Now on view in Decisive Moments: Photographs from the Collection of Cherye R. and James F. Pierce is this image by Danny Lyon. The Brooklyn-born, New Mexico-based photographer rose to prominence in the socially and politically turbulent 1960s, conscious of the ability of a photograph to raise awareness of a wide range of issues. He made his earliest images as a staff photographer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) documenting the civil rights demonstrations against segregation in the South.

Lyon has said, “My camera was my entrance into another world…I had the rare privilege to see history firsthand.”

From 1967 to 1968, he lived in East Texas and Houston. With the cooperation of the Texas Department of Prisons, Lyon secured permission to shoot at six prisons. He published this work, including the image here of a prisoner collapsed from working on a prison gang in extreme heat, in Conversations With the Dead: Photographs of Prison Life, which also includes texts taken from prison records, letters and artwork by inmates. In the introduction Lyon states that his idea was that the penal system of Texas was symbolic for incarceration everywhere: “I tried with whatever power I had to make a picture of imprisonment as distressing as I knew it to be…I spent 14 months talking to these guys. They broke my heart. Prison is one story after another, and every one breaks your heart.”

In 1967, the film Cool Hand Luke, starring Paul Newman as a prisoner in a Florida prison camp who refuses to submit to the system (“What we got here is failure to communicate”), was a hit. The movie was fiction, while Lyon’s images were reality.

Read more about Danny Lyon in this New York Times article.

Danny Lyon (American, born 1942)
Heat Exhaustion, 1967/68
Vintage gelatin silver print
The Cherye R. and James F. Pierce Collection of Photography