Nat Geo Seminar: Danny Lyon Criticizes Media; Says How He Would Edit National Geographic

Posted by on Monday January 13, 2014 | Events, Photojournalism

Photojournalist Danny Lyon delivered a sharp critique of the media, explained the main goal of his career, and reminisced about his work on the civil rights movement, motorcycle gangs and Texas prisoners at a rare public appearance last week.

Lyon was the headliner at the 2014 National Geographic Photography Seminar, a day-long event held January 9 before a standing-room-only crowd at the National Geographic offices in Washington, DC.

“I took it for granted that all the magazines lied, and since I chose the media as my field I was determined to create an American media that was truthful,” Lyon said during his talk.

He also imagined himself as editor of National Geographic, and suggested story ideas that would probably rile the magazine’s audience (read on for details).

In addition to Lyon, photographers Tyler Hicks, Wayne Lawrence, David Maisel, Newsha Tavakolian, and Vince Musi lectured about their careers and past projects. Media artist Hasan Elahi also gave a talk about his surveillance project.

Following is an edited transcript of Lyon’s talk.

Lyon (who blogs at began by recounting his interview earlier that same day with Congressman and civil rights activist John Lewis. Lyon then described his participation in the October 21, 1967 March on the Pentagon, a famous protest against the Vietnam War. Lyon was among the first of hundreds arrested at that protest. He told the crowd of photographers and industry professionals at the National Geographic event how he managed to sneak pictures out of the jail, and recounted meeting journalist and author Norman Mailer, who had also been arrested and detained in the same jail cell.

Danny Lyon:

I was at the time between my second and third book–books conceived in a picture world dominated by magazines, all of which I objected to. If I was going to work so hard, to risk my life, to devote my waking consciousness and time to a single object–making pictures–how could I turn them over to someone else to select? To crop? To arrange, and worse: to place words with pictures that were not my words?

My pictures had to be protected. A silver print is among the most fragile objects in the fine arts world. A grain of sand can ruin one. And I’ve ruined my own slides with a speck of saliva, which burns a hole into them. The image itself is fragile. It is an anonymous rendition of reality, to which the viewer brings emotion and feelings. And the caption, the layout, the sequence, the text, the settings they are presented in? I was determined to do that myself.

The Bikeriders was published in 1968. Seven pictures were out of register, the result of running the book off in a single night in a New Jersey print shop that probably paid a kick-back to someone at MacMillan to get the job in the first place. It is now 40 years later, and I am still making books. Now I control everything, including the printing and great expense and time and work is devoted by my publishers and the people that make my books, to do them properly.

I’ve always seen myself as a realist: someone who takes everything he needs directly from reality. My weapons are first of all the camera. Also tape recorders, and motion picture cameras and now digital video cameras. I am also a deep romantic. The works I do are works of dreams and vision and in that sense the only reality I actually listen to is the reality inside my head. Reality, to me, is made up. I make it up.

I entered the Texas prisons determine to destroy them. Once I began to read about prison, I thought, I do not want to be a criminologist. I was not interested in improving prisons. I wanted to destroy them. Now, we are in the future. The population of the Texas prisons when I worked [there] was 12,500. Now it is over 200,000. So that body of work which took two years of my life is not a success.

My life, and I suspect the lives of many of you–and I say this with a nod to Norman Mailer–has been about action, about risk, about adventure. That is why we love this life. It takes us outside of ourselves, we escape our personal miseries, we lose ourselves in a world much faster than our own.

Looking back now, I can say I’ve devoted most of my life to making photography books–a form that is not even recognized as a form. Photography books have never been reviewed the way novels and non-fiction are, although they are a branch of non-fiction.

Over 20 years ago, SNCC had a rare reunion at Trinity College and [Martin Luther King scholar] Clay Carson was there. By then Carson controlled the King archives. We sat down together at a table and I said, America will never change until there is a revolution in the media. A few years later I put it in writing, [and] it still sit buried in my web site, titled Revolution in the Media, addressed to something I call “the media worker.”

So this is what I put in the Web site: one, to change society, change the media. Two, to change the media, change yourself. Three, personalize the media, personalize yourself. And finally, something that we have known since the time of the Greeks: Beauty is power.

I could argue standing here that technology–something Mailer hated–has in effect, if not made that revolution, has created a form for it. Young people do not take any of our old forms seriously. They communicate among themselves in mysterious ways. The problem remains: Where is the vision? I have always loved what I did. I wanted more than anything else to leave a mark, to return something to the country in which I and my immigrant parents, both of whom came here from certified dictatorships, flourished. (Did that make sense? It doesn’t have to make sense.) I wanted to do that by myself as an individual.

My own preservation as an individual was central to my contribution to journalism and photography. I’m [of] the generation that had to crawl under my little wooden desk at school to protect myself from the blast of hydrogen bombs. I’m the generation that had to wear a dog tag so that my incinerated body could be recognized. I never took my life for granted. What I did take for granted was that someone wanted to destroy me, and not only me. They wanted to control what I thought, and how I lived. My mission was to defy them. I took it for granted that all the magazines lied, and since I chose the media as my field I was determined to create an American media that was truthful.

In my America, people were all different, they were handsome, and everything around them was beautiful. And most of all, they were free. None of my films are about Chicanos, or poverty or prison, or the border, all of which I deal with. They are about the existential struggle to be free. That is what unites everything I have done. And the first person that has to be free, is me.

By the time I was finished, about 1971, all of my books were remaindered, meaning the publishers chose to dump the books on the market, all remaining copies were sold for a dollar. I bought a case of The Bikeriders in 1970s for 16 cents a copy. My father said, “What do you want a case of your own book for?” [Editor’s note: copies of the original 1968 edition are currently selling for several hundred dollars.]

Younger people cannot imagine how someone like me views our present world. Edward Snowden is to me a young man with the stature of John Brown, though he’s presented to us more like John Wilkes Booth. When many years ago I first heard the term virtual reality, I thought, are they kidding? Every morning I awake to an electronic version of chess I play with my son 2,000 miles away. They were not kidding. Many people seem to feel that an experience on an electronic screen is an experience.

I’ve tried to imagine what I might do if I were allowed to edit or control an issue of the National Geographic. What reality would I present? What would I do, other than get rid of running images across the center fold, forbidding bleeds? I think a Gone to Pot issue would be good, ideally with a joint stamped Welcome to Colorado stapled to a baggie inside the [front]. This special issue could include a lot of outdoor stuff. Twenty percent of the issue [would be] interviews [about] the destroyed lives of young people in jail for selling weed, something considered a public service by my generation. Perhaps another 20 percent [would be] interviews on the tens of millions of successful Americans like myself who spent at least a third of their lives as potheads.

The Border would be another good [National Geographic] issue. The present militarization of the Southwest, including Albuquerque where I live, where the police have shot and killed 20 people recently, a truly life-threatening place to encounter a cop. You know, the problem of police is not that you might get shot. The problem is fear. If you are afraid, you do what you are told. The southwest is being occupied by the police, a quasi-military force, all in the name of stopping Mexicans from coming here to clean the house and plant the garden. And I would suggest a historical issue on Vietnam, showing all the publications and photographers who beat the drums of war, then clos[ing] with a long piece on the bankers who like to take cycling trips to Vietnam with their wives.

When Vince [Musi] asked me to come here, I said, ‘You know Vince, I started as a journalist but I ended up in the art world.’ And he said, ‘All photographers wanted to do that. To have a gallery.’ Be careful what you wish for. It is of course the so-called art world that has really driven the nails into the coffin of photography.

So what, then, is the point of this all? I think the point remains what it was for me as a boy: I wanted to change America. That is the point. That is the point of all good books. As Mailer wrote, and I use my words here, not his, the point is to replace the rotten, hysterical fear- and greed-driven myths that have so much power with our own myths: truth, justice and the beauty of this, our mother earth.

Thank you.



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