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Remembering Nathan Lyons Share This on LinkedIn   Share This on Google   Tweet This   Forward This

2 September 2016

You know," his professor pointed out to him, "a photograph can be more than just a photograph."

For Nathan Lyons, who passed away Aug. 31 at 86, it became not merely a document but a means of expression, a career, a lifelong quest. The photographer, curator and educator came to the art by accident, though. It was just one of the many twists and turns his life took.

Born in Jamaica, Queens, his father ran a glass and mirror factory where his mother managed the books, expecting Lyons to one day take it over. As a teen he learned what happens in a darkroom and picked up a plastic camera to try his hand at it. His high school graduation present was a Graflex Speed Graphic, the press camera of its day, which he used to shoot street scenes in Times Square.

He attended Alfred University but didn't stick to the business and marketing course, veering into creative writing and philosophy.

The final for a creative writing course taught by the poet Galway Kinnell was to write a poem. Lyons walked to a bar several miles away, prepped himself with whiskey and jotted down his adventures in a notebook on the way back through the woods as his poem.

The Korean War interrupted his studies. He enlisted in the Air Force as a photographer, serving in a reconnaissance technical squadron where he processed thousands of photos each day. Later he supervised a photo intelligence unit.

After leaving the Air Force, he returned to Alfred as an English major. But that's when he met John Wood, who had studied photography with Harry Callahan. It was Wood who suggested photographs could be more than pictures.

When he graduated from Alfred in 1957, Lyons set off for Chicago to show his photographs to the world and meet Callahan. But his Jeep broke down en route and he was obliged to look for work in Rochester, N.Y.

In yet another little twist of fate, that job happened to be at George Eastman House as director of public information and the assistant editor of Image magazine. Eventually Lyons became curator at Eastman. And an advocate for the art of photography, organizing the first solo exhibit of Lee Friedlander's work after showing Ralph Eugene Meatyard and Ray K. Metzker in the group show Seven Contemporary Photographers. He also brought Bruce Davidson, Danny Lyon, Duane Michals and Garry Winogrand to the public's eye.

In 1969, after issues with the museum's trustees, Lyons left to form the Visual Studies Workshop where he hoped to provide a "resource" both "physical and human," which tended not to be the case at most institutions, he felt.

Meanwhile his photography evolved from those street scenes in Time Square to social commentary captured with a wide angle lens on a 35mm camera. His subjects included an eye for everything from graffiti to shop signs and window displays, often in pairs -- or sequences -- reflecting on each other. While much of his work was done in black-and-white, he also worked in color in his later years.

He didn't abandon the written word altogether, though. He published several books both of his thoughts and his images, including Photographers on Photography (1966), Photography in the 20th Century (1967), Towards a Social Landscape (1967), Persistence of Vision (1968), Notations in Passing (1974), After 9/11 and Selected Essays, Lectures, Interviews (2012).

In 2000 he received the Infinity Award from the International Center of Photography for lifetime achievement in photography. Earlier this year he was awarded the Visionary Award by the Lucie Foundation, which cited his photographic sequences:

Lyons' photographic sequences are a turning point in the possibilities for visual literature. They demonstrate -- achieve -- an evolution in visual thinking and its expression that attains a density and complexity of allusion. Respect, sometimes admiration, for the dignity and ambiguity of individual voices inscribed on the surface of our world tells us about our world and helps shape our conception of how things are.

Among the many tributes published at his death, the Visual Studies Workshop has posted Exhibitions, a collection of 49 images by and of Lyons.

LightWork published a brief obituary, noting, "Nathan Lyons was a true renaissance man in photography -- artist, author, curator, historian, educator, archivist, activist, mentor and friend. He will be greatly missed."

Eastman Museum Curator Lisa Hostetler told a charming story about meeting him:

Shortly after I arrived in Rochester, he invited me to lunch. I eagerly accepted, despite being acutely aware and rather daunted by the prospect of dining with the man who organized landmark exhibitions such as Toward a Social Landscape and Vision and Expression at the very same institution where I now worked. Nevertheless, I gathered my confidence and went. Of course I discovered that I shouldn't have been so anxious, for I love photography and that was enough common ground for us to enjoy meaningful conversation. And conversation, both visual and verbal, was his true talent. He used it to erode the surface of observational chitchat and expose the moral consequences of seeing. But he did it gently so one almost didn't notice, because he'd rather enlighten than embarrass.

He remained in Rochester after his Jeep broke down with the art student he had met at Alfred who became his wife Joan. Joan, also a photographer, shared his passion for education and founded VSW Press. They had two sons, David and Ethan, and a daughter Elizabeth who, in yet another twist of fate, became a sculptor and designer -- working in glass.

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