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Talk to anyone about American documentary photography, they’ll probably mention Danny Lyon. Talk to anyone about prison documentary photography and they’ll definitely mention Danny Lyon.

In terms of US prison journalism, Lyon was the first photographer to a) give a shit, b) gain significant access, and c) distribute journalist images far and wide.

I had read Nicole Pasulka’s interview with Danny Lyon when it was published for The Morning News in December, 2008. I have since begun reading Like a Thief’s Dream (currently 100 pages deep). As in many cases, it takes an AmericanSuburbX reissue to press the issue.

Renton in his cell, Walls Unit, Huntsville, Texas, 1968. © Danny Lyon

I have a few things to say about the chapters I’ve read so far, but those thoughts need more brewing. While I mash those brain-hops, I’d like to draw your attentions to Lyon’s comments about prisons in America:

“You really need a friend, or family member inside a prison, to appreciate what we are doing. America has two million people inside of her prisons. Only China, a dictatorship, tops us in this growth industry. I like to think of the words of Fredrick Douglas “Be neither a slave nor a master.” All of us, outside of prisons, are the masters.

Prisons should be turned into bowling alleys, schools, and daycare centers, or demolished. We could probably do better with 90 percent of the inmates being released. Communities should deal with offenders on a local level. Review panels should meet with all of the 200,000 prisoners doing life sentences. Many of these people are harmless and aged, and should be released. I would like to see review panels sent into all the prisons, to meet with inmates face to face. Most should be released.

“When I was working in the Texas prisons (1960s and 70s) there were 12,500 men and women inside and no executions. Today there are 200,000 in Texas and they kill prisoners all the time. Prisons are now everywhere, a major employer in upstate New York. Simply put, everything about prison is worse.”

“The best way to change yourself is to go outside your world into the world of others. It’s a big world out there. The worst thing about New York City is that all the young people that gather there are extremely like-minded. Creative people are comfortable there, but they are preaching to the choir. I always wanted to move Brooklyn to Missouri. Everyone would benefit.(Source)

I couldn’t – and have not – ever put it better myself.

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Buy a signed copy of the book Like a Thief’s Dream at Danny Lyon’s website, Black Beauty.

Postcard sent by the author to Renton in prison in the early 1980s


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