FotoFilmic18: Embedded in the light of the subject

Photographer Danny Lyon to speak at the Polygon Gallery on June 13

FotoFilmic18 at the Polygon Gallery until June 16. Danny Lyon artist talk and book signing Thursday, June 13, 7 p.m. For more information visit

Before there was Easy Rider there was The Bikeriders.

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Danny Lyon’s sensational book – published in 1968, a year before Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper brought their free-spirited odyssey to the silver screen – charts the American photographer’s various adventures and misadventures after hooking up with the Chicago Outlaws motorcycle club amid the often turbulent and rough ’60s.

Fascinated by the gritty and dangerous and all-too human foibles of club’s members, Lyon wrote in the introduction of his book of photography that he was guided by the infectious spirit the riders possessed, with their “spirit of the hand that twists open the throttle on the crackling engines of the big bikes and rides them on racetracks or through traffic, or, on occasion, into oblivion.”

After focusing on outlaws, Lyon then turned his attention to those who’d fought the law and lost. In Conversations With The Dead, published in 1971, Lyon was granted an intimate look at the Texas prison system during a 14-month period. He took photos at six prisons during this time, photographing and connecting with inmates along the way, including individuals sentenced to death or given life sentences.

Whether Lyon was shooting outlaws or inmates, however, he always made sure to insert himself into the narrative. For Lyon, the people he photographed weren’t specimens or subjects – they were people just like all of us. When he photographed bikers, he became a member of the pack just like those he was documenting; He shared in the lifestyle.

And in Conversations With The Dead, Lyon went behind prison bars in search of meaningful interactions with the would-be damned.

“That was completely revolutionary, just to be able to access that reality and stay with it and develop relationships with the inmates. Once the work was finished he still wrote letters and visited – this goes essentially beyond photography when you think about it. With Danny Lyon, this is his life,” says Bastien Desfriches Doria, co-founder of FotoFilmic.

FotoFilmic, a Bowen Island-based arts organization dedicated to supporting analogue photographic artists, will be hosting Lyon for an artist talk and book signing at the Polygon Gallery next Thursday at 7 p.m.

Referring to Lyon as a “sacred master of American photography,” Desfriches Doria comments that the photographer has been hugely influential as an early proponent of photographic new journalism, which favoured immersing the photographer alongside his subject and making him an active participant.

“Being embedded in the light of the subject as opposed to outside objectively picturing and reporting – that was a really big shift,” he says.

Desfriches Doria is no stranger to big shifts in the world of photography. In fact, a shift in the industry is what prompted Desfriches Doria and his wife, Virginie Lamarche, to found FotoFilmic in 2012.

“A lot of photographic exhibitions and industries were really in crisis following what went down in 2008. Kodak not so long ago just declared bankruptcy,” says Desfriches Doria.

Perhaps most alarming over the past decade and a half, according to Desfriches Doria, is the way that digital technology has usurped the bedrock upon which photography – and many other mediums – has traditionally been rooted in.

“The entire history of photography has been rooted in different kinds of analogue material and media,” he says. “It largely shaped the culture of photography up until just 10 or 15 years ago. We really think this entire medium is really important to consider, especially I would say today in the face of the recent transformations that a lot of technologies have undergone.”

In addition to Danny Lyon’s talk next week, visitors to the Polygon Gallery have until June 16 to check out FotoFilmic18, the sixth edition of FotoFilmic’s annual touring exhibition, which is currently on display.

The group exhibition features the work of 30 emerging and mid-career photographers representing 12 countries, who all shoot using film or analogue techniques.

Untitled, from Greek photographer Koilalous Demetri's series Heterotopia, is included in FotoFilmic18. - Supplied, Koilalous Demetri/FotoFilmic18

Among them is Greek photographer Demetris Koilalous, whose Heterotopia series includes an untitled piece which features a migrant worker walking towards a town. The sun is either rising or setting, and an embankment of cloud or fog surrounds the scene as the lone figure trudges onward.

“What [Koilalous] does essentially is social documentary – it’s essentially going after long-term projects and trying to really tackle some contemporary issues, such as the immigration crisis in Europe,” says Desfriches Doria. “He’s trying to re-humanize the subjects.”

Noting FotoFilmic’s mission to exhibit international photographers who strictly focus on shooting in analogue, Desfriches Doria says it was a risky move given the flux occurring in the industry at the time.

But, he observes, things have largely come full circle, as they always do, with a new reverence for photo arts technological past emerging as the field boldly moves into the future.

“Since we’ve started FotoFilmic, we’ve seen those younger generations of photographers going back to film.” 

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