Albuquerque Museum’s exhibition “Journey West: Danny Lyon” features 175 masterworks of photography, film and montage from celebrated American photographer Danny Lyon.
His work on display spans a 60-year career and encompasses a wide range of topics. The exhibit draws from his series on the Civil Rights Movement, the Chicago Outlaw Motorcycle Club, the Texas prison system, various protests, and some of his more recent work on fires, drought and climate change in New Mexico.
Familiar scenes from life along the Rio Grande, along with photos like “Bernalillo Main Canal” and “Llanito,” depict when Lyon first moved to New Mexico from his home in New York City out of opposition to the Vietnam War.
Although the exhibition quickly deviates from images of New Mexico, state residents will be stunned by Lyon’s personal and abstract renderings of early ‘70s everyday life. His composition places small yet intimate human figures in vast, open high-desert landscapes.
The exhibition as a whole urges viewers to reflect on what journeying West means to them. However, from the perspective of a New Mexico resident, “Journey West” has almost the reverse effect, inviting New Mexicans to explore more of North America as the show branches out to Texas, Tennessee, Mississippi and even as far as Mexico and Cuba.
Empathy and protest were key themes used to curate Lyon’s work. The breadth of locations in Lyon’s photographs relate the experience of everyday people across different parts of the world. For example, his work in Shanxi Province, China depicts a firework shop and a truck mechanic in Lyon’s usual dignified yet ordinary style. The strength of “Journey West” comes from Lyon’s style and mastery at documenting people from many walks of life.
The 1970 gelatin silver print “Navajo Pool Room” exemplifies how Lyon’s technique turns everyday life into fine art. The opposing leading lines — lines that draw the viewer’s eye to a subject — contrast the outfits of the foreground figure with those of the two background figures, revealing Lyon’s mastery in composition and light.
The curation showcases Lyon’s technique using a few selections across many works and locations rather than the narrative of an individual series, according to Josie Lopez, head curator at the Albuquerque Museum.
“If you put all the bike rider or all the prison photographs together, then it is sort of a documentary representation of that particular subject,” Lopez said. “We wanted to put photographs together that would show visually how his work connects across these different times and these different series’ and subjects so that you could see how he was utilizing light and composition, even different photographic techniques in terms of the technology.”
Lyon’s photomontages have the particular effect of communicating the spirit of American political life during different time periods. They are, in one sense, a window into Lyon’s countless threaded ideas, but at the same time, they are a personal experience for the viewer to create their own connections.
The museum curated the show to have other mediums and “behind-the-scenes” extras from Lyon’s notebooks and personal photo albums, Lopez said.
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“It goes back to the New Journalism approach where Danny is the artist but he also sees himself in the story … Even though we’re telling these broader histories, his story is also embedded in it. And he talks about wanting to create a time capsule to the future, and when someone discovers that time capsule, he wants to be part of it,” Lopez said.
Viewers unfamiliar to Lyon’s work might be disappointed by the lack of thematically Western photographs, but the shattering of New Mexico’s tricultural myth was one of the aims of this exhibition. The landscape of New Mexico both in contemporary and historical photographs is only one face of Lyon’s illustrious career.
Albuquerque Museum curated this exhibition in collaboration with Danny Lyon, and it will be on view March 11–Aug. 27.
Henry Hammel is a freelance reporter for the Daily Lobo. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @hhfreestone