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Young Men Behind Bars...

Conversations with the Dead
by Jack Fritscher

constructionDRAFT VERSION

The following book review written in 1978, intended for, but never published in Drummer, offers a “take” on the coffee-table photography book, Conversations with the Dead: Photography of Prison Life with the Letters and Drawings of Billy McCune, by Danny Lyon, Holt Paperback, $6.95. Review written by Jack Fritscher, and published in Man2Man Quarterly #7, July-September, 1981, and in his continuing “Mantalk” column in Inches, Volume 1, Number 1, 1985.

The feature was written in 1978,
and published in Man2Man 7, July-September 1981

Young Men Behind Bars...

Conversations with the Dead
by Jack Fritscher

Six years have passed since I met Danny Lyon [in 1972]. At that time, he was working on a short color film about young men and their tattoos–logical territory for an award-winning straight photographer whose work features biker boys and prison punks. Lyon’s book, Conversations with the Dead; Photography of Prison Life, despite its gloomy title, is a classic documentary of young stuff doing time in a hard place. In this instance, the place is the Texas Department of Corrections and the subjects are insouciant redneck white boys, muscular southern blacks, and young macho Hispanics.

            Danny Lyon’s heteromasculine eye knows how to catch in prison precisely the kind of attitude that Old Reliable’s homomasculine eye has been catching on the streets for years: tattoos, muscles, mud, sweat, and tears. From films like Brubaker and Penitentiary and Miguel Pinero’s Short Eyes, we have learned the Look of young men behind bars. From documentaries like PBS’s prison special, Tattoo Tears, we all understand that in America punishment is often the crime, even when the objects of its abuse are attractive, dangerous, young men whose come-hither looks make you, against your better judgment, want to invite them into your lovely home.

            Conversations with the Dead is a peephole into the male life of prison: the most macho environment in the world! Lyon’s book contains more than 100 photos shot inside six Texas penitentiaries.

            Free to roam the prisons, day or night, Danny moved among the prisoners in groups and in isolation. He photographed seductive young toughies in their cells, in the muddy fields, in the strip-showerss, in the iron-pumping muscle-yards. He captures angels with dirty faces, incredible stripped young bodies, and the fucking essence of the drawling redneck guards who have these inmates under their total control. 

            In the course of his unprecedented journey through the Texas prison system, Danny met Billy McCune, who at age 22, handcuffed and tried in chains for a rape he probably did not commit, was sentenced to die in the Texas electric chair.

            Billy was placed in the county courthouse to await execution. One evening, he cut off his penis to the root, and placing it in a cup, passed it between the bars to a guard. So to the heart of sexuality is crime and punishment. McCune lived and was not executed. His paintings and sensitive writings are appended to Conversations.

            “I never lived in the prisons,” Danny told me. ‘I only visited them, usually arriving in time to ride out to the hot fields with the line crew. I made a point to go where the imprisonment was dramatic. I tried to make a picture in the book of imprisonment as distressing as I knew it to be in reality.” And he might have added, as engaging, hot, and sexy as it is in reality.

            This book is important for the library of any man who appreciates males.

            In the prison warehouse of young men lies the essence of what so many of us look for when we cruise mean streets looking for the cool black stud who knows how to thrill us with his big black dick, for the blond Appalachian kid whose lean hard body promises all the pleasure that can be found in his blue-veined cock, and for the tattooed Chicano who means business when he flips out the long brown hose of his uncut meat.

            Seriously, Danny Lyon is proof that a straight photographer can shoot photos of other men who are straight, and the photos are all considered to be straight. However, a gay photographer’s work, no matter his intent, is always judged to be gay.

©1978, 2003 Jack Fritscher


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