Close Up

18 - 26 February 2023: Close-Up on Danny Lyon


Danny Lyon is best known for his work as a photographer: often in association with the New Journalism movement, for his landmark photobook The Bikeriders and as the unofficial documentarian of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Born in New York in 1942 to German and Russian Jewish immigrant parents, he has also made films since the late 1960s, that look at 'invisible' lives in the US immediate to him and beyond. These short and mid-length non-fiction works, made concurrent to his photographic practice but distinct in their feeling, present a pairing between and up against the parameters of portraiture and political filmmaking.

Curated by Elizabeth Dexter, this programme is the first UK overview of his moving image work and features early shorts and the full trilogy of films Lyon made documenting his friend Willie Jaramillo in New Mexico over fourteen years. It represents a rare opportunity to experience the filmmaker’s "humble and intensely personal works overswept by a sense of the depth and durability of the human spirit as observed during long moments that accrue and become years, in a practice constituting more than a style, but rather a whole system of ethics." – Will Van Koughnett


Programme 1

Dear Mark
Danny Lyon, 1981, 15 min

"In the tone and tenor of a loving note folded over and slipped beneath a door, Dear Mark shows celebrated sculptor and Lyon's close friend Mark di Suvero, in footage shot in 1965 Stony Point, New York and 1975 Chalon-sur-Sao╠éne, France, at work (and play) on his sculptures: climbing on, standing before, swinging from, surveying, assessing, outlining, cutting, welding, hammering... Much of the film plays through a multiple exposure, one view close up on the shirtless, bearded sculptor, the other tracing the beams of his imposing steel combinations, a third expanding to reveal the imposing structures in their full scale. Not entirely playful, the film touches on questions of immigration and national identity (di Suvero himself was born in Shanghai to Italian parents and emigrated to California at the outbreak of World War II) through the soundtrack, which incorporates samples of a crackling Gene-Autry-cowboys-versus-illegal-immigrants radio play." – Harvard Film Archive

Soc. Sci. 127
Danny Lyon, 1969, 21 min

"It is with the same tousled logic that occupies the tenuous edges of the film itself that Danny Lyon describes Soc. Sci. 127, his first motion picture, as a comedy. A less careful spectator might be quick to label Bill Sanders, the Houston tattoo artist at the centre of this brief, ecstatic portrait, as more tragic clown than comic hero, but a sustained inspection rewards us with a startling community between cameraman and performer. Shot entirely within the confines of Sanders' cramped, boudoir-like studio, the film is a study in the intimacy of performance and of image-making: Polaroid collages of past clients, many of them nude women alone or in pairs, cover the walls; a woman seeking a consultation undresses proudly for Sanders and camera; Sanders himself drinks, smokes, and snatches at a matted worldview stitched together from haphazard opinions on everything from the telling etymology of "fellatio" to his own motivations for making a documentary film. Fluid elisions between sequences of colour and monochrome, connected only by the continuity of space, foreground the sense of depth of these rooms, and the tendency of stories to entangle, the film presenting itself as a collection of the loose ends of much longer narrative strands buried in the backgrounds of the photographs or languishing on the cutting-room floor. And throughout this patchwork wellspring of intimacy, performance, delusion and discovery, Lyon manages to decentralize both subject and self: Sanders' lonely drunk qua artist-philosopher and his own burdensome cinéma vérité auteur mantle, flattening the normal power relation on a bedrock of humility, a kind of utopian stage where the two men can coexist in a resonant, if not always straightforward, creative harmony." – Harvard Film Archive

El Otro Lado
Danny Lyon, 1978, 60 min

"In the mountains of New Mexico, Lyon befriended Eddie Marquez Rivera, an undocumented Mexican house builder who travelled frequently between Mexico and the United States. Over the course of several border crossings in Rivera's company, Lyon discovered the subjects of his subsequent work, including the migrant fruit pickers who appear in El Otro Lado. The title refers to a Mexican designation for the US, where Don Bernabe Garay and his sons travel annually with their neighbours from an agrarian 'ejido' 1,300 miles south of the border to pick oranges and lemons in the orchards of Arizona. The heart of the film lies, as in all Lyon's best work, in his camera's panoramic sensitivity to the beauty of the land and the men working it, the hard, elemental realities of the work itself, and the wider set of historical meanings leavened by the intense specificity of extended, unsubtitled human observation narrated by humour, stories, card-playing and song. Beset by the camera's insistence on them as men to be seen and celebrated instead of as labour to be exploited, the Garays and their friends vacillate between awkward self- consciousness and disarming self-realization as they alternately trudge or skip, like anyone else, off to work, at times merging with-and then suddenly erupting again from-brilliant periwinkle and salmon skies." – Harvard Film Archive


Programme 2

Danny Lyon, 1971, 52 min

"Llanito is the first of Lyon's trio of films shot in and around Bernalillo, New Mexico, and it is also the screen debut of Willie Jaramillo. The twelve-year-old boy acts as a guiding force for Lyon and his audience, reading out the names on gravestones and relating the stories of the people buried there. He is the focal point of a group of mostly young men with whom Lyon would remain friends and continue to document for the next several decades. The film meanders through the town and among its inhabitants, passing between groups of people at times with the keen instinct of a desert eagle and at others in a drunken stupor, stumbling from one scene into the next with the visceral and irrational inevitability of a gravitational pull." – Harvard Film Archive

Little Boy
Danny Lyon, 1977, 54 min

"The Little Boy bomb dropped on the people of Hiroshima was designed and tested in New Mexico, not far from Bernalillo, a depressed, ramshackle town north of Albuquerque where Danny Lyon constructed an adobe house for his family in the early 1970s. A protracted interview airing a man's wildest hopes and concerns about nuclear energy, played out in double exposure with scenes of the nearby National Atomic Museum – where a pair of tourists takes snapshots by a model warhead, a crew of airmen attends to a taxiing bomber, an American flag ripples, and a lanky, shock-blonde boy eats a bright red apple – form the core of a film with the same name; but its flesh takes the form of another little boy, Willie Jaramillo, a friend of Lyon's who previously appeared in his 1971 film Llanito. At age eighteen, he has just been released from prison for a series of minor offenses. As Lyon pounds his beat around town, asking friends and neighbours about Willie or about themselves, the film jumps back in time to scenes from Willie's childhood, now idyllic next to his current troubles, and the history of one man's life emerges as a fact of greater significance than the atom bomb itself." – Harvard Film Archive


Programme 3

Born to Film
Danny Lyon, 1982, 33 min

“Splicing the past against the present, Lyon reveals parallels across time that uncover universality from intimate moments. This glide through his lineage showcases an unwavering wonder with the world, one that informs his practice in much the same way it did his father’s camera-play. Speaking, “Like father like son, take one,” before clapping the slate and letting tiny Raphael take control of the camera with his toy sailboat and inquisitive cuteness, Lyon’s film becomes a collaborative accumulation of kindred fascinations.” – Nicolas Pedrero-Setzer

Media Man
Danny Lyon and Nancy Lyon, 1994, 58 min

“In which the filmmakers age five years in the production. Media Man begins in the filmmaker’s garden where Danny Lyon is growing “blemish free tomatoes” in the expectation of Jesse Helms, or “someone from the NEA” coming to dinner. Then smashing a larger rotten pumpkin, Lyon announces that he is making “a film about America. The Good America.” Then all hell breaks loose.” – D.L.

Danny Lyon, 2005, 30 min

Murderers tells the story of five murderers in three different states. Beginning in New York City's East River in Manhattan, we meet Jessie Ruiz, fishing for stripers. Jessie is out after serving 8 and half years, for beating a man to death with a baseball bat. “I didn't kill him,” he explains, “he died on his own.” Inside the Tucker Unit of an Arkansas prison we meet Pinkie who talks of the many executions he saw during eight years on Death Row, and Mojo, who has done Thirteen years, because he was with his friend when the friend murdered both his adoptive parents. Then Harold Davey Cassel, a.k.a, ‘Dinker,’ the hero of Lyon's book, Like a Thief's Dream describes a murder he watched in the bathroom. The film ends in New Mexico with Michael Guzman, who first appeared in Danny Lyon's 1983 film Willie, describing with devastating emotion the abuse he suffered as a child. Guzman has been in for 25 years. This is a work of Dostoyevskian power and subtlety, with music that underscores the pathos of the film.” – D.L.


Programme 4

Danny Lyon, 1985, 78 min

"Lyon's third film shot in Bernalillo, New Mexico and the final film with Willie Jaramillo. More explicitly concerned with the fate of his friend here than in either Little Boy or Llanito, Lyon enters the prisons and precincts where Willie or his childhood friends have served time, observing and interviewing him, his brothers, his fellow inmates, wardens, and anyone else in his circle of acquaintance, as if there might be a clue somewhere to the trouble that seems to endlessly and ruthlessly seek Willie out and take a hold of his fate." – Harvard Film Archive  

Danny Lyon, 2012, 10 min

“As more and more Americans become robots, Lyon searches for the soul of Amerika, and finds this...”

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