By Jim Hughes
I first met Danny Lyon in 1968 at a sprawling Museum of Modern Art exhibit of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s work. A mutual friend introduced us. I was relatively new on the scene, a young photo magazine editor, and Danny was an up-and-coming star at Magnum. His resumé already included The Bikeriders* and The Destruction of Lower Manhattan. I remember a huge mane of curly hair with the texture of steel wool, and cowboy boots that clicked on the MoMA Sculpture Garden's tile.
As he turned on a heel and clicked away, Danny Scowled, "I have no use for camera magazine editors."
Nonetheless, and despite the attitude, it would not be long before I began publishing Danny's powerful photographs. One essay in particular, "Life Inside," a 14-page black-and-white documentation of Texas prisons taken mostly from the prisoners' perspective, proved particularly revealing. Conversations With the Dead was the book that resulted from the project. I assigned Dan McCoy, a Black Star photographer who had been writing a column for Camera 35, the magazine I was editing at the time, to conduct an in-depth interview to accompany the essay in America: Photographic Statements, a new kind of U. S. Camera Annual that I was putting together. It would include a portfolio from Eva Rubinstein, the first published essay by a young Jodi Cobb, who went on to be a staff photographer at the National Geographic, Jill Freedman’s "Circus" pictures, Bill Owens' Suburbia before it became a classic book, Robert Frank’s The Lines of My Hand, and Martin Schneider's color expose of pollution in America. Frank was interviewed by Sean Kernan, another fine photographer who regularly wrote for the magazine, and Schneider's no-holds-barred Q&A was conducted by Bob Nadler, Camera 35's technical editor.
For his interview with Lyon, McCoy was to meet Danny at an undisclosed location in the Southwest. But when he called as instructed for directions, McCoy was told there would be no interview. Danny suggested he would interview himself and mail it in.
After all, he pointed out, he had recently declined to be interviewed by The New York Times. McCoy, who had just been inside the Utah State Penitentiary for eight days photographing for the movie version of Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, understood that Lyon was (and is) unique among working photographers. "He is a loner who guards his private life and its location with missionary zeal," McCoy noted.
"You are asking for a freedom in your answers that you are unwilling to give the interviewer in his questions," McCoy suggested to Lyon that day. "What kind of interview is it when the person interviewed determines both the questions and the answers?"
After a good deal of back-and-forthing, a compromise was reached. McCoy could conduct the interview then and there. The published result was appropriately titled, "Conversations From a Phone Booth on Route 66..."
Evidently, Danny Lyon liked our layout, approved of the concept for the Annual as a whole, and didn’t hate the interview. Over the years, we became friends. At one point, I even published a set of his black and whites whose borders he had hand-colored in magic marker. Well I remember the day in 1983 when we were to meet at our office to select a retrospective portfolio for Camera Arts, and I came out to find him lounging on the couch in our waiting room, launching perfectly folded paper airplanes at our long-suffering receptionist!
When Camera Arts was unceremoniously killed in a kind of corporate coup de grâce a couple of months later, Danny surprised me by writing an elegy for Aperture: "Jim Hughes, who…brought Camera Arts to its preeminent position among the popular photography magazines, has lost magazines the way a good cavalry officer loses horses in battle. Shortly after he published W. Eugene Smith’s essay 'Minamata' in Camera 35 in 1974, that magazine was sold (out from under him) by its owner, the American Express Company.
"We have lost our democracy, mostly through lack of courage. That was ultimately Camera Arts' finest quality, and its fatal flaw. In a world that nourishes mediocrity, it tried to be bold…. In this sad time, with our powers usurped, aesthetic success guarantees failure."
Or, as a friend cryptically noted upon learning of my magazine's death, "Sh*t rises!"
Kirk Decker kindly wrote in a comment to my recent piece on Ralph Steiner: "I still have the entire Camera Arts run. It was a great photography magazine, and I was crushed when it was over."
So was I, Kirk, so was I. Come next June, thirty years will have passed since that sad time, and I can honestly say I still haven't fully recovered. I suspect that was the point at which I began to understand, or at least recognize, my own reclusive impulse: the need to stay within oneself in order to see beyond more clearly.
[*I really hope you bought this when I told you to—take a look at the current price on the paperback reissue, which as I recall was $15 when I recommended it. —MJ]
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Featured Comments from:
Neil Swanson: "I also have every issue of Camera Arts. Dog eared they are. Wore them out. Nothing since has been as good. I was turned on to many many people I still admire. I also own The Bikeriders, and Suburbia ( signed by Bill at a Fred Picker workshop). I have an old original copy of Eugene Richards' Dorchester Days. I mailed him cash; a brown envelope came with a signed book. Decades later I heard him speak at a VII Seminar. He signed it again, much to our mutual surprise. He hadn't seen a copy of the book in ages."