Written By: Bill Syken
If you look at the breadth and variety in the photographs that Fred Lyon shot for LIFE magazine, you get a sense of the particular adventure of working for a general interest magazine.
“Every time the phone rang it would start me off in a different direction, usually some place I had never been or someone I had never known,” Lyon recalled in a recent phone interview.
Lyon, now as he was then, is based in San Francisco, and his assignments usually had a West Coast setting. From that perch he shot such varied subjects as news, fashion, food, and architecture. If there is any through-line that connects his work, it is that he managed to find joy and beauty in so many disparate situations.
Lyon, 97 years old, remains remarkably sharp. He is a lively storyteller who enjoys an amusing turn of phrase. Though he doesn’t go out on shoots anymore, he still makes and contributes to books, drawing on a vast archive of photos—he worked not only for LIFE, but for Vogue and numerous other clients. His most recent book, Inventing the California Look, out March 22, is about interior design. He has several other projects in the works.
Lyon recalls his LIFE association, which began in 1948, with great fondness. As a young photographer his agent had pushed for him to shoot for LIFE, he says, because once you are in that magazine, “no matter how bad the picture is, after that no one will ever question whether you are a good photographer.”
An early job that turned out to be surprisingly memorable involved riding around with a fledgling California politician as he introduced himself to the local population in his first bid for the U.S. Senate in 1950. Lyon sat in the front seat with Richard Nixon as he drove his station wagon from one small California town to another. As they reached the town center Nixon would starting playing march music on a phonograph in the front seat that connected to a loudspeaker on the car’s roof. As people gathered Nixon would introduce himself to voters and take their questions.
“He would confuse old people by doing the old high school debating gimmick of answering questions with other questions,” Lyon recalled. After they were back in the car, Nixon would loosen his tie, take the needle off the record and say to Lyon as they drove out of town, “Well, that’s all that shit.”
At that point Lyon sized up the future President thusly: “He has no style, and he has no future in politics.”
Some assignments were more fun, like a shoot Lyon did at the beach with two bikini-clad models. Here’s how Lyon recounts that adventure:
“When bikinis first became popular, of course LIFE was enthusiastic. Models were booked for the beach at Malibu. There was some sort of celebration the night before the shoot (there always was). In the morning, I sensed that I had done something unwise in the middle of the night. When I crept over to the telephone my scribbles revealed that I had booked elephants to meet the models at the beach. There were visions of the pachyderms holding each other’s tails and plodding out on Sunset Boulevard. My throbbing head could barely face bikinis, let alone elephants. The cancellation caught them in the nick of time, and even the models were grateful.”
Lyon staged another fashion shoot at a very different West Coast location—Alcatraz. The shoot starred two actresses from Point Blank, a cult classic crime movie that featured Angie Dickinson and Sharon Acker. The government had stopped using Alcatraz as a federal prison in 1962 and it had yet to make its transition to a historic monument. Lyon recalls Alcatraz as being cold and filthy, with papers strewn everywhere. He and the crew made it through the shoot with the help of thermoses of coffee and brandy.
“We managed the laugh a lot,” he recalls. “Maybe it was the brandy. My shoots were always happy shoots.”
Maybe not always. Lyon’s portfolio includes photos of a dark but fascinating piece of California history known as Synanon. At its outset Synanon, founded by Charles Dederich, was a pioneer in treatment of narcotics addiction, and Dederich is credited as the source of the expression “Today is the first day of the rest of your life.” But in its later years Synanon morphed from a treatment program into a cult and a criminal enterprise. This fascinating deep dive into Synanon by L.A. Magazine opens with a chilling scene of a lawyer/journalist who dared to challenge Synanon being bit by a rattlesnake that had been shoved through the mail slot of his home.
Lyon shot his story on Synanon in 1969, before the movement’s darker impulses has taken over. Still, Lyon recalls not personally caring for Dederich. “He was an unpleasant man doing work that I realized was beneficial,” Lyon says.
And encountering characters such as Dederich was all part of the big adventure of shooting for LIFE. One upside of his association with the magazine was coming into New York and having occasional meetings the legendary Alfred Eisenstaedt, who stands as a giant on the roster of staff LIFE photographers. “He was to my way of thinking the perfect photojournalist,” Lyon says. “Everyone he met, he would try to extract everything from their brain right here and now.”
Some assignments resulted in valuable life lessons when Lyon least expected them. Once he was out on a more humdrum assignment, shooting the director of an opera company. Lyon said to him, “I hear you’re a hell of a fundraiser, whats your secret?” The director answered, “I tell people, Don’t die rich. Live rich.”
“You know what,” says Lyon, “I learned something.”