What does it take to commit to a craft for more than 70 years—particularly one that has undergone the revolutions in technology that photography has? Legendary photographer Fred Lyon worked as a Navy photographer in WWII, spent more than a decade in advertizing and fashion in New York, shot journalistically for Life magazine and Sports Illustrated, and returned to his native Bay Area to document the city and further diversify his repertoire. I sat down with the gracious, funny, and formidably energetic Lyon to discuss the habits of attitude, practice, and perseverance that have given his career such longevity.
The Rumpus: I’m curious about how peoples’ reading of photography, both art- and journalistic, has changed with the glut of images we see every day, in social networks, etc. When you started out, and photographs were more rare, do you think people looked at them differently?
Fred Lyon: It’s one of the funny things about living as long as I have, you don’t see it happening; it just happens, and only in retrospect do you see the wild changes. For many years, if I was working on something journalistic, if I raised my camera, people were a little shocked and wanted to know what I was doing. I had to be very quick to get what I wanted before they said, “Why are you pointing that machine at me?!” Now it’s so much better. Nobody cares if they’re having their pictures taken. Young people just have photography as part of their vocabulary. It’s the language of young people. All of you just use it as a tool without being impressed by it. As for art, I’ve always gotten nervous around people who talk about “fine art photography.” Usually, it’s named that by the people who are doing it. My feeling is that if it’s fine art, somebody else will tell you. I just photograph what I see or what I visualize and if somebody else thinks that’s art, terrific.
The only downside is that there are so many images and so much of it is boring. There’s no law saying you can’t make bad pictures. Would that there were. I think what’s happened is that even with the changes in photography, we’re still fighting a lot of old myths. The feeling is that if you’re a “real” photographer it must be “pure.” A lot of people seem terribly disappointed that for the past four years or so I’ve been doing digital photography; they feel that gelatin silver prints in a wet dark room are still the best. But the ranks of the very great darkroom craftsmen are getting very thin because they’re dying off. And it’s slow. It’s expensive. It’s getting very difficult to get the raw materials. I would far prefer to work with digital prints. We have incredibly improved materials—the paper is so good! I’m taking some of those same old negatives going back into the ’40s—some of which are scratched, dirty, or weren’t shot under the proper conditions—and I’m able to make incredible prints from them today digitally, far better than anything I was able to get out of them in the darkroom. I can absolutely say that I can make indistinguishable prints from gelatin silver and in some cases, better! I have a lot more control. Some people think that it’s fudging (to alter them digitally) but how is that different from a painter who picks up a brush and fixes or changes something? They’d have a good argument if I insisted that my photography is all facsimile, is all “truth” but I’ve never presented any of it that way. My feeling is-whatever please people.
Rumpus: Has the way you photograph changed since you’ve left the darkroom? How did the darkroom activity affect your work?
Lyon: Well, most of my career, I either had assistants in the darkroom or the magazine had its own darkroom staff. I do think that starting from that work in the darkroom, and having to solve those problems with my hands over the years, I understand a lot more of what I want to end up with, and I can work without any insecurities hanging over me. I still find that I have a tremendous amount to learn technically. But there is great joy in doing that because we are constantly being given new wonderful tools that just didn’t exist before. I’m the beneficiary of millions of dollars worth of research. For the viewer I would just say that it’s a great time. We have access to almost anything we want to see. If I want to see some historic prints by Eugene Atget, it’s possible right now. These are things that didn’t occur before. This is the most exciting time to be in photography that I can think of.
The Rumpus: I bet people underestimate how hard it is, how much work.
Lyon: I work very hard. I don’t make that the centerpiece of my efforts. It’s just that I insist there be a lot of joy that goes into the effort. I’ve never tried to draw a distinction between amateurs and professionals because many of the greatest photos I’ve ever seen have been done by non-professionals. The distinction there is that a pro goes out and has to come back with something useable if he’s going to pay the rent. But as for technique, the problem with perfecting technique is that sometimes you become slavish to your technique and you lose the excitement of the discovery that you enjoy before you ‘re thoroughly educated and experienced in the technical aspects.
Rumpus: I know you’re uncomfortable discussing your work as “art,” but can you describe the influence, if any, that your work in the service, in advertising, and in fashion, had on your—if not artistic—more personal work?
Lyon: There’s no question that you end up doings things by happenstance or to pay your bills. We all have the bad habit of liking to eat all the time. I had two sons. When you have a whole house full of purchasing agents, which is what they turned out to be, you find yourself doing advertising. Advertising was considered a little crass. Well, I had a wonderful time in advertising. It was tough, sometimes mean and scary but I learned a lot from that, too. A lot of my success in advertising had to do with my success in fashion. I was never a great fashion photographer, but there is a truth that a fashion photographer can photograph a refrigerator, but a refrigerator photographer cannot photograph fashion. And actually when I started out, I really wanted to do very slick advertising stuff.
When I was in the Navy I was in a Washington’s very small press unit, and we were directly answerable to Roosevelt’s office. He was a Navy man and we were an extension of his will, and I learned a lot from watching him perform. He was our first media president. I covered the White House, and I remember one Christmas going there to do a group shot of the entire Roosevelt clan. I had these grand ideas of how I was going to pose everybody. But I had never seen so many people in one place. Old women, young men, babies, dogs, cats, God knows what all. I realized that what I really had to do was forget the beautiful ideas I had and just try to get enough exposures that I got one picture in which everybody’s eyes were open.
I’ve been very fortunate to shoot almost everything except combat, and I don’t feel badly about that. I still have my arms and legs. But I was thinking about the number of times I did something that was just out-and-out foolish. Being in the wrong shoes on the face of a cliff while in Canada because somebody had said, “Oh, you’ll be able to see it better from this side.” I found myself clinging to the face of this cliff and unable to move up, down, sideways, and I thought, “Fred, this is really stupid. You’re not getting paid enough even to be this uncomfortable, let alone die.” I thought it was over. Sports Illustrated put me in harms way a lot of times. I was photographing sailing ships for the Transpac Race when they were practicing down in San Diego and I was in a very fast motorboat. As they came up behind you you had to be ready to move from one craft to the other, but you couldn’t just ask one of those big sail boats to slow down. As you’re moving forward the boats are coming together and then separating, and if you don’t time it perfectly, you’re in the water or you’re squeezed between the two crafts. I had cameras dangling. And you just do it, and you think later on, “That was stupid. I need a higher day rate if I’m gonna risk my life.” But these are just all the things you do—but not when you’re older. I’ve shot a lot of cookbooks. Odd things happen.
On the other hand, Life magazine allowed me a great deal of leeway. If I wanted to charter an airliner, I could do that. Once for a fashion story, I awakened having put away a lot of gin the night before. Gin was big in those days. I have no idea why I’m still alive. But I went over to the telephone because I had a feeling I had done something rash in the middle of the night. And indeed I looked at my scribbling—I was in the midst of a bikini story and I had booked elephants at the beach. I thought models in bikinis are already much too much for me to face today, but I can’t handle elephants. I had visions of the elephants holding each other’s tails and plodding down Sunset Boulevard. I unbooked them, and that cost almost as much as it had to book them.
Rumpus: That’s kind of sad, now.
Lyon: I agree, but you see, when you’re young and foolish you do stuff like gin.
Rumpus: I love your monograph, San Francisco Then, and the glimpse it offers of this city in the ’40’s and 50’s. How has San Francisco changed?
Lyon: In some ways it hasn’t changed enough. A lot of stuffy people here. Deadly stuffy. It’s been very slow going with the creative pursuits; a lot of people have gone to other places where the climate was better. All these live/work lofts—almost nobody who works lives in one because they’re too expensive. They gobbled up all the remaining real estate. There are a lot of provincial attitudes that we suffer here. Still, when you go far away and come back it looks very good. I’m not as militant as I should have been but somehow I decided early on that if you’re going to succeed creatively sometimes you have to be selfish because you really have to pursue what you’re going to pursue right out to the end of your energy. And we all get distracted. I raised a family. That takes a tremendous amount of time away from your pure productivity. You have to pursue a few things selfishly.
Rumpus: Do you still photograph around the city? Is there still joy in doing that?
Lyon: Well the tough thing is to maintain a fresh eye. I know a lot of photographers who have done well professionally because they learned how to do something and they do it over and over and over again. It’s a cookie cutter. Some photographers say, “I take pictures for myself,” That’s a lie. We’re trying to communicate, to look at things and get a clue from somewhere. We’re storytellers, were trying to express ourselves. We shouldn’t fib to ourselves or anybody else. It’s a lot easier than one would hope.
Life does very funny things to you. Life has mellowed me. There were times when I was a little brash. It was fun to surprise people, maybe even jar them a little bit, but I had that feeling at that time that any change is progress. I always want to be out there dancing on the edge. I think if you don’t feel that strongly, you should be selling shoes or something.