BERNALILLO, N.M. — On Nov. 4, the morning after the election, hope and uncertainty mingled in the air outside the adobe house of the photographer and filmmaker Danny Lyon. Wind ruffled the branches of the golden cottonwoods he planted when he built the place in the early 1970s; it was sunny out. “I’m an eternal optimist,” he said. Mr. Lyon wore a Stetson hat, a blue button-down shirt, a face mask; green suspenders hitched up his jeans. In some parts of the country he has occasionally been mistaken for his University of Chicago classmate Bernie Sanders, for whom he stumped in 2019. “I just wave back at everybody,” he said.
The previous night, Mr. Lyon and his wife, the artist Nancy Lyon, had parked in front of the television to watch the returns. Mr. Lyon is 78, born in Brooklyn and raised in Queens by a German Jewish doctor and a Russian Jewish mother who nurtured his early interest in the Russian and Spanish revolutions. Until relatively recently, he said, “I never cared much for elections one way or another. Because I was so young when I was in the civil rights movement, I always believed democracy happened in the streets. Part of that has never left me.”
That indefatigable belief buoys three releases of Mr. Lyon’s own very American films, photographs, and writing — work that, since his first landmark photography books in a blazingly prolific decade, has elevated social documentary to an art form. He has always spoken from the streets, whether through incarcerated people, outlaw motorcyclists, freedom fighters, or the very buildings themselves. Aperture has just reissued “The Destruction of Lower Manhattan,” Mr. Lyon’s reverent 1969 document of the historical structures that would be demolished to make way for the World Trade Center.
“American Blood," edited by Randy Kennedy for Karma Books, collects six decades of Mr. Lyon’s sharp-witted and sanguine essays, interviews and photographs, starting with his days as the staff photographer of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or S.N.C.C., when he packed both an Olivetti typewriter and a camera.
But it is the fate of Mr. Lyon’s third new project, the one closest to his heart, that remains as uncertain as that of a divided country in the grips of a pandemic: the 75-minute film “SNCC” (pronounced “snick”), about the early days of the youth-led direct action civil rights organization that was known among its members simply as “the movement.” It “broke the back of Jim Crow,” he said, before its eventual unraveling.
The film also centers on Mr. Lyon’s six-decade friendship with Representative John Lewis, whom he met when he hitchhiked from Chicago to Cairo, Ill., in 1962, when he was 20 and Mr. Lewis 22.
He finished editing the film in record time — “I haven’t left this chair since March,” he said as he walked into his studio. One wall remained analog, with a photomontage in progress. The rest he had turned into an editing room, with three computer monitors and stacks of hard drives. He is intent on finding a distributor to get the film’s message into the hands of a new generation of activists.
For Mr. Lyon, whose half-century-old work about mass incarceration and racial injustice is presciently relevant, a film about the past is urgent: His ideal audience is young people addressing the climate crisis. “It’s the elephant in the room,” he said. “I cannot believe what’s happened to the earth and how culpable our quote ‘leaders’ are on both sides. I wanted to show how a small group of people could be so effective at changing the course of history, which is what S.N.C.C. did.”
The Whitney Museum of American Art, which premiered the first comprehensive retrospective of Mr. Lyon’s photographs and films in 2016, hosted a virtual screening of the film in October. Pharrell Williams has signed on as executive producer. Thus far, however, “SNCC” has been turned down by both Netflix and Hulu. “I was told the way it was made was ‘not traditional,’” Mr. Lyon said. “That’s a compliment, actually.”
Though disappointed that “SNCC” has not seen a major release, he is determined to find other avenues. “I’m psyched to enter it in festivals,” he said.
“SNCC” is the most ambitious and documentary of Mr. Lyon’s films — but like his others, most of which are free to watch via his Vimeo page — it is also personal. The poetic and idiosyncratic influence of Robert Frank, with whom Mr. Lyon shared his first film camera, is evident. Mr. Lyon calls “SNCC” a “compilation film,” collaged from his own photographs, notably many that have never been published, as well as new interviews with fellow activists, shot on hand-held camera, and vintage recordings, including the organization’s leader James Forman’s stirring and resonant speeches.
Some of Mr. Lyon’s S.N.C.C. pictures circulated again widely after Lewis’s death in July and have had echoes in contemporary images of police brutality. (Most recently, posters made from those images emerged as hot collectibles on an episode of “Antiques Road Show.”)