On October 1, 2007, an ex-convict named Billy McCune—one of the most important subjects in the history of documentary photography—died in a half-way house in Kansas City, Missouri. He was 79 years old.
McCune, who was mentally ill, was convicted of rape and sentenced to die in the electric chair in 1950. A song he wrote on death row caught the ear of the governor, who commuted his sentence to life in prison. It was there, four decades ago, that McCune met a young documentary photographer named Danny Lyon. Lyon had been granted unprecedented access to photograph inside the Texas prison system. He published his photos in the seminal 1971 book, Conversations With the Dead.
Over the course of the project, Danny Lyon got to know Billy McCune, who had also become an artist in the penitentiary. Lyon included so many of McCune’s drawings in Conversations With the Dead that he subtitled the book “Photographs of Prison Life With the Letters and Drawings of Billy McCune #12-20-54.”
While Lyon’s prison photos are today legendary, what’s not know is that he also made reel-to-reel audio recordings of his conversations with Billy McCune in prison. Never before heard, these tapes are an extraordinary artifact—providing a rare glimpse inside the Texas prisons of the 1960s, and documenting Lyon’s historic partnership with the late Billy McCune. Photographer Danny Lyon tells us the story.
Recorded in New York City. Premiered December 31, 1997, on All Things Considered.
This documentary comes from Sound Portraits Productions, a mission-driven independent production company that was created by Dave Isay in 1994. Sound Portraits was the predecessor to StoryCorps and was dedicated to telling stories that brought neglected American voices to a national audience.