredible, though I wish I had done a bit of research and bought a monograph or two rather than this collection. I might have missed out on his excellent collages, which would be a shame: they may be the most aspirational part of this, the most “I want to do that… where could I take it?” part, but I’d get to see the whole statement, rather than just getting the greatest hits.
3.6 stars seems low… The book is just a book: it’s well printed, but what isn’t these days? The content is great, but sort of hacked together, showing a (largely fabricated) timeline, rather than the singular stories of his series. And as a concept, a late-career retrospective is perhaps necessary, but not really what I’m interested in. So 3.6 stars it is.
If what you’re after is a very strong, in some ways hagiographic, overview of Lyon’s work, Message to the Future is the book for you. For all other purposes, well, pick up a copy of The Bikeriders or The Destruction of Lower Manhattan or Conversations with the Dead, but, then, I’m partial to monographs and swore off catalogs long ago. As always, ymmv.
*When I say “voted for Trump,” it’s shorthand for hating immigrants and Muslims, like some of my family members who think my immigrant wife is a criminal and that we, the only two Muslims they know, are terrorists. I’m sorry, but if you don’t like my wife because she’s an immigrant, or us because we’re Muslims, or if you think I’ve betrayed my race or something, well, I have a hard time feeling anything but anger for you, with a side-order of pity. Not all Trump-voters are reprehensible in this way, but all share some culpability, I think. Just like I share some responsibility for the Obama administration’s deportation regime. I’m ashamed of my role in that, as minimal as it was (I voted twice: once happily, once less so). I doubt my aunt feels any shame for her minimal role in QAnon or the Charleston rally, and that’s the difference and where my big issue lies: I take responsibility, even for things over which I have no control. Most Trump supporters don’t seem particularly interested in that. As Sam Harris and others have pointed out, Trump is, after all, the “I’ll eat cheeseburgers if I want to” President, the “Grab ’em by the pussy” President. I’d be the “shame on you” President, the navel-gazing President. Who wants that? Shoot. I don’t even want that: it’s miserable. smh. Stop reading this footnote and go for a walk. Put a mask on first.