Interview: Fred Lyon – 75 years of photography – Analog Forever Magazine

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NK: So basically you went straight from the Navy to becoming a fashion photographer in New York.

FL: I wasn’t very good at it. Penn and Avedon weren’t worried and I knew them both. But the models were fantastic, they had worked for all the great photographers and would have helped me. There was this skinny girl, she was one of Avedon’s first role models, and I kept booking her for jobs. I thought she was great, but I knew she would go out to dinner with millionaires and I was too shy to do anything. Years later, her mother told me that the girl told her, “I know he likes me, why isn’t he doing something about it already!” Eventually we got married, so everything worked out. We had a big wedding in New York in 1951, the guest list was made up of fashion and magazine photographers and editors.

The first darkroom man I had there was a very serious man who was much older than me. After being there for about a month, he introduced himself to me and said, “I have investigated all of your exhibits and find they fall into different categories. I said: “Yes, yes !?” he says “Yes, there is underexposure, overexposure, double exposure and no exposure at all!” He hasn’t been with me for very long. I didn’t like his attitude. But at that time, we didn’t even have the first Weston light meter. Until then, it was enough to know what the exposure and the medium was to be sure. But this period taught me three important things: play it safe; treat your customers very well; and wear comfortable shoes at all costs.

NK: You returned to The Bay in the late 1940s and started your own studio. At that time, you were shooting more than fashion, you were writing, food, travel, a bit of everything.

FL: I photographed everything except the fight, and I don’t feel bad about it because I still have arms and legs. But I have antennas and submarines, sports, I did a million architectural and interior things, like I did a pretty good cover of the old Fox cinema before replacing it, both inside and outside.

NK: And it was the time when you photographed the San Francisco work that got so much attention recently. Even though we now look at these images through the lens of “Art,” a lot of this work was shot for trade missions, right?

FL: Exactly. I was calling New York and trying to sell an article about San Francisco and there were some young picture editors who were like, “Well, what have you got over there?” “Oh, we have cable cars, steep hills and fog, as well as Chinatown and Herb Caen.” And they were like, okay, I guess you can make a story for us. So I would call Herb and say, “Ok Herb, we have to start over!” It was a staple food.

Herb was wonderful, I really miss someone. But, of course, he was one of a kind. He was one of the last truly spiritual people I knew in this town. I knew him all the time he was in San Francisco. We weren’t exactly close buddies like he was with some of his other friends, but we were constantly in each other’s lives. And I loved going with him because he knew everyone, which was wonderful. There were a number of people who liked to have fun while doing real work, and he was one of them. We both had a taste for jazz, and there was a fantastic jazz scene in the Fillmore area at that time. The music was just great; the drinks were terrible.



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