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Book of the Week: Selected by Brian Arnold

Book Review American Blood Photographs and text by Danny Lyon Reviewed by Brian Arnold "American Blood. I find these two words together to be incredibly charged and evocative. Do they refer to the bloodshed that has defined our nation from the beginning? From slavery to Jim Crow and the violent oppression of the Civil Rights Movement? George Floyd? Of democracy and justice? Economic and educational opportunity for all?"

American BloodBy Danny Lyon.
American Blood
Selected Writings 1961-2020
Photographs and text by Danny Lyon

Karma Books, New York, NY, 2020. 396 pp., 16 color & 57 black-and-white illustrations.

American Blood. I find these two words together to be incredibly charged and evocative. Do they refer to the bloodshed that has defined our nation from the beginning? From slavery to Jim Crow and the violent oppression of the Civil Rights Movement? George Floyd? Of democracy and justice? Economic and educational opportunity for all? Regardless of how you construe the words American Blood, there is no denying how much these notions have changed in the last year, in the wake of race riots and insurrections. These divergent perspectives on the term also provide the perfect framework for understanding the work of photographer, activist and writer Danny Lyon.

These types of conflicts of meaning and representation are at the heart of Lyon’s career. The new publication by Karma Books, American Blood, is a collection of his writings from the early 1960s to the present day, and provides insight into his life and motivations as a photographer. Lyon has been at the forefront of American photography since the Civil Rights Movement, when he left the University of Chicago campus in the late 1960s to join the struggle in the American South, to document American injustice and the ongoing struggle for freedom and equality.

If you are familiar with Lyon’s work, American Blood revisits many works you already know — the usual cast of characters, Hugh Edwards, Billy McCune, and The Bikeriders, all have plenty of air time — but also offers some interesting new material. Included is a 1972 interview with US Camera Annual, “Conversations from a Phone Booth on Route 66,” in which Lyon addresses the interviewer while on a payphone in rural New Mexico — he didn’t want anyone to know where exactly he lived, in part because he was growing marijuana — fully exposing his anti-establishment persona, as well as an insightful interview with Nan Goldin, a kindred spirit of social rebellion. Telling are the photographers and books that Lyon writes about, clarifying his self-conceptions as an artist. Included are the 1981 publication of The Auschwitz Album, an exhibition at the American Holocaust Museum, and work by Walker Evans, Larry Clark, Helen Levitt, David Seymour, and James Agee. These substantiate the moral necessity and social/documentary directives that have characterized Lyon’s work for decades. Lyon also appears skeptical of some of the other photographers that helped shape the art of his generation, suggesting that they lacked the clarity and moral conviction necessary to create real value in photography. He repeatedly questions the substance of Diane Arbus, for one, as well as others who pursued self-absorbed visions. Lyon beautifully summarizes his view on these things in his comment on Hugh Edwards, Curator of Prints and Drawings at the Art Institute of Chicago in the 1950s and 60s: “Nothing bored him except pretension and falseness.”

American Blood collects over 50 different essays, reviews, and interviews spanning Lyon’s career, interspersed with illustrations — both iconic images from his oeuvre and more recent pictures made trout fishing or during the Occupy Movement. The writings are divided into three main sections, Struggle, Record, and Stories. Edited by writer and curator Randy Kennedy, the sections address Lyon’s strategies as an artist working on the forefront of monumental cultural conflicts, his musings on the nature of photography and our media environment, and reflections on the individuals who inspired his art.

It is worth saying a bit about the book as an object. It is beautifully crafted with a high-quality, rich black linen cover embossed with inky red text. The endpapers are handmade and show high-quality renderings of Lyon’s “bulletin board” pieces — temporary collages tacked to the walls of his studio. These collages are thoughtful and complex, reading like a timeline of American social and political culture after the 1960s. The book pages are printed on thin, Bible-like paper, semi-transparent, allowing ghostly impressions of pictures to appear among the text.

What’s attracted me to Lyon’s work for so many years is his honesty, conviction, humility and compassion. In an essay, written after his 1980s trip to Haiti, called “Media Man,” Lyon reflects on his perceptions of American privilege and our shared needs for art, beautifully articulating his own motivations as a photographer, writer and filmmaker. Speaking of American blood, he writes, “But it only works when the blood flows. It doesn’t work when arteries are blocked by disease. And it doesn’t work when the body hemorrhages and the blood flows in the street... It’s an artist’s job to keep the blood flowing by keeping his or her blood flowing.”

In finishing Lyon’s collection of writings, I conceived of the words American Blood a bit differently than when I first started. Rather than using the term to reflect on American history, on racism and the essential, more idealistic values of American democracy, Lyon uses the term to reflect on being here and now, fully immersed in the value of each day. On living with conviction and dreaming for a better world than the one we all know. The 2016 Whitney Museum retrospective of Lyon’s work, Message to the Future, secured Lyon a much-deserved stature in American photography. American Blood now provides a useful link to establishing a more clear understanding of an essential vision of photography, and is a must for any serious student of his work.

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Brian Arnold
is a photographer and writer based in Ithaca, NY, where he works as an Indonesian language translator for the Southeast Asia Program at Cornell University. He has published two books on photography, Alternate Processes in Photography: Technique, History, and Creative Potential (Oxford University Press, 2017) and Identity Crisis: Reflections on Public and Private and Life in Contemporary Javanese Photography (Afterhours Books/Johnson Museum of Art, 2017). Brian has two more books due for release in 2021, A History of Photography in Indonesia: Essays on Photography from the Colonial Era to the Digital Age (Afterhours Books) and From Out of Darkness (Catfish Books).