The Seventh Dog by Danny Lyon
Large-scale, monographic publications can easily overwhelm, losing readers after a few turns of the page when the vastness of what’s in hand registers. This could especially be the case when examining the oeuvre of someone as prolific as Danny Lyon, who has been making pictures for the last fifty years. And yet The Seventh Dog never once feels excessive or unwieldy, despite being over 200 pages. I ambivalently use the term “page-turner,” but it does feel appropriate here. There is something intrinsic to this book that keeps me coming back, and what’s more, lingering more slowly each time I do.
Working in reverse chronology, The Seventh Dog traces the trajectory of Lyon’s wide-ranging interests, from the Civil Rights Movement in the South and Indian reservations in the West to the infamous biker club in Chicago, prison system in Texas and recent Occupy movement in New York. Representative vignettes from each of these substantial projects are presented alongside ephemera — letters he received and wrote, drawings, family snapshots, scans of his deeply worn photo paper boxes. Photography is not merely his occupation or livelihood. This medium and his life are inextricably linked, and he reveals this plainly through a seamless weaving of the personal and professional (if that distinction can even be made here). A lovely informality results from this combination of elements, as if we are rummaging unfettered through his studio.
Lyon’s work falls within the tradition of photojournalism and embodies a commitment to social justice, conveying nuanced stories through images deliberately edited into narrative sequences. At the same time, though, many pictures demonstrate something decidedly more personal and diaristic — akin to Nan Goldin’s Ballad of Sexual Dependency. He is not a voyeur. He never stands on the sidelines. He whole-heartedly enters the fray. He is as an ally and participant, contributing to the cause or moment in his own way. The directness and intimacy of his photographs allude to this personal involvement, a mutual identification palpable between photographer and subject. Through his disparate subject matter, it is this mutual understanding that fundamentally describes Lyon’s sensibility and binds these works together.
As I writer, I am instinctively attuned to the use of text in photobooks. In speaking with many photographers, there is a shared and repeated desire to limit the use of words — their own or those of others. Texts included often end up more metaphoric — poetry, short stories, allusive references. It does not strike me as unusual that Lyon completely embraces his voice in The Seventh Dog; perhaps a third of the book is devoted to his words. Fortunately for us, Lyon wields a pen in much the same way he employs his camera — with uncensored honesty and his own brand of eloquence. He does not analyze or justify the work; we understand his process, motivations and beliefs through a very colloquial sharing of experience. The Seventh Dog is as much a photobook as it is a memoir, tracing a life lived behind a very active camera through both image and word.
Passivity is not in the vocabulary of Mr. Lyon, and it should not be in yours when you take The Seventh Dog home. It is a far cry from the vacuous coffee table art books with which it shares its considerable scale. This tome requires work. But it is the kind of work that any lover of the medium will welcome with great enthusiasm, relishing every moment spent with the work of a great artist.