On a rainy gray day in the late 1960s, a new black prisoner arrived at a Texas penitentiary. Flanked by a pair of white officials, his hands in cuffs, the man held his head down as he walked past the guard tower, through the puddles in the yard, on toward the living nightmare where he would spend years.
Photographer Danny Lyon was there too, on the other side of a chain-link fence. Lyon caught this scene of dread in a moody black-and-white photo criss-crossed with the fence wires. It's one of the opening photos in "Conversations with the Dead," a suite of 80 searing photos Lyon shot in six Texas prisons over 14 months in 1967 and 1968.
The foreboding of this early image is readily borne out in the painful images Lyon went on to make. White-clad men labor in the cotton fields in the Texas heat, armed guards on horseback watching their every move. Solitary confinement cells for the "psychotic" are claustrophobic, measuring just 5 feet by 9 feet. In impossibly long food lines, men snake across yards and up the stairs to get to the slop of the dining hall, where all conversation is strictly forbidden. The prison bars become geometries of gleaming metal beams, shooting vertically and diagonally, blocking off any and all escape.
The close-up portraits of prisoners are painful. "Aaron Evert Jones, life, habitual criminal" gazes gamely at the photographer, though his eyes are shaded by sorrow. In an early version of today's three-strikes laws, Jones was sentenced to life in prison for a trio of minor crimes, Lyon writes, including vagrancy and breaking a toilet in the Lubbock city jail.
Lyon hoped to make "a picture of imprisonment as distressing as I knew it to be in reality," he writes in his book—and he's more than succeeded.
Now 73 years old and renowned as an artist whose work lyrically captures ugliness and despair, Lyon was only 25 years old when he drove to Texas to begin his prison work. He had already shot photographs good enough to make a career. At 20, still in college, he'd gone south to cover the battles over civil rights, and his pictures of police beating demonstrators and of shining-faced young people sitting in at lunch counters are among the most luminous of that struggle.
In Texas, Lyon won permission from Dr. George Beto, then director of the Texas Department of Corrections, to photograph in six prisons without any restriction. It's the kind of access that's almost unimaginable now, when reporters and photographers are frequently barred from prisons and detention centers. Moving freely on the inside, Lyon made photos that are achingly intimate. He photographed prisoners showering naked in groups, visiting with wives and children and collapsing of heat exhaustion in the blazing fields.
"Diagnostics," the first of six sections of the exhibition, focuses on the intake of new prisoners. In one, "Contents of arriving prisoner's wallet," photographs of a sweetheart, of a mother and a baby, of the prisoner himself with an arm around a woman, are scattered across a table. "New arrivals from Corpus Christi" pictures two Chicano men sticking together, both of them looking fearfully over their shoulders.
Another section focuses on the Wynne prison, the "nut factory," as prisoner Billy McCune called it, "where if you weren't nutty when you began doing time here you will before you get out." In one of these pictures, a black man peers through the white bars with a baffled look on his face. Lyon gave the image a simple but telling name: "Schizophrenic inmate, imprisoned twenty years."
More graphic are the pictures shot at Ramsey, a farm camp of hard labor. Here an elderly black prisoner hands a jug of water up to his white overseer, seated high above him on a horse. "Heat Exhaustion," a photo that Lyon decided to keep private from prison officials when he was working, shows an unconscious black man tossed like a corpse into the back of pickup truck, his clothes ripped open and his dark skin glistening with sweat. In two pictures called "Shakedown," prisoners, black and white, stand naked in front of the guards for inspection, their arms flung outward like Christ's on the cross.
The most lyrical and timeless shots are from Ferguson, a farm camp for the youngest men. In "The Line," black men in white uniforms stretch out under the big Texas sky, each one bent over a hoe. In "Cotton pickers," black prisoners in white reach down toward the white balls of cottons; the field is thick with plants and a seemingly infinite number of workers. These pictures are reminiscent of the agricultural paintings of Francois Millet, which conjured up, in more sentimental fashion, the salt of the earth, the people doing backbreaking labor in the fields. Lyon's images are harsher; these prison workers are the wretched of the earth and with the color coding—white guards, black prisoners—they unmistakably carry an echo of slavery.
Lyon acknowledges that he didn't witness the crimes these men were accused of; he saw only the savage punishments they were subject to. He first published a book of the prison photographs in 1971. In a new edition, he writes that mass incarceration in the United States has skyrocketed in the decades since.
Nowadays, the U.S. locks up some 2,220,300 adults in a variety of prisons, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. That phenomenon, Lyon laments, has operated to deprive African-Americans of the vote and to break up black families, as Michelle Alexander wrote in "The New Jim Crow."
"If, back in 1968, I thought I could bring down the mighty walls of the Texas prison system by publishing `Conversations with the Dead,'" Lyon writes, "...then those years of work are among the greatest failures of my life...Prison is now part and parcel of America...it's like a cancer inside us."