Danny Lyon is a photographer, writer, and filmmaker. His books include The Bikeriders, Conversations with the Dead, and, most recently, Burn Zone. His films, including one of John Lewis and Julian Bond, can be found on Vimeo. He is represented by Gavin Brown Enterprise and keeps a website, bleakbeauty.com, and an Instagram.
In 1967, I was part of a “happening” with the Park Place Artists in Judson Memorial Church at Washington Square in New York. Standing up in the balcony with the sculptor Mark di Suvero, we looked down at a crowd of people milling about the lobby as the event ended. In the middle was a short man with dark curly hair and a taller, good-looking woman. “That’s Robert Frank and Mary Frank,” said Mark, pointing down at them. “Would you like to meet him?” In early 1969, I moved into Robert and Mary’s apartment on West 86th Street.
I could see an arm of the lake on our left, orchards mixed with houses on our right. “Gee,” I said, “I have no memory of the lake.” Then I started staring at the mountain that was sloping down into fields, only a mile from our car. A great orchard lay beneath it. The strangest feeling overcame me. It was as if a ghost had appeared outside the car. This was a place I had dreamed of my whole life and it was now coming into view. I kept staring at the mountain. “That’s the ridge I’m climbing up in the film!” I exclaimed. A large farm stand beside the road was advertising peaches and cherries. We were in Perry.
The neighborhood at the border crossing in El Paso is called “Chihuahuita,” Little Chihuahua. I wear an NYPD press credential, which has been called “the Shield,” around my neck with a chain. The medallion (it’s a laminated, heavy plastic square) has a picture of me in the middle. With it, I look like a cop. As we neared the Greyhound station in El Paso, I put it inside my shirt. I jumped out of the car and walked up to a van with a CNN cameraman sitting behind the wheel. “You can’t take pictures inside,” the newsman cautioned. This kind of talk only excites me.
It takes a century for a pinyon forest to return to what it was before a fire. The Jemez are mostly pine trees, not pinyons or cedars, and within the pine forest are ponderosa pines, which grow straight as an arrow, often have diameters of over three feet, and tower far into the sky. They make beautiful burnt corpses. The smaller pines are a lot less interesting, either alive or dead—when they look like matchsticks blown down by a hurricane.
After my wife Nancy uses the car, she comes home and plugs it in, “like a toaster.” If we plan a long trip, we leave it plugged in for two nights and the Bolt is fully charged. The bridge across the Rio Grande is about a mile from our house, and from there the road is a straight shot, an eye-popping ride through the desert, only on this trip, it was more of an eye strain. The Jemez, the mountain range close to us, was enveloped in a haze. “Smoke,” said Nancy. Apparently, there was a wildfire, normal now in the summer, and the smoke had drifted into the valley and covered the mountains.
I had done it. Deep in the South I had reached one of the towns central to an uprising that would sweep away legal segregation, bring the vote to black people in the thirteen states that had made up the Confederacy, and overthrow the system of racial oppression called Jim Crow that had been re-imposed in those states after the Civil War. Over my shoulder was a Nikon F reflex. “You got a camera,” James Forman—then SNCC’s executive secretary—said to me when we met at the Freedom House. “Go into the courthouse. They got a big water cooler for whites and a little bitty bowel for negroes. Go take a picture of that.”
By the spring of 1962, when I met him, Hugh Edwards had been responsible for more than twenty exhibitions at the Art Institute of Chicago, including a selection by Edward Weston and a survey of Alexander Gardner’s Civil War pictures. On a visit to the museum after we had met, he said to me, “Go downstairs and see that show.” It was Robert Frank’s first solo exhibit.