JTF (just the facts): A total of 30 black and white photographs, framed in white and matted, and hung against white walls in the front and back gallery spaces. All of the works are gelatin silver prints, made between 2005 and 2009. Each of the prints is sized 8×10 and is available in an edition of 6. The exhibit also includes two glass cases containing notebooks and maquettes, and a pair of large darkroom bulletin boards covered edge to edge in ephemera. A monograph of this body of work was recently published by Phaidon (here). (Installation shots at right.)
Comments/Context: Danny Lyon’s newest project applies his particular brand of get-involved photojournalism to life in Shanxi province in northeast China. This is rural coal country, a throwback to a slower, more time-resistant existence rather than a shining example of the energetic hustle of the modern urban world. His pace is measured and deliberate, taking the time to immerse himself in the small details and repeated patterns of this overlooked region.
Many of Lyon’s images capture the rough, griminess of people-intensive industrial work: coal miners in a communal bath, railway workers swinging pickaxes and laying track, grubby mechanics fixing broken vehicles, and truck drivers lingering waiting for the next load. The rocky roads are bumpy and cracked, the leftover coal must be hand gleaned from the track side, and smokestacks loom in the distance. Circus performers and opera singers provide animated distractions from the exhaustion and tedium, but most folks seem to opt for simpler pleasures: playing cards, chatting and/or smoking in a tea house, flying a kite. The economic boom of the cities has obviously failed to reach this area; dusty antiques, magazines in plastic bags, and fireworks are all that is for sale.
In many ways, these pictures look like they could have been taken ten, twenty, or even fifty years ago; the tide of change in the rural Chinese provinces has obviously been extremely slow. What I like about Lyon’s photographs is that they are consistently evenhanded and dignified. They forgo overly easy judgment and criticism for supportive curiosity and genuine interest. Every picture has a quiet backstory, providing understated context and straightforward details, approaching the people of countryside with openness and honesty.
Collector’s POV: Each of the prints in this show is priced at $6000. Lyon’s work is consistently available in the secondary markets, with recent single image prices at auction ranging between $1000 and $15000.