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HomeContents > People > Photographers > Danny Lyon

Dates:  1942, 16 March -
Born:  US, NY, Brooklyn
Active:  US
A Magnum photographer who came to prominence with his book ‘The Bikeriders‘ (1968) - since then he has worked on social issues such as civil rights and prisons.

Preparing biographies

Biography provided by Focal Press 
Lyon, a New York native, studied history at the University of Chicago (BA, 1963) and became involved in the growing Civil Rights movement. He was self-taught as a photographer and his first images document this social struggle. It was a pattern to be repeated throughout his career — to actively live with subgroups or participate with segments of society he would document. He became a member of a Chicago motorcycle gang, The Outlaws, before producing the book, The Bikeriders in 1968. Later he spent time with construction workers, stock car racers, prison inmates, and peoples of the Third World to make his books and films. Conversations with the Dead (1971) was published with images, interviews, and writings of Texas prison inmates with whom he was allowed to visit intimately for a few months. Later work by this Jewish Caucasian has been especially empathetic with the plight of Latinos and Native Americans (he has lived in New Mexico since the early 1970s). Beginning in 1980 he has produced several autobiographical works (Knave of Hearts, 1999) and, among his films, Little Boy (1977) is a characteristic gem. Lyon remains a deeply committed artist/humanitarian who has expanded the public’s awareness of individuals at the fringes of late 20th century society. 
(Author: Ken White - Rochester Institute of Technology) 
Michael Peres (Editor-in-Chief), 2007, Focal Encyclopedia of Photography, 4th edition, (Focal Press) [ISBN-10: 0240807405, ISBN-13: 978-0240807409] 
(Used with permission) 

Further research

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Danny Lyon 
Family history 
If you are related to this photographer and interested in tracking down your extended family we can place a note here for you to help. It is free and you would be amazed who gets in touch.

Exhibitions on this website

ThumbnailDanny Lyon: Bikeriders 
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ThumbnailDanny Lyon: Conversations with the Dead 
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ThumbnailDanny Lyon: Memories of the Southern Rights Movement 
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Visual indexes

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Supplemental information


Danny Lyon

Danny Lyon studied history at the University of Chicago, where he received a BA in 1963. Self-taught, he began photographing in 1962 and became the staff photographer for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Lyon’s photographs were motivated by a combination of humanism and militancy and often pictured downtrodden people as social heroes
Lyon practiced what has been described as "New Journalism." He immersed himself in his subject’s lifestyle. From 1963 to 1967 he photographed the Chicago Outlaws, a renegade motorcycle club. This project was published as The Bikeriders in 1967 and was his first important photographic essay. Lyon didn’t just photograph the Chicago Outlaws, he immersed himself in the life of his subject. Lyon became a member of the Chicago Outlaw Motorcycle Club; traveled with them, and shared their lifestyle. The series, described by Lyon as "an attempt to record and glorify the life of the American bikerider," was immensely popular and influential in the 1960s and 1970s. The subjective journalistic style Lyon established in The Bikeriders suggests he was influenced by the personal interactive journalism also found in the work of Robert Frank and Larry Clark. In 1967 Lyon began to work for Magnum, the photojournalism agency co-founded by Henri Cartier-Bresson. In 1969, he worked for Robert Frank on the film Life Raft Earth; then Lyon produced the films Social Science 127 and Llanito.
In 1969 he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in photography and then 10 years later in film. In 1971 he published his best known work, Conversations with the Dead. With the full cooperation of the Texas Department of Corrections, Lyon photographed six prisons over a fourteen-month period from 1967 to 1968. Lyon's introduction stresses his belief that the penal system in Texas is no better or worse than those in other parts of the U.S. and ends with a statement of purpose: "I tried with whatever power I had to make a picture of imprisonment as distressing as I knew it to be in reality . . ." The book documents life in Texas prisons using Lyon’s images and text written by inmates. Lyon befriended many of the prisoners. Conversations with the Dead includes texts taken from prison records and convicts’ writings, particularly the letters of Billy McCune, a convicted rapist whose death sentence was commuted to life in prison.
During the 1970s Lyon continued to make films. In 1980 he published The Paper Negative, an autobiographical account of life in New Mexico as told through a fictional character, and in 1981 Pictures from the New World, a retrospective of his photographic career. In 1989 he published I Like to Eat Right on the Dirt, which featured Polaroid prints of his children. Recently Lyon published Knave of Hearts in 1999 and Indian Nations: Pictures of American Indian Reservations in the Western United States in 2002. Danny Lyon divides his time between New York and New Mexico. He continues to photograph and make films.
Danny Lyon’s work is in many important public institutions and collections including, The George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film, The Museum of Modern Art, the J. Paul Getty Museum and the National Gallery of Art and many others.
Source: Brown University, Museum of Contemporary Photography, The J. Paul Getty Museum.
[Contributed by the Etherton Gallery] 

Internet biographies

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Wikipedia has a biography of this photographer. Go to website
Getty Research, Los Angeles, USA has an ULAN (Union List of Artists Names Online) entry for this photographer. This is useful for checking names and they frequently provide a brief biography. Go to website
Grove Art Online ( has a biography of this artist. 
[NOTE: This is a subscription service and you will need to pay an annual fee to access the content.]
 Go to website

Internet resources

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Danny Lyon ... 

Printed biographies

The following books are useful starting points to obtain brief biographies but they are not substitutes for the monographs on individual photographers.

• Auer, Michele & Michel 1985 Encyclopedie Internationale Des Photographes de 1839 a Nos Jours / Photographers Encylopaedia International 1839 to the present (Hermance, Editions Camera Obscura) 2 volumes [A classic reference work for biographical information on photographers.] 
• Beaton, Cecil & Buckland, Gail 1975 The Magic Eye: The Genius of Photography from 1839 to the Present Day (Boston and Toronto: Little, Brown & Company) p.246 [Useful short biographies with personal asides and one or more example images.] 
• Evans, Martin Marix (Executive ed.) 1995 Contemporary Photographers [Third Edition] (St. James Press - An International Thomson Publishing Company) [Expensive reference work but highly informative.] 
• International Center of Photography 1999 Reflections in a Glass Eye: Works from the International Center of Photography Collection (New York: A Bulfinch Press Book) p.221 [Includes a well written short biography on Danny Lyon with example plate(s) earlier in book.] 
• Lenman, Robin (ed.) 2005 The Oxford Companion to the Photograph (Oxford: Oxford University Press)  [Includes a short biography on Danny Lyon.] 
• Witkin, Lee D. and Barbara London 1979 The Photograph Collector’s Guide (London: Secker and Warburg) p.184-185 [Long out of print but an essential reference work - the good news is that a new edition is in preparation.] 

Useful printed stuff

If there is an analysis of a single photograph or a useful self portrait I will highlight it here.

• Sobieszek, Robert A. and Deborah Irmas 1994 the camera i: Photographic Self-Portraits (Los Angeles: LACMA - Los Angeles County Museum of Art) p.224, Plate 99 [When the Audrey and Sydney Irmas collection was donated to LACMA - Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1992 the museum gained a remarkable collection of self portraits of notable photographers. If you need a portrait of Danny Lyon this is a useful starting point.] 


Photographic collections are a useful means of examining large numbers of photographs by a single photographer on-line. 

In the 1990 survey of 535 American photographic collections Danny Lyon was represented in 66 of the collections. Source: Andrew H. Eskind & Greg Drake (eds.) 1990 Index to American Photographic Collections [Second Enlarged Edition] (Boston, Massachusetts: G.K. Hall & Co.) 


The wit and wisdom.

"One of my ambitions when I conceived of The Bikeriders, was to destroy Life Magazine."
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