Even on a bad day, a good photographer can produce a terrific image. Danny Lyon's "Teenager in Second Ward, Chicano Neighborhood, 06/1972" is a case in point. It's from a series of photos that he made in El Paso's Second Ward in June and July 1972. Viewed as a whole, the series is far from his strongest work. Individually, a few hold up very well. This one -- this moody street portrait of a young woman in a Tri Five Chevy -- is wonderful. And it took me by surprise.
Danny Lyon: Teenager in Second Ward, Chicano Neighborhood, 06/1972. United States National Archives, Documerica Project on Flickr. (Click on any of the photos to see larger versions.)
It surprised me, in part, because I was looking for something completely different, when I stumbled across it and the entire Second Ward series a few weeks ago. More importantly, it's because I'd never seen it or any of the others, despite knowing Lyon's photography pretty well.
I've been a Danny Lyon fan for many years. I admire his commitment to social justice. I share his infatuation with the culture of the hot rod and the motorcycle. I appreciate his ability to make documentary photos of great strength, complexity, and even beauty. So why had I never seen any of these photos?
Danny Lyon: El Paso's Second Ward, a Classic "Barrio" on the Border of Mexico. The Spanish Speaking Community Has Preserved Much of Its Unique Ethnic Heritage. (1972.)
It turns out that the Second Ward series is part of Documerica, a vast, yet little known documentary project that was run by the Environmental Protection Agency during the mid-'70s. Its director, Gifford Hampshire, hoped that it would produce a portrait of America that was as sweeping and comprehensive as the Farm Security Administration's documentary project of the the '30s.
It was not to be. As Barbara Lynn Shubinski makes clear in her fine dissertation, "From FSA to EPA: Project Documerica, the Dustbowl Legacy, and the Quest to Photograph 1970s America," the project was saddled with administrative and budgetary woes right from the start. There was also, she says, a kind of conceptual incoherence to Hampshire's aspirations. He justified his comprehensive plans by arguing that "everything's connected to everything else," a truism that was too broad to give the project much of a focus.
Sounds pretty bleak, doesn't it? But, in fact, it's not. Despite the funding problems, the 70 photographers who worked on various Documerica assignments -- some of whom, like Lyon, were well established professionals -- produced over 20,000 images, many of which are important documents of the era and beautiful as well. The conceptual incoherence that Shubinski describes ironically gave the best of them space to pursue projects that blended personal visions with administrative demands.
In El Paso, Lyon wanted to capture the flavor of life in the Second Ward, before both the buildings and the culture were lost to urban renewal (as his captions and correspondence with Hampshire make clear). He was only partly successful. As Shubinski points out, "there are no middle-aged people, no old men, no mothers or grandmothers, no babies" in the entire series. Everybody is a teen or young adult. Nobody's working, and only one of the photos was made indoors. It's hardly a comprehensive look at life in the Second Ward. What was Lyon up to?
Danny Lyon: El Paso's Second Ward, a Chicano Neighborhood, 06/1972.
He was making Danny Lyon photos.
Throughout his career, Lyon has been attracted to the marginal, the young, and the street. Cars and motorcycles appear in his work almost as frequently as people. Often, he seems to understand people through the ways in which they ride and drive, soup-up and customize their vehicles. He captures his subjects through the sensibility of a street photographer. As Colin Westerbeck once wrote, in Lyon's photos we "get the sort of fleeting, furtive glimpse at life that New York street photography gives us."
Danny Lyon: Automobile in the Second Ward, El Paso's Chicano Neighborhood, 06/1972.
Westerbeck has put his finger on something essential in Lyon's photos, but he's also selling them short. They can carry a tremendous amount of information about people, cultures, and eras.
Take the photo above. It's the same Tri Five Chevy that we saw in the first paragraph. (The Tri Five Chevys are the '55, '56, and '57 models which are now highly desirable classics. I can't be sure of this particular car's year or model. If you know, please leave a comment. Update, 12 January 2011: My friend Stan B. has ID'd the cars. Check out his notes in this post's comments.) It's a wonderfully complex photograph. "Raza Is Love," a slogan that evokes "Brown Power," the radical Chicano political movement, competes for attention with an American flag and a label from a Budweiser beer bottle. The mixed messages lead us into the era at the same time that they remind us that things are never simple.
Danny Lyon: Armijo Community Center, 07/1972.
Like all photos, the images in the Second Ward series operate on a variety of different levels. Nearly forty years after they were made, they've taken on the rosy glow of nostalgia. They are also gorgeous pictures, a pleasure to see. They succeed as documents, too. Although Documerica never became the all-encompassing project that Hampshire had envisioned, the work of Lyon and the 69 other photographers opens windows on worlds that no longer exist.
As Documerica becomes better known -- and Shubinski's dissertation is an important step in that direction -- we will increasingly see it as the invaluable resource and artistic gold mine that it is. Hampshire, who died several years ago, would have been pleased.
Danny Lyon: Thunderbird Club in Background, 07/1972.
Except for a tiny handful black and white images, all of the Documerica photos were shot on Kodachrome, which many photographers believe was the finest color film ever made. Eastman Kodak ended production of the film in 2009. Last month, the last commercial processor stopped developing it. Like many others, I mourn its passing.