Seeing America pairs the two disparate visions of a nation captured on film by the photographers Danny Lyon and Ansel Adams. Both considered pioneers of photography, Lyon and Adams each conjure striking portraits of the United States in the 20th century. While Adams captures America’s state and national parks, making a staunch case for conservation of natural lands, Lyon photographs prison conditions in a Texas penitentiary.
Adams’ career was guided by his love of the natural world. He documented the magnificence and enormity of the American wilderness not only to record its beauty, but also to petition those who saw his work to preserve what he considered America’s greatest treasure. In addition to his work as a photographer, Adams was an activist working to ensure that future generations would all have the opportunity to be captivated by the American landscape. Adams was a member of the Sierra Club, an environmental advocacy group, and in 1936 he was sent to Washington D.C. to share his photographs with members of both Congress and the Senate and to lobby a bill that proposed the creation of Kings Canyon National Park.
The Danny Lyon photographs included in this exhibition are taken from his series titled Conversations with the Dead. For this body of work, Lyon spent fourteen months inside six Texas prisons. Given the uncommon authorization to freely document life inside of the Texas prison system, Lyon created a disarming body of work that gives us a glimpse into the lives of incarcerated Americans. Lyon’s photos of life inside the Texas prison system speak to the brutality of human subjugation and expose his unflinching dedication to the notion of freedom. In a 2014 essay, Lyon returns to this groundbreaking 1967 series with this reflection, “Prison is part and parcel of America, part of the American way. It’s like a cancer inside us. There are even prisons run by corporations inside the United States. In other words you can invest in prisons and make money by locking people up… For every severe sentence you steel yourself to hand out, you diminish something inside yourself. And when you insist on execution you kill something inside yourself. You kill your humanity. Be neither a slave nor a master. Be free”
As an artistic medium, photography has a unique connection to politics and activism because unlike a drawing or a painting, a photograph serves as empirical evidence or proof. Rather than capturing how an artist feels, photography allows us to see what the artist saw, and by extension, possibly feel what they felt. Both Danny Lyon and Ansel Adams have a story to tell, and each is a uniquely American story mediated by the struggle to defend what each holds sacred. Seeing America blends their two bodies of work, and encourages you to welcome the dissonance between this story’s towering highs and cavernous lows.