Danny Lyon, Clearing Land, Ellis Unit, Texas, 1968

Danny Lyon (1942 – ), Clearing Land, Ellis Unit, Texas, from the series Conversations with the Dead, 1968, gelatin silver print. Middlebury College Museum of Art. Gift of Carl W. Melcher, M.D., 1983.036. © Danny Lyon/Magnum Photos

In 1967 and 1968, photographer Danny Lyon spent fourteen months photographing inmates of six Texas penitentiaries. The project resulted in his book, Conversations with the Dead, published in 1971. In addition to portraits and scenes of prison life, Lyon photographed work gangs. In this photograph, prisoners fell trees and gather debris to clear land.

Arthur F. Kales (1882-1936), Nude in Forest, c. 1914, gelatin silver print. Middlebury College Museum of Art. Gift of an anonymous donor and the Christian A. Johnson Memorial Fund, 1988. 012.

Unlike idyllic scenes of the forest as an Edenic paradise, like that of Arthur F. Kales, Lyon’s photograph is an unidealized view of the work needed to fell a forest. And, unlike Robert Adams’ views of clear cutting, where enormous machines cut huge swaths in the landscape, in this image the focus is on the role of forced labor in the American penal system.