The Lyon’s share

Texas prison life through the eyes of a photography great

A photo taken by Danny Lyon at the Ramsey jail in Texas, 1968.
A photo taken by Danny Lyon at the Ramsey jail in Texas, 1968.

"A murderer is also a human being." American photographer Danny Lyon's words at the opening of his Conversations with the Dead, at Barcelona's Fundación Foto Colectania, go straight to the heart of the exhibition

One of his most emblematic series, it comprises 76 photos captured between 1967 and 1968 in the sixth main correctional facilities in Texas. Over 14 months, Lyon, a Brooklyn-born beatnik who joined the renowned Magnum Agency, immersed himself in the life of the prisons where the inmates served the longest sentences in the western world. His aim was to find the empathetic relationship that he always considered essential to carrying out his work. "Some of the prisoners I only saw for a few hours. With others I struck up real friendships," he explains. "I got to know guilty convicts who got out after a few years and innocent ones who rotted in their cells."

Lyon has only exhibited his work in Barcelona once before, 20 years ago. But museums, galleries and exhibition halls were never his main aim. "Above all I wanted to publish photography books at accessible prices," Lyon says.

"I tried with all my might to transmit an image of incarceration as distressing as I knew it was in reality," he continues, though perhaps because of their standpoint and the black-and- white, both the images and their subjects are extremely attractive.

The design of the book is exhibited alongside the photos. "We thought about titling it Born to Lose [...] and I wanted to publish it under the imprint of The Walls, the oldest penitentiary in Texas," Lyon explains in Spanish.

The prisoner who became his best friend was imprisoned in Ellis, "the hellhole of the system, where the most dangerous prisoners are isolated.

"When I met him, Billy McCune was serving 18 years in prison for a rape, the circumstances of which were never cleared up, and we maintained an intense correspondence for years," says Lyon, who published the exchange of letters in the form of a biography, illustrated with drawings and watercolors by McCune himself.

Lyon will follow this show with a second exhibition at the end of the month presenting two of his other series: The Bikeriders, based on the life of a Midwest motorcycle gang that he photographed over four years, and Uptown, about migrants from the Appalachian Mountains to that Chicago neighborhood.

Danny Lyon. Conversations with the Dead. Until January 18 at Fundació Foto Colectania, C/ Julián Romea 6, Barcelona. The Bikeriders & Uptown . January 24 to April 17 at Fundació Foto Colectania. www.colectania.es

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