“There are now 14 rolls of film to develop,” photographer Danny Lyon wrote in his diary on Sept. 4, 1967. “The most I’ve ever done in such a short period, five days.”
Knoxville scenes inspired the well-traveled photographer, and Lyon’s photographs of Knoxville as it was 43 years ago make up a section of the well-known photographer’s recent autobiographical book, Memories of Myself (Phaidon Press).
Somewhere else that season was being hailed as the Summer of Love, but the year 1967 was perhaps not Knoxville’s most jubilant time. Some things were looking up—events at the modern Civic Coliseum, the Market Square “Mall.” But the last census indicated that the population was in steep decline. Factories had closed, too many of them to count, and that was part of it, but a bigger factor by 1967 was that the affluent white population in recently desegregated Knoxville was in headlong suburban flight. Downtown Knoxville, and the neighborhoods adjacent to it, atrophied. Knoxvillians consoled themselves with the fortunes of the University of Tennessee Vols and the green lawns of the suburbs and television. But many Knoxvillians were choosing to get away from the memory of Knoxville, preferring to live in America.
Danny Lyon was only 25 years old, but he was already a veteran photographer who had seen things never seen by most Americans, even in long lifetimes. Born in New York to immigrant parents, he’d attended the University of Chicago and had been the photographer for the activist Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and spent long months in the Deep South, taking pictures of the civil-rights struggle. He’d just finished The Bikeriders, his book about riding with a motorcycle gang, and he had lived with Colombian prostitutes, documenting their lives in color.
Middle-class Knoxvillians might have considered Lyon’s career extreme, but one of the chief inspirations for immersive approach was a native Knoxvillian, James Agee. Lyon came to Knoxville in the summer of 1967, largely just to see the city Agee described. It was a city Agee would barely have recognized, but his old neighborhood, Fort Sanders, was still, barely, a place where some families lived.
“Agee’s text had been a huge influence on me,” Lyon says in an e-mail interview. “I had finished my work as a civil-rights photographer in the summer of 1964, and left Mississippi with a copy of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men that I got from a girlfriend. She got it from the Santa Barbara Public Library, I assume at a sale. I later read that many of the summer volunteers were reading that book. I loved and still love Agee’s explanation of photography and what I thought of as ‘realism’ in the arts.... I was looking for Agee’s home, but to my horror found it demolished.”
In his 1967 diary, excerpted in the book, he wrote, “It has been replaced by the ‘James Agee apartments.’ Antique brick and black iron lamps, red doors. Below Agee’s name are the words, ‘Town and Country Construction.’ In a few years such abominable structures will replace all the houses in this Knoxville neighborhood. The Agee apartments seem like some kind of perverse tombstone for this great man.”
His pilgrimage was easier thanks to a couple of other connections to Knoxville—young women he knew, including a high-school girlfriend. He and his current girlfriend stayed at his old friend Bonnie’s place. Another friend, Leslie—he describes her as a hippie he originally met in New Orleans, who was living with a group of counterculture sorts here in 1967—is central to several photographs. A photograph of her framed in the window of an old car parked on the Gay Street viaduct illustrates the cover of his book.
He was a stranger in town then, and today doesn’t recall specifics about locations, but most of his subjects seem to be within walking distance of Agee’s old block of Highland. “I was a stone realist myself, and believed in the camera, in my camera, and when I went to walk the streets that morning I was highly motivated. What I got from the city and the kids I ran into... was a subject. And as a New Yorker and an ex-civil-rights worker, I had a powerful and wonderful reaction to what I was seeing. ”
A group of kids told him about a local carnival, the Tennessee Valley Fair. He went and took some photographs, but he says they weren’t his best; he had a similar experience shooting a stock-car race at the old Maryville Speedway. He did get a shot of a stock car being towed down Gay Street.
Some northern urbanites might hesitate to approach groups of shirtless Southern guys for a photograph. Lyon says his approach to strangers is no big secret.
“I have no trouble getting along with people,” he says. “I like them.”
Thanks to Leslie, Lyon got invited to speak to a local photography club—he doesn’t remember specifics except that one member was a photographer named Bolton who showed him an interesting book of photographs about Pittsburgh. He knows his visit to the club earned mention in one of the local papers, because he carried the clipping around with him for identification, in case he was stopped by police.
Wandering the fringes of Fort Sanders, he encountered a carny in a mixed-race group of friends, watching kids play with a creature they called the goat-dog.
“You know I was an ex-civil-rights worker, so I appreciated the closeness of the white man and the black man, something not really understood in the North.”
From here, he went to New Orleans and then to Galveston, Texas, a Gulf Coast counterculture mecca in the late ’60s, where he took some well-known photographs of transvestites. Lyon’s career since then has taken him to the drag strips of New York state and the slums of Haiti and Cuba; he has become one of America’s well-known photographers, associated with the New Journalism of which Agee was the godfather. Lyon now splits his time between rural homes in New Mexico’s Rio Grande Valley and New York’s Hudson River Valley. His website, bleakbeauty.com , exhibits many of his best photographs; he blogs as “Dektol” at dektol.wordpress.com .
Lyon says he came back to Knoxville in 2006 or ’07, and though he had a good breakfast in a downtown restaurant, he says, “I couldn’t recognize anything. It was very disappointing. I should have stuck with my memories.”