Lyon imagines how he would edit the National Geographic Magazine
What follows is the transcript of the talk delivered
to a standing room audience of six hundred photographers, journalists and editors on
January 9, 2014 at the National Geographic in Washington DC. Lyon and Julian Bond then shared the stage while sixty images
“I wanted to talk a bit about Norman Mailer, whose biography, by J Michael Lennon , called,
A Double Life I have been reading . The most time I spent around Norman Mailer was when we were both in a jail cell across the Potomac river in Alexandria Virginia. This was 1967 and I was near the end of The Destruction of Lower Manhattan, and about to do my work in the Texas Prisons. I had driven down from New York early that day with the sculptor Mark di Suvero, who was walking with a cane. We both planned to be arrested that day, and since Mark was walking with a cane, we parked as close as we could to the Pentagon, and arriving at the massive building very early, far in front of the marchers and protesters, which I now read reached 100,000 people. Just think of that astounding number.
This was an early protest against the war that would go on for another seven and a half years. The Pentagon has long flat steps leading up to it, and that morning they were covered with interlocking rows of US Marshall’s, and Military Mps. Soldiers held out rifles with bayonets affixed into the face of children that would stuff flowers into the barrels, while the Marshall’s and Mps stood in rows holding long batons, what we had called Billy Clubs in the south. After making some pictures with a Nikon F Reflex, I had removed the single 35mm lens, and buried it in one pocket of my blue jeans, and did the same with the flat body. Two more rolls of Tri X were deep inside another pocket. I might have removed the prism and wrapped that in a handkerchief. The idea was to get my inside the jail with my camera. When di Suvero crossed the line and was being man handled by the baton swinging MP I went to defend him. Two U.S. Marshall’s grabbed my arms, while another , standing directly in front of me, hit me across the crown of my head with his club, knocking me unconscious. .
It took either four or six stitches to close the wound, I don’t remember. When I awoke I had been dragged over a thousand feet around the building, the largest in America. At the rear of the building, at what looked like a loading dock, I was handed a number to hold before my chest as I was photographed, then motioned into a waiting and near empty prison bus. My number was four, a mark of honor on a day that would see 700 protesters going to jail, the largest tally so far in the struggle to stop the war. Inside the bus I re-assembled the camera and began making pictures, first through the window of other prisoners being brought in. The number placed on Norman Mailer’s chest was Ten. Eventually this group was driven to the Alexandria county jail, and left in a holding cell of about 15 by 15 feet, where I proceeded to make pictures of the dozen other protesters and Mailer, who was playing chess with a board someone made from paper. When an attorney appeared outside the bars to speak with Mailer, I pulled the exposed film from my pockets and camera, and handed them to the attorney with a note, “get them to Magnum” where they were processed and quickly published, mostly in Europe. What we now call the media here at home had almost no interest in the anti-war movement.
I was at the time in between my second and third book, books conceived in
a picture world dominated by Magazines all of which I objected to. If I was going to work so hard, to risk my life, to devote my waking consciousness and time to a single object, making pictures, how could I turn them over to some else to select, to crop, to arrange, and worse to place words with pictures that were not mine? My pictures had to be protected. A silver print is among the most fragile objects in the fine arts. A grain of sand can ruin one, and I have ruined my own slides with a spec of saliva, which burns a hole in them. The image itself is fragile. It is an anonymous rendition of reality to which the viewer brings emotion and feelings. And the caption, the layout, the sequence, the text, the setting they are presented in? I was determined to do that myself. The Bikeriders was published in 1968 . I received the book in Texas, seven pictures were out of register, the result of running the book off in a single night in a New Jersey print shop that probably paid a kick back to someone in MacMillan to get the job in the first place.
It is now forty years later and I am still making books. Only now I control everything, including the printing, and great expense and time and work is devoted by my publishers and the people that make my books to do this properly….
I have always seen myself as a Realist, someone that takes everything he needs directly from reality. My weapons are first of all the camera, also tape recorders and motion picture cameras, and now digital video cameras.
I am also a deep romantic. The works I do are works of dreams and vision, and in that sense the only reality they actually listen to is the reality inside my head.
Reality to me is made up. I make it up. I entered the Texas prisons determined to destroy them. And once I began to read about prison, and people said things like “what are you going to do with them?”, meaning the inmates, I thought, “I do not want to be a criminologist”. I was not interested in improving prisons, I wanted to destroy them. Now we are in the future. The population of the Texas prisons where I worked was 12,500. Now it is over 200,000. So that body of work, which took two years of my life, was not a success.My life, and I suspect the lives of many of you, and I say this with a nod to Norman Mailer, has been about action, about risk, about adventure. That is why we love this life. It takes us outside of ourselves. We escape our personal miseries .We lose ourselves in a world much vaster than our own .
Looking back now, I can say I have devoted most of my life to making photography books, a form that is not even recognized as a form. Photography books have never been reviewed the way novels, and non fiction are although they are a branch of non-fiction. In the literary world that Mailer was part of, the reviews, the vicious in fighting between the writers, and the critics of the time is legendary. Nothing like that existed for us, not in my life time.
Over twenty years ago, SNCC had a rare re-union at Trinity College and Clay Carson was there. He had published an early account of the SNCC – Howard Zinn had of course done this even earlier. By then Carson controlled the King Archives. We sat down together, and someone said something, and I said “America will never change until there is a revolution in the Media”. A few years later I put it in writing where it still sits buried in my website , titled Revolution in the Media, addressed to something I called “The Media Worker” . . (Is there anyone from the NSA in the audience?)
1, To change society, change the media.
2) To change the Media, change yourself
3) Personalize the media, personalize yourself.
And finally, something that has been known since the Greeks: 4 – Beauty is power.
I could argue standing here, that technology, something Mailer hated, has in effect, if not made that revolution, has created a form for it. Young people do not take any of our old forms seriously. They communicate among themselves in mysterious ways. The problem remains, where is the vision?
I have always loved what I did . I wanted more than anything to leave a mark, to return something to the country in which I and my immigrant parents, both of whom came here from certified dictatorships, flourished. I wanted to do that by myself, as an individual . My own preservation as an individual was central to my contribution to journalism and photography. I’m the generation that had to crawl under my little wooden desk at school to protect myself from the blast of hydrogen bombs. I’m the generation that had to wear a dog tag, so my incinerated body could be recognized. I never took my life for granted. What I did take for granted was that someone wanted to destroy me, and not only me. They wanted to control what I thought and how I lived. My mission was to defy them. I took it for granted that all the magazines lied, and since I chose the Media as my field, I was determined to create an American media that was truthful. In my America people were all different, they were handsome, and everything around them was beautiful. And most of all they were free. None of my films are about
Chicanos, or poverty, or prison, on the border, all of which I deal with. They are about the existential struggle to be free. That is what unites everything I have done. And the first person that has to be free, is me. By the time I was finished, about 1971, all my books were remaindered, meaning the publishers chose to dump the books on the market . All remaining copies were sold for a dollar. I bought a case of The Bikeriders in 1970 for 16 cents a copy.
Younger people cannot imagine how someone like me views our present world. Edward Snowden is to me a young man with the stature of John Brown, though is presented to us more like a John Wilkes Booth. When, many years ago I first heard the term, “Virtual Reality” I thought, are they kidding? Every morning I awake to an electronic version of chess I play with my son 2,000 miles away.
They were not kidding. Many people seem to feel that an experience on a electronic screen is an experience.
I have tried to imagine what I might do if I were allowed to edit or control an issue of the NGM. What reality would I present? What would I do, other than get rid of running images across the center fold, and forbidding bleeds? I think a Gone to Pot issue would be good, ideally with a joint stamped with “Welcome to Colorado” stapled in a baggie inside the back cover. This special issue could include a lot of out door stuff, with 20% of the issue interviews with the destroyed lives of young people in jail for selling weed, something considered a public service by my generation. Perhaps another 20% on the tens of millions of successful Americans like myself who spent at least a third of their lives as Pot Heads. The Border would be another good issue, the present militarization of the South West including Albuquerque where I live where the police have shot and killed 20 people recently, a truly life threatening place to encounter a cop. You know the problem of police is not that you might get shot. The problem is fear. If you are afraid you do what you are told. The Southwest is being occupied by the police, “a quasi military force”, all in the name of stopping Mexicans from coming here to clean the house and plant the garden.
And I would suggest a historical issue on Vietnam showing all the publications and photographers, with the correct publication dates, who beat the drum beats off war. Then close with a long piece on the bankers who like to take cycling trips to Vietnam with their wives.
When Vince asked me to come here we spoke on the phone and I said “you know I started as a journalist but I ended up in the art world.” And he said all photographers wanted to do that, to have a gallery. Be careful what you wish for. It is of course the so called Art World that has really driven the nails into the coffin of photography.
So what then is the point of this all? I think the point remains what it was for me as a boy.
I wanted to change America. That is the point. That is the point of all good books.
As Mailer wrote, and I use my words here, not his, the point is to replace the rotten, hysterical, fear and greed driven myths, that have so much power — with our own myths.
The good myths. The myths that are made out of courage, not out of fear, The myths we believe in: Truth —– Justice —-and the Beauty of this,
our Mother Earth.
Caption: The above photo made from the audience shows Lyon and Bond with the cover of Lyon’s new
book, The Seventh Dog, to be released by Phaidon Press in April 2014