Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Like a Thief's Dream by Danny Lyon

Danny Lyon has a new book from Powerhouse called Like a Thief’s Dream.

Lyon is a curious type of artist for me. He is one that I make a point of keeping an eye out for and, although I seem to wind up owning what he offers, often it feels a bit thin and undernourished. In this way he is similar to Larry Clark. The name has a draw that seems to dupe me with promises of new greatness equal to their past accomplishments but rarely does it satisfy.

His two great books are of his earliest, The Bikeriders and Conversations with the Dead. In these, Lyon seems fully engaged and his photography is richer for it. I will say that I have never been a big fan of most of his photography by itself. His talent lays partly in the way that he combines images and text to create a self portrait that melds into the story. In his better works, there is a balance to the treatment of subject and self examination. When he has dwelt solely on his home life and family, we may wonder why we are made privy to it and why does it make a book. The result makes me think of restlessness.

So when I opened Like a Thief’s Dream and found it to be all text and almost no images made by him, I breathed a sigh of relief that it wasn’t another book of collage or bad polaroids of his family. No. Words, nothing but glorious words. And you know the biggest surprise? Lyon is a damn good writer. This book does make me wish that he put down the camera (Leica and 16mm Eclair) after The Bikeriders and Conversations with the Dead and settled for the same life but with a more active pen.

The story that Lyon relates is about a man named James Renton. Lyon met Renton in 1967 while he was working in Huntsville Texas on Conversations with the Dead. Jimmy Renton was serving on a capital murder charge and spent part of his time working in the prison darkroom. Although Renton does not show up in any of the photos in Conversations, he helped Lyon to make a 16 page portfolio edition of the book using the prison printing press. Renton’s name is credited as the lithographer under Lyon’s on the front cover.

When Renton was freed from prison in the early seventies, Lyon reconnected with him and shortly after, Renton was involved in the murder of a young police officer in Arkansas. The consequent criminal investigation and capture of Renton makes for a compelling read. Lyon seems to have fallen in with a man who could provide plenty of compelling material as after being charged and serving a few years in prison, Renton escaped and provided Lyon with a written account of the events.

Renton was one of the FBI’s ten most wanted until his eventual recapture. After his death in 1995, Lyon started to pursue the details of Renton’s crimes through his personal letters, court transcripts and the large amount of paper documenting the man‘s life. The book’s title comes from one of Renton’s letters to Lyon when he referred to Lyon as living a life that was like a thief’s dream.

In my opinion, Lyon has found a third vocation in writing that may prove to be stronger than his first two. Let us hope that he continues for this is the best work he has done in thirty years.

Book Available Here (Like a Thief's Dream)