Nathan Lyons was born in Queens, New York, in 1930, and became interested in photography in his teens after his family moved to Manhattan. In 1948, he enrolled in a two-year business administration program at the New York Agricultural and Technical Institute in Alfred, New York (now Alfred State College of Technology). He left Alfred to enroll in the United States Army, and served in the Korean War from 1950 to 1954 as a photographer. He returned to Alfred in 1955, where he majored in English and also studied photography and visual books under John Wood [Image 1].
In 1957 Lyons joined the staff of the George Eastman House (now George Eastman Museum) in Rochester, New York, as the director of public information and editorial assistant. After two years, he was promoted to assistant director and editor of publications, and eventually became associate director and curator of photography in 1965. Lyons left the Eastman House in 1969, the year he founded the Visual Studies Workshop (VSW) in Rochester, a graduate program and artist space dedicated to artist books, photography, and the moving image. In addition to being an artist and educator, he was instrumental in the creation of many important arts and educational organizations, including the Society for Photographic Education and the New York Foundation for the Arts.
I was introduced to Lyons’s work around 2003 by one of my undergraduate professors. I was interested in image relationships and the book form, and as I was applying to MFA programs, he suggested I check out Lyons’s Notations in Passing: Visualized by Nathan Lyons (1974) and consider applying to VSW. I was drawn to the way in which the relationship between the images in the books progressed. The complex visual language Lyons presented in his sequences offered me the sort of challenge and guidance I was looking for, and I enrolled in the MFA program at VSW the following fall [Image 2].
In Pursuit of Magic, the first major exhibition of Lyons’s work to span his entire career as an artist, ran from January 25 to June 9, 2019, at the George Eastman Museum (GEM). Up until his death in 2016, Lyons worked closely with curators at GEM in conceiving the exhibition. On display were 160 black-and-white and color photographs and his best-known photo books. This is also the first time Lyons’s color photographs have been exhibited—work he began producing in 2010 and continued to focus on until his passing. The title of the exhibition is taken from one of Lyons’s recent color images that captures the phrase “IN PURSUIT OF MAGIC” stenciled on a sidewalk. This method of appropriating a title from one of his photographs is one that can be seen repeated throughout Lyons’s career.
The exhibition began with a well-considered selection of Lyons’s early work made between 1957 and 1963 that demonstrates the foundation of his more complex modes of imagemaking and presenting that came later. Composed with a large-format camera, these photographs have a formal structure that utilizes careful framing and focus—often to the point of abstraction—on a single element of the subject. For instance, in Untitled (Chicago) (1963), Lyons places the front of a residential building so that the frame includes eight of the building’s windows, all of similar design. At first glance the photographs seem to be about the repetition of form. However, if we examine the image further, we see details of the décor just inside the windows, reflections of the sky, and two of the windows obscured by the trunk of a tree. These details offer us a more complex narrative that speaks about the dynamic nature of looking itself, something Lyons would consistently ask us to consider [Images 3 and 4].
Another early image is Untitled (1957), a close-up composition of a sign painted on a cracked wall. We read the words “REACH FOR” in the lower left of the frame, and follow an arrow entering the frame at the upper right that points left. This use of language and symbols went on to become central to Lyons’s work.
The exhibition also included selected photographs from each of Lyons’s four major publications, which were also on display adjacent to the photographs so that viewers could look through them in order to experience the artist’s full sequence of images. The featured publications include Notations in Passing; Riding 1st Class on the Titanic (1999); After 9/11 (2003); and Return Your Mind to Its Upright Position (2014) [Image 5].
These publications span his career—decades he spent carefully developing his unique visual language. He is known for painstakingly sequencing images, and looking over these publications, much can be understood about his work. For one, Lyons’s images become increasingly complex compositionally. Lyons used the photograph as a visual language, and photographed the world to communicate to his audience the things he felt were important. When the whole sequence is considered, one begins to understand what the artist was saying; or at least begins to learn his language [Image 6].
After working monochromatically for more than fifty years, in 2010 Lyons began making color photographs. These works continue the same themes and subjects he’d been photographing throughout his career and utilized the same visual methods—for instance, projecting a flattened visual plane, and the persistence of indexical and iconic forms. What one becomes aware of and what is confirmed when looking at his color work is that his photographs are never nostalgic. The new color images bring to consciousness the realization that Lyons was always focused on the present, showing us what is out there now, what our current society is thinking and saying [Image 7].
In the image Untitled (Philadelphia) (2015) we see a wall of stenciled letters that are painted and then photographed in a way that abstracts the words, leaving us with a jumbled tapestry of letters. (Presumably the letters form words that we cannot readily decipher from the image.) In its ambiguity, it seems a fitting image for Lyons to make toward the end of his career. Lyons spent more than sixty years speaking to us with his images, observing written messages out in the world, and developing a visual language to communicate to us what he thought we ought to pay attention to.1