In a letter he wrote in 1961, Martin Luther King, Jr., asserted that the “world seldom believes the horror stories of history until they are documented via the mass media.”
Danny Lyon, then 20, gave voice to that conviction. With his Leica and Nikon Reflex cameras, he went down South in the 1960s to bear witness to both the brutality and bravery associated with the civil rights movement.
Originally from New York City, Lyon became the official photographer of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), a national group of college students that formed after sit-ins by African American college students at lunch counters in the South.
Lyon’s SNCC experience launched a flourishing career in photography, and he was present at nearly all of the major historical events of the civil rights movement.
“He was there, made himself available,” said Terry Etherton, a friend of Lyon’s and the director of a gallery in Tucson, Ariz., that has frequently exhibited the photographer’s work.
Etherton called Lyon “one of the most important social documentary photographers of my generation,” distinguishing himself in such realistic projects as “The Bikeriders,” about 1960s-era outlaw motorcyclists, and “Conversations with the Dead,” a distressing visual portrait of the Texas penal system in the late 1960s.
Lyon is represented in several museum collections around the country, including the Smithsonian’s American Museum of Art. A traveling exhibit of his early work, entitled “Danny Lyon: Memories of the Southern Civil Rights Movement,” now has opened in Lebanon Valley College’s Suzanne H. Arnold Art Gallery.
“Lyon was a giant of post-war documentary photography and film,” said Barbara McNulty, gallery director. “Self-taught, he helped define a mode of photojournalism in which the picture-making is deeply and personally embedded in the subject matter.”
The exhibit contains 57 photographs, all black and white. They include segregation signs outside Jackson, Miss., a year after the “Freedom Rides”; Dr. King and Rev. Ralph Abernathy being led to jail in Albany, Ga.; demonstrations in various cities; and the 1963 March on Washington.
Lyon has also made 11 documentary films and has written several books. Now 77 years old, he is at work on a book about civil rights leader Rep. John Lewis of Georgia.
“The Lyon exhibit reflects the gallery’s aim to present shows that are challenging, fit into the college’s academic programs, and help students think critically,” McNulty said. “We also like shows that are inclusive.”
The gallery is housed in a church LVC acquired in the 1970s, which was long used mostly for storage and some events. In. 1994, the college had raised enough funds—with Suzanne Arnold as main donor—to open a permanent gallery.
Several events will take place in conjunction with the Lyon exhibit.
During the college’s annual “Symposium on Inclusive Excellence,” which celebrates diversity, Catherine Romagnolo, professor of English, will present a lecture about Lyon’s work and facilitate a dialogue about the photographs.
“The power and uniqueness of Lyon’s photographs lie in his immersion in the scene and his intimate portrayal of his subjects,” she said. “They reveal with empathy and directness the courage and boldness of the movement for black liberation.”
The exhibit also introduces students to the various branches of the early civil rights movement.
On, Feb. 13, Annemarie Mingo, assistant professor of African American Studies and Women’s Studies at Penn State University, will give a lecture entitled, “Moved by the Messages in Music: Faith as Resistance in Black Freedom Struggles.”
“As I play songs recorded inside of mass meetings during the movement, Lyon’s photographs will provide a powerful backdrop and help those present to visualize the examples I provide from black women and teens who were active in the grassroots struggles in the 1950s and 1960s,” Mingo said.
In 2015, Lyon received the prestigious Lucie Award for lifetime achievement in the documentary category of photography.
“The artist’s work is strongly appreciated by many documentary enthusiasts, because of his unparalleled ability to get really close to his marginalized subjects, sympathize with them, and depict their state of mind with a deep and honest desire to let the world hear their voices,” McNulty said.
Etherton added that Lyon’s work “amazes” him.
“Danny can make formally beautiful photos that also have content,” he said.
“Danny Lyon: Memories of the Southern Civil Rights Movement,” runs through March 22 at the Suzanne H. Arnold Gallery at Lebanon Valley College, N. White Oak and Church streets, Annville. For more information, call 717-867-6445 or visit www.lvc.edu/gallery.