Image-text photobooks in a nutshell #8: Jeffrey Ladd on Conversation With the Dead by Lyon

10 Oct 2016
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Danny Lyon, Conversation with the Dead (1971)

We asked a pool of international photobook experts to share with us an image-text photobook they find particularly interesting, regardless of its publication date and where text is a fundamental element in the narrative (not a mere introduction or essay on the photoworks). Here Jeffrey Ladd reveals why Danny Lyon’s Conversation with the Dead, published by Holt, Rinehart and Winston in 1971 (pages 196 + 20 x 28 cm) has made a lasting impression on him.

When I was asked to pick a great book that combines image and text, a few obvious choices flashed through my head, but I choose Danny Lyon’s Conversations With the Dead: Photographs of Prison Life with the Letters and Drawings of Billy McCune #122054, a book that enables a rare look into the prisons of the Texas Department of Corrections and the backgrounds and crimes of a few of the inmates.

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Danny Lyon, Conversation with the Dead, published by Holt, Rinehart and Winston, image courtesy Jeffrey Ladd

I generally keep a respectful distance from the traditions of photojournalism as an admitted skeptic of photography’s truth telling capabilities but Lyon’s book published in 1971 is a rare exception. This is mostly due to the power of Lyon’s photographs, which are so unbarred, so to speak, they can at first seem like they were made from an actual inmate incarcerated in one of the six prison units Lyon was given rare access within.

Danny Lyon, Conversation with the Dead, published by Holt, Rinehart and Winston, image courtesy Jeffrey Ladd

Danny Lyon, Conversation with the Dead, published by Holt, Rinehart and Winston, image courtesy Jeffrey Ladd

The texts are a collaboration between Lyon and a few of the inmates who are represented either by their own writing or through prison documents – a collaboration incidentally that culminated with Lyon and a few of the prisoners printing a limited edition book of Lyon’s photographs called Born to Lose in the prison’s print shop.

Danny Lyon, Conversation with the Dead, published by Holt, Rinehart and Winston, image courtesy Jeffrey Ladd

Danny Lyon, Conversation with the Dead, published by Holt, Rinehart and Winston, image courtesy Jeffrey Ladd

Jeffrey Ladd is an American photographer born in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania in 1968. His work has been exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago, Oklahoma City Musuem of Art, International Center of Photography, Soros Foundation’s Open Society Institute, Museum of the City of New York among others. He splits his time between photographing and writing about photography. From 2007 to 2012, he wrote over 450 articles for his website 5B4 – Photography and Books, a blog dedicated to discussing and reviewing photography and art-related publications. Ladd is one of the founders of Errata Editions, an independent publishing company whose Books on Books series has won many awards for their scholarship into rare and out of print photobooks. He lives in Cologne, Germany with his wife and twin daughters.

Danny Lyon, Conversation with the Dead, published by Holt, Rinehart and Winston, image courtesy Jeffrey Ladd