To describe the thinking behind his films, Stan Brakhage often quoted a saying attributed to the ninth-century Irish theologian John Scotus Erigena: “All things that are, are light.” This is not a sensibility that would seem to lend itself to making home movies, and there is a disquieting tension in many of the films Brakhage made about his family during his first marriage.
A tone often emerges in Washington Phillips’s songs—a sense of vulnerability that undercuts the confidence his sermons project. The figures in his songs, as in many prewar gospel recordings, tend to be persecuted and burdened, doomed to roam a world of “sin and woe.” Phillips’s 78s would have been distributed specifically among black listeners, and one wonders to what extent the woeful worlds he described would have suggested the pervasively segregated and threatening one in which those listeners lived.
Danny Lyon has spent much of his career taking intimate photographs of marginal, working-class, and outlaw communities. Many of the most striking pictures in the Whitney Museum’s new survey, “Danny Lyon: Message to the Future,” come from these milieus. But more than the pictures themselves, it’s Lyon’s sixteen nonfiction films that show how his relationships with his subjects have developed haltingly and sometimes tensely over time.