Danny Lyon – Civil Rights Photographer

By Laura Roberson

During the Civil Rights movement multiple photographers were noted for their work in documenting events and recording certain sides of the argument about integration. One of the most noted is Danny Lyon. He is a New York native and attended the University of Chicago. When he was twenty years old he took his cameras and headed south to document images of the Civil Rights Movement. Little did he know, he would not make it a week before being incarcerated right beside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He would  become the first staff photographer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee or SNCC. The SNCC “had a reputation as one of the most committed and confrontational groups fighting for civil rights” (“Civil”). Lyon was known and respected by many during his adventures to places facing serious adversity. Many described him as stubborn and he has been critiqued for this, but he never wanted to “compromise his principles,” which means a great deal coming from an artist covering such a controversial dispute (Kennedy).


Danny Lyon by Paul Sutton

Danny Lyon by Paul Sutton

“A great picture is something that awakens a very different reaction from each person who looks at it.” – Hugh Edwards about Lyon’s work (Kennedy)

Lyon and the Young Girl of Cairo

Bill Schwarz uses three of Lyon’s photos in his article in the History Workshop Journal. The first photo is one of an unknown girl from Cairo, Illinois, praying with two men during a demonstration by the SNCC. Schwarz suggests there is something to say about the “pensiveness” of the photo.  It is the stillness before a nonviolent demonstration became violent; it is a moment of “inward reflection.” Schwartz says that the photo is able to evoke emotion. The photo has a peacefulness to it. When looking at it, the viewer can almost hear the silence of the prayers. This picture was taken of the SNCC for the SNCC. They wanted their nonviolent ways to be documented and they were. The fact that these movements started with nonviolent protests suggests that the protesters were not the cause of all the suffering that ensued soon after (152).


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The same unknown girl is depicted in two other photos by Lyon. In the next picture of her she is holding hands in protest with two other demonstrators. This photo has a more intense mood. The idea of the nonviolent protest is still present because of the calmness and settled expression of the women to the right. However, there is a different mood portrayed. The young girl has a brave stare on her face. The viewer no longer sees her as an innocent little girl praying with two men; she is firm. Her expression gives her a sense of power and purpose. She looks less like an addition to the photo and more like the center piece. The way light reflects off of the girl’s face seems to draw the viewer more deeply into her expression, which may have been Lyon’s intention. She has much more depth in her expression than the women she is next to and the man whose face is half cut out. By centering the photo on the location of the girl and capturing of the light on her face, Lyon makes the photo more defining in expressing the emotions of the girl.


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Schwarz mentions another one of Lyon’s photos featuring the young girl of Cairo. This photo is even more focused on the girl. Schwarz says that something occurred between the photo of her holding hands with protesters and this photo of her with another child. A white truck-driver drove up to the protesters and while the adults ran, she stayed but was injured. This last picture doesn’t show that she was physically injured and does not say anything about the incident. However, the viewer can see that the girl feels defeated. She goes from an expression of power to a young girl’s gaze. One cannot tell from the picture what exactly has killed her spirit and her drive but something clearly has (152).


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Lyon and the Bombing of the 16th St. Baptist Church 

One of Lyon’s collections from the Civil Rights Movement is displayed on the Magnum Photos Blog. One of the collections of pictures is from the bombing of the 16th St. Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. The bombing took place on September 15, 1963. Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Denise McNair and Carole Robertson were in the basement when the Ku Klux Klan bombed the church. The young girls are believed to have been killed instantly. The bombing was suspected to be a response to Dr. King’s March on Washington just two weeks prior (Wheeler). One of Lyon’s photos depicts one outside view of the church after the bombing. The picture shows a shattered stained-glass window. Large parts of the window are missing and what remains is merely shards. The idea that this is something beautiful that has been destroyed can be juxtaposed with the lives of the four girls that were taken that day. The photo is not a straight-on shot; it is leaning. This could mean that this was not a planned shot. It is not clear how long after the bombing this photo was taken. Lyon was probably in something of a panic like most other people around the bombing site. The rushed angling of the photo gives the viewer an idea of the urgency of the photographer to snap the shot and move away from the dangerous area, even if it was days after the bombing.


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The next image was captured during a funeral for one of the four girls who were killed in the bombing. Lyon does not give much insight into who the women in the photo are, who the funeral is for or how the women are connected to the deceased. The two women are clearly distraught during the funeral procession. The angle that Lyon uses in the photo places the woman with the more apparent emotional response front and center in the photo. The other woman has a pained expression but the front woman is visibly crying and covering her mouth in response to her emotion. The light in the photograph is concentrated on the faces of the women, but there is a shadow cast on the left side of the photo. The light shining on the faces brings the women’s expressions to the front rather than making the center of the photo their body language or the crowd as a whole. The raw emotion that they are showing also suggests a reality to the photo. This was not a posed or planned scene. It is sometimes easy for the public to see the Civil Rights Movement as something that took place outside of their own lives. It is hard for people, especially people that were not alive during the movement, to connect to the emotion and the realness of the pain and suffering that took place during this period in history.


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The next photo was also taken at the funeral of one of the girls killed in the bombing. This photo differs from the other ones in that it is a picture of a scene rather than just one person or object. This can show us more than just emotions or damages. The room is lit by one lamp, giving the room a peaceful feel, which is fitting considering it is the visitation for one of the girls killed in the bombing. The girl’s coffin and all of its coverings are white or at least a very light color and are the brightest parts of the photo. She shines brighter than even the lamp in the room. This light and coloring give her an almost angelic aura. The victims were innocent girls who were killed because of a violent hate crime. The photo brings the feelings of what really happened in that church to the viewer. The picture suggests more than “a girl was killed,” which is pretty much what is taught in schools. There is a woman looking into her coffin and a man standing in the doorway. He looks like he could be guarding her. The people in the photo paying their respects to her and maybe even guarding her body remind the viewers that these girls were loved dearly. They could have been daughters, granddaughters, cousins, nieces; they were important and cared for. It is most important to remember that these girls were real people. They lived and died in the war over race; they are not just images in history or names in our text books.


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Danny Lyon continues to take photos today. In addition to his photography he has written multiple books. Conversations With the Dead and The Bikeriders were both released in 2009 and contain his writing and photographs. He continues to photograph mainly in the USA but also in other countries including Colombia and Cuba. He had photographed movements like the Occupy Wall Street Movement and has documented the lives of people living in places ranging from New York City to Indian reservations (“Danny”).


Works Cited

“Civil Rights Movement Recalled with Photos.” Review. The Michigan Citizen 6 Feb. 1993: A8. Ethnic NewsWatch. Web. 20 Nov. 2013.

“Danny Lyon.” Web log post. Magnum Photos Blog. Magnum Photos, n.d. Web. 20 Nov. 2013.

Kennedy, Randy. “Stubbornly Practicing His Principles of Photography.” The New York Times 26 Apr. 2009, New York Edition ed.: AR1. Print.

Lyon, Danny. NYC109779. 1962. Photograph. Magnum Photos Blog. Magnum Photos. Web. 20 Nov. 2013.

Lyon, Danny. NYC19621. 1963. Photograph. Magnum Photos Blog. Magnum Photos. Web. 20 Nov. 2013.

Lyon, Danny. NYC32656. 1962. Photograph. Magnum Photos Blog. Magnum Photos. Web. 20 Nov. 2013.

Lyon, Danny. NYC37856. 1963. Photograph. Magnum Photos Blog. Magnum Photos. Web. 20 Nov. 2013.

Lyon, Danny. NYC37858. 1963. Photograph. Magnum Photos Blog. Magnum Photos. Web. 20 Nov. 2013.

Lyon, Danny. NYC59523. 1962. Photograph. Magnum Photos Blog. Magnum Photos. Web. 20 Nov. 2013.

Schwarz, Bill. “‘Our Unadmitted Sorrow’: The Rhetorics of Civil Rights Photography.” History Workshop Journal 72 (2011): 138-55. Web. 20 Nov. 2013.

Sutton, Paul. Danny Lyon. N.d. Photograph. The Online Photographer. Web. 20 Nov. 2013.

Wheeler, Tim. “Four Little Girls: Promises Still Unmet.” People’s Weekly World [New York] 1 June 2002: 8. Alt-PressWatch. Web. 20 Nov. 2013.

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