Danny Lyon’s Photos: The Truth in Black and White — and Color?

THE DAILY PIC: The great American photographer was a genius of (monochrome) realism.

THE DAILY PIC (#1610): The great American photographer Danny Lyon shot this image in Cartagena, Colombia, in 1966, and it is now in the wonderful retrospective of his photos and films at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.

Lyon has been recording society’s “underbelly” for something like six decades, but his particular kind of documentary verism makes most of his images feel like they were shot yesterday.

The strongest exception is in his few color photos, which seem firmly rooted in their moment. In general, color photography, for all that it captures more information about reality, seems to register as less transparently “realistic” than black and white. I can think of technical and perceptual explanations for why that’s the case, but I think cultural factors are in play as well. Realism in art always depends to some extent on what artists have convinced us to accept as “real” and “normal”.

This was already true in the 16th century, in the early days of Western realism, when the utter dominance of artists like Raphael and Michelangelo convinced us to accept their monumental, boldly draped figures as the “normal,” and therefore most “realistic,” way to render heroic characters. (Which was what most high-prestige pictures showed right through the 19th century.)

In the 20th century, it seems that an entire tradition of museum-sanctioned documentary photography, starting maybe with Walker Evans in the 1930s, has trained us to think of black-and-white images as giving the most accurate, credible, “timeless” account of the society around us – or rather, the account with the most truth to it. We’ve learned to read color as inessential, as surplus – as —chromatic accidents linked to single moments in history. (Collection of the artist, ©Danny Lyon, courtesy Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York)

For a full survey of past Daily Pics visit blakegopnik.com/archive.


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