A quick browse through Jerry Saltz’s Twitter feed will tell you three things. The first is that New York Magazine’s senior art critic is incredibly keen on social media. The second is that looks and likes a great deal of art, from bawdy sketches on medieval illuminated manuscripts to Rembrandt portraits to old photos of Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. The third is that he’s politically engaged, and disapproves of the 45 President of the United States in the strongest terms.
Which artist does Saltz feel offers the best course for resisting the new US political climate? In a new piece for New York magazine, he singles out the 74-year-old photographer and Phaidon author Danny Lyon.
This might sound like a strange choice, as Lyon, an early Civil Rights advocate and one-time Magnum member, doesn’t show in galleries a great deal, and doesn’t really present himself as an artist. Yet this, in Saltz’s opinion, is a strength.
In recent years, writes Saltz, “art, while often topical, mostly took on large, deeply rooted structures like systemic racism, homophobia, sexism, capitalism, or colonialism — except when artists worked on their own issues, usually having to do with aspects of identity and personal history. This often prioritized subject matter and autobiography over visual originality.”
Lyon’s reportage photography, by contrast, engages quite deeply with the real world without descending into memoir. Saltz spoke to Lyon at his recent of his early 1960s work in New York. The piece covers Lyon’s time working with the Civil Rights movement (“He ran from white gangs, hid in cars with guns, escaped police by giving false names at airports.”) about biker gang images (“He was a member of Chicago’s notorious Outlaw motorcycle gang. I grew up around Chicago and these guys were genuine “tough hombres.”)
Yet it’s his book depicting life in the Texas prison system, Conversations with the Dead, that Saltz singles out for praise. “His book on the subject changed my life,” Saltz writes. The images, taken during the 1960s and republished by Phaidon 2015 offers acutely sharp insight into the judicial system, without ever resorting to first-person pontificating. This objective quality marked the book apart, both then and now.
“After the tumult of the 1960s, America turned inward,” Saltz writes. “So-called political activism and street photography were back-burnered. For the first time in history, almost all artists went to art school.”
Photography became professionalised, as the Dusseldorf School and the Pictures Generation pushed gallery photography away from the street and reportage, and towards high-production commercial imagery, cinema and history painting.
“Since then, we’ve seen endless pictures of cameras, photographs of photographs, ads, green screens, commercial photography colour cards, mirrors, monochromes, light fixtures, film boxes, film, digital patterns, and even pictures of chemicals used in old-style photography,” Saltz writes. “Much of this type of work is now rote and formulaic, either ultraformal or nth degree what can you do to the preapproved formats of the monochrome, rectangle, flatness, illusion, found objects, process, materials, etc. This is Zombie Photography.”
Saltz admits that, over the past few years, he has enjoyed the very work he is now dismissing as zombie-like. And that’s because times change. “America is in the balance again,” he writes. “We need to see what all this looks like without the filters of the news and zealots.” Someone who can shoot like Danny Lyon.
To find out what Jerry loved so much about Conversations with the Dead, order a copy of the book here; for more on Lyon’s other works, get a copy of The Seventh Dog and Deep Sea Diver. And if you're looking for more examples of how artists both celebrated and unknown have resisted the powers that be in recent times, check out Liz McQuiston's scholarly but thoroughly readable and copiously illustrated Visual Impact Creative Dissent in the 21st Century.