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 inConversations 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 known 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.
Producer: Matt Ozug / Narrator: Danny Lyon / Executive Producer: David Isay / Production Assistant: Maisie Tivnan / Music: Nick Yulman / Special thanks to: Andy Lanset, Donna Galeno and the StoryCorps MobileBooth team, Kimberly Wells and the Ft Worth Public Library, and Aminur the Cabby / Funding provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting