Billy McCune – Danny Lyon’s most tragic subject
Prison may have taken away this man’s adult life, yet it didn’t break his creative spirit, as Lyon’s book makes clear
Conversations With The Dead, Danny Lyon’s superb 1967-68 photography study of inmates at six Texas penitentiaries features a range of human subjects, all of them searing, their mute gazes implying harrowing stories they could tell. The prisoner on who he homes in particularly, however, is the late Billy McCune, who had already served 18 years when Lyon met him. His case notes here and the accompanying, hard-bitten photo seem to tell the story of an incorrigible, violent brute. He was initially sentenced to death for the rape of a Fort Worth woman in 1950. Diagnosed as psychotic, his outbursts in court resulted in his being tried in handcuffs and chains. While in the county death house, he severed his penis at the root, passing it in a cup to a guard. Eventually, however, his sentence was commuted to life as doubts emerged about the case and whether the rape had occurred at all.
McCune was a key participant in this volume – he wrote an introduction to it, in which he pleads for compassion on the reader’s part to those incarcerated for terrible crimes, asking us not to forget the “heartbreak, the loneliness, the hopes that are suppressed, the fears and doubts, the hundreds of problems both emotional and physical” that they have endured.
McCune also drew and his illustrations are included here, works whose vivid colour erupts amid the parched black and white images elsewhere in these pages. One in particular stands out, of an orange human hand holding a pen to a piece of paper set against a green grid, itself set against a wallpaper of yellow stars and flowers on a fiercely scrawled black backdrop.
McCune died on 1 October 2007 in a halfway house in Kansas City, Missouri, aged 79. Nevertheless, he lives on in his work, as a person of immense, compulsive artistic sensitivity, a sensitivity that has refused to be extinguished by the grim, impersonal misfortunate of his imprisonment.
We hope you have enjoyed this brief look at just one aspect of Conversations with the Dead. You can find out more about the book here; read an exclusive interview with Danny Lyon here; and order the book here.