He purchased his first camera, in Munich, an SLR made in East Germany on a 1959 trip to Europe on the same afternoon that he visited Dachau, Hitler’s first concentration camp, located in a Munich suburb. He began making pictures as a history student at the University of Chicago. In 1962, still a student, he hitch hiked to Cairo Illinois where he photographed his first demonstrations, meeting John Lewis, a Freedom Rider and SNCC field worker. Lewis urged Lyon to travel further south. In July Lyon reached Albany Georgia, where he met James Forman who asked him to make pictures for the Movement. He was soon jailed. In 1963 Lyon joined the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee as their first staff photographer, in the words of Ken Light “virtually creating the role of staff photographer for a NGO”. His Movement photographs were widely used at the time on posters, flyers and brochures and are considered one of the great visual records of the civil rights movement. They were published in 1964 in The Movement with a text by Lorraine Hansberry, and more recently in “Memories of the Southern Civil Rights Movement” by Twin Palms.
Upon leaving the Movement, Lyon returned to Chicago, joined the Chicago Outlaw Motorcycle Club, and in 1968 published The Bikeriders. It was the second book in the English language for which a tape recorder was used, to create the text. Considered a classic The Bikeriders has been re-issued four times, most recently by Aperture in a facsimile of the original edition. Returning to NYC Lyon received an award from the New York State Council on the Arts with which he produced The Destruction of Lower Manhattan, which was soon published by MacMillan. He was brought up for membership in Magnum, then moved to East Texas where he spent fourteen months photographing inside the Texas Prison System. In Texas he also began making films, returning to New York with the footage to make Soc Sci 127, a 16mm film made inside a Houston tattoo shop. In 1970 he moved to New Mexico, devoted himself to film, and in 1971 Conversations with the Dead was published, with Lyon this time making his texts from documents, the fist time this was done in a picture book. In the early 1970’s as America saw the consolidation of publishers, Lyon saw all three of his books remaindered. Conversations with the Dead would be out of print for forty-three years. This fall the prison book will be re-issued in facsimile by Phaidon.
All Lyon’s films were made with small crews or no crews. Not documentaries, Lyon prefers the word “realistic” for the films, as like all he does they are “made from reality.” His major titles include Los Ninos Abandonados, Willie, Dear Mark, Born to Film and Murderers.
In the 1990’s he returned to bookmaking. He wrote “Like A Thief’s Dream”, the story of a Texas inmate and bank robber. His most recent picture books are Deep Sea Diver, based on his adventures in Northern China, and The Seventh Dog, a retrospective, both published by Phaidon.
Lyon had been awarded two Guggenheim Fellowships, one in photography and one in filmmaking , a Rockefeller Fellowship in Filmmaking and numerous NEA grants in both fields. In 1994 his book Memories of the Southern Civil Rights Movement (Twin Palms), received the Gustav Myers Center for the Study of Human Rights Award. In 2011 Lyon received the Missouri Honor Medal “for distinguished service in journalism”. An active writer and blogger his work appears on Bleakbeauty.com and the blog Dektol.wordpress.com. Lyon lives in New Mexico in a house he built with a single undocumented worker. He is the father of four children.