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January 11 2011

Caught on camera

As much investigative reportage as photography book, Like a Thief's Dream pieces together a real murder case through images of a killer the author met in a prison in Texas – and uncovered a probable miscarriage of justice

A friend gave me a copy of Like a Thief's Dream by Danny Lyon as a Christmas present. "It's not really a photography book," he said, "more a piece of investigative journalism with a few photographs." This is indeed the case, but it is also more than that. Published in 2007, the book went under my radar back then, but it is a fascinating read, one that speaks volumes about Lyon's approach, which has always been journalistic, and often campaigning.

The first thing that strikes you about Like a Thief's Dream is that there are, indeed, not that many photographs in it – just 24 in all. More surprising still, many of them are not by Danny Lyon, but are "found": mug shots, pictures from scrapbooks and personal journalism, and snapshots from family photo albums and an FBI wanted poster. Oddly, for a book by a photographer, the images are very definitely an accompaniment to the text rather than the other way around. In this instance, the text is an extended piece of what used to be called New Journalism, a form in which the writer often placed himself at the centre of the story. Both Truman Capote's In Cold Blood and Norman Mailer's The Executioner's Song sprang to mind as I read Lyon's account of a true crime – the murder of a young police officer in Arkansas in 1975 – and his evolving relationship with one of the convicted murderers, James Ray Renton.

"This is the story of a journalist and a thief," the narrative begins, "I am the journalist and Jimmy Renton, a man I met in a Texan prison, is the thief." Lyon, like many great photographers, is a fine writer. He is also a great investigative reporter, painstakingly piecing together a credible account of what happened on the December night in 1975 when officer John Hussey was murdered. Lyon puts Renton at the scene of the crime, though he never confronts him about what exactly happened of the killing, and his failure to do so becomes one of the many fractured, nagging narratives that contribute impressionistically to the bigger one.

Likewise the probable miscarriage of justice that Lyon uncovers: the wrongful arrest and imprisonment of Harold "Dinker" Cassell, who, at the time of the book's publication, had served 27 years in prison for a crime Lyon firmly believes he did not commit. Lyon uses both Cassell and Renton's letters and interviews in his telling of this strange tale, as well as the words of corroborating witnesses – some of whom did not come forward to testify at the time, so scared were they of Renton's possible retribution.

The bigger narrative of Like a Thief's Dream, though, is one that has exercised Lyon throughout his life as a photographer: the inhumanity of the American prison system. Like a Thief's Dream is a book that grew out of Lyon's earlier, more epic work, Conversations With the Dead, published in 1971. For that book, Lyon photographed conditions inside six Texan prisons with the full co-operation of the Texas Department of Corrections, which considered its system of punishment more humane than others in the US. "I tried with whatever power I had," he wrote at the time, "to make a picture of imprisonment as distressing as I knew it to be in reality."

It was during the making of that work that Lyon first met Renton, then halfway through an 11-year sentence for burglary. In Like a Thief's Journal, he describes him thus: "He was 28 years old, about three years older then I. He spoke with a dripping East Texas drawl that he had picked up in Port Arthur, the same town Janice Joplin, then at the height of her career, was from. He spoke to me with an almost gentlemanly charm … that made him immediately stand out from all the other men I had met."

Unlike the other men he had met – and photographed – in Texan prisons, however, Renton asked Lyon if he could also take a picture of him. He was, as it turned out, interested in photography – and fishing, and marijuana, both of which Lyon loved, too. "Jimmy was a thief who stood out among a population of thieves,", Lyon writes in Like a Thief's Dream, clearly cherishing the moment of identification. "Although he was one of my subjects, he was also, in a way, my equal. Someone who demanded to be taken seriously."

Ironically enough, none of Lyon's photographs of Renton made it into the final edit of Conversations With the Dead, but, alongside a handful of other inmates of Huntsville Prison, he did help the photographer create a small, portfolio edition of the book, which was made on the prison's printing press. He is credited on the front cover underneath Lyon's name: "Smiley Renton, *189994, Lithography".

It was shortly after being freed from Huntsville in the early 1970s that Renton was involved in the murder of police officer Hussey. The book traces his capture, conviction and his subsequent escape from prison – Renton was briefly on the FBI's most wanted list until his recapture. In one way, the book is a record of Lyon's deepening friendship with Renton, which lasted from that first fateful meeting until Renton died in prison – of natural causes – some 30 years later. Throughout, you sense Lyon's growing intimacy with a man who was both a charming confidante and a cold-blooded killer, and it is this identification with the outsider, a recurrent trope in Lyon's work, that has proven problematic to some of his critics.

"To some, he's idealising people who really are not good people at all, they're just criminals," his friend, the writer, Larry McMurtry, told the New York Times recently, "but, to Danny, they're just good people who never had a chance … he's an idealist, to a large extent."

Lyon, for his part, sees nothing wrong with that: "You put a camera in my hand, I want to get close to people. Not just physically close, emotionally close, all of it. It's part of the process."

Interestingly, early in his career, Lyon assisted Robert Frank, whom he greatly admired, but, unlike Frank – a European self-exiled in America – his eye is never that of an outsider. To this end, he ran with the Outlaws' motorcycle gang for two years while photographing them for The Bikeriders, published in 1967. Once, while chronicling the civil rights struggle in the American south as a raw, self-taught 20-year-old, he ended up in a prison cell next to the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.

It is quite a leap, though, from that prison cell to the one in which he first met James Renton; and one of the strongest undercurrents in Like a Thief's Dream is Lyon's self-questioning voice, the one that seemingly nags at him more when he is writing than photographing; the one that asks him persistently why he is doing what he is doing. To this end, the book's epigraph is illuminating. It comes from Browning: "Our interest's on the dangerous edge of things," it reads. "The honest thief. The tender murderer."

Those few lines cast some light on the dark motivations that underlie Danny Lyon's ongoing body of brilliantly challenging – and unapologetically problematic – work, and on our continuing fascination with it.

Now see this

The Third Floor Gallery in Cardiff continues to show strong work from established and upcoming photographers. It starts 2011 with a retrospective of Laura Pannack's work, opening on 15 January. It includes the series, Glass, in which she photographs people behind a piece of glass. Pannack won the 2010 World Press Photo Award in the single portrait category, and her intimate and self-assured approach to portraiture continues to intrigue. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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