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Nonconformist photographer looks back

After attending an Occupy Wall Street rally in Albuquerque near his home, photographer and filmmaker Danny Lyon wants to know if the protesters have a presence in Charlotte.

"I'll have some free time when I come and I'd like to check them out," Lyon says, his voice still carrying a touch of Brooklyn, N.Y., where he was born 69 years ago.

Though by his own admission he has slowed down a bit, Lyon has not abandoned the anti-establishment ideology that drove him in the 1960s, leading him to refer to his work at the time as an "attempt to destroy Life magazine."

Ten of Lyon's black-and-white photographs from the '60s are on display as part of The Light Factory's exhibit, "Streetwise: Masters of '60s Photography." The exhibit, organized by The Museum of Photographic Arts in San Diego, features the work of eight other photographers, including Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander and one of the most influential figures in photography, Robert Frank.

Lyon will speak on Thursday as part of the lecture series hosted by The Light Factory and plans to screen his short film "Murderers." The film is a documentary following three convicted murderers that Lyon came to know through his years chronicling imprisonment in America.

"He's a photographer on the inside looking out," says Dennis Kiel, chief curator for The Light Factory. "Lyon is in the midst of his subject matter, that is one of the elements that make his imagery exciting. Danny is a hair-on-fire kind of guy."

Lyon acknowledged he struggles with digital photography and what the evolution of technology has meant for him and his approach. "I never went to art school," said Lyon, who majored in philosophy and ancient history at the University of Chicago. "Black-and-white photography was the medium at the time; it was simply part of my process."

When asked about the relevance of black and white in a jump-cut, iPad world, Lyon laughed. "No one asks to see photographs of the Civil War in color," he said. "That is the way it was. Digital point-and-shoot photography offers zero emotional involvement. It's mindless; it scores a minus-7 on the emotional involvement scale."

Practicing New Journalism

Lyon's gritty street photography and emotional connections with his subjects earned him a place alongside realist writers such as Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer as a founder of the New Journalism style that came of age during an era of social transition. The line between participant and observer was blurred. Chroniclers became embedded in the lifestyle of their subjects and shared a perspective that was often in contradiction with the idyllic American life portrayed by major photo magazines such as Life and Look.

Lyon immersed himself with the Chicago Outlaw Motorcycle club. And his work with the Texas Department of Corrections in the late 1960s saw him spend more than a year photographing inside six prisons. Once jailed alongside the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Lyon documented the civil rights movement as the first staff photographer for the Atlanta-based Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and went on to publish the acclaimed "Memories of the Southern Civil Rights Movement."

One of the works on display in this exhibit is his iconic, 1965 photo of a lone biker; speeding across a bridge, looking over his right shoulder at the river below. "Crossing the Ohio, Louisville, Kentucky" is perhaps the image most closely associated with Lyon. This one shot encapsulates defiance, a free spirit nature and a touch of danger.

Just like the rebel Danny Lyon.

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