By David Coleman
Few people have had as much impact on American photography in the latter half of the twentieth century as Nathan Lyons. As a photographer, curator, theorist, and educator, Lyons has influenced generations of professionals in these fields. Beginning his career at the George Eastman House in 1957, Lyons became a vital supporter of contemporary photographers through a succession of significant exhibitions and publications, which, in turn, expanded the audience for photography that was "a unique and exacting means of isolating inner realities found in correspondence with the physical world." For Lyons, photographic meaning is best discovered through groups of images called "sequences" rather than through the single image, and his important series of books using his own photography have explored this idea.
In 1962, Lyons organized an "Invitational Teaching Conference," which led directly to the formation of the Society for Photographic Education, a national organization that to this day provides a forum for the discussion of photography and related media. After leaving Eastman House in 1969, Lyons established the Visual Studies Workshop and, in 1972, founded Afterimage: The Journal of Media Arts and Cultural Criticism. Lyons's interdisciplinary and experimental educational program at the Visual Studies Workshop encouraged "the exploration of vision"; stressed independent thinking; and produced generations of photographers, curators, critics, and historians.
Despite all of these critical contributions, Lyons's name is now generally familiar only to specialists in the field. Nathan Lyons: Selected Essays, Lectures, and Interviews is the first comprehensive collection of writings by and about Lyons, and it seeks to reveal both his theories and his role as a unique advocate for the critical study of photography.
Persistence of Vision
Jessica S. McDonald
Late one night in January of 1966, Nathan Lyons, Garry Winogrand, and Simpson Kalisher spilled into a Manhattan apartment, in the middle of a spirited discussion sparked at a nearby restaurant. Lyons, then curator of photography at George Eastman House in Rochester, New York, and a photographer himself, had the foresight to begin recording their earnest conversation—sometimes heated, often boisterous—as they settled around the dining room table, pouring wine and smoking an endless chain of cigarettes. Lyons was in the city to attend the opening of the retrospective exhibition honoring Dorothea Lange at the Museum of Modern Art, and was staying at his parents' apartment while they were away on winter holiday. His friend Winogrand, today considered one of the most significant American photographers of the twentieth century, was young and relatively unknown outside of New York. Kalisher, another struggling young photographer, had achieved modest artistic recognition but relied, as nearly all photographers did, on commercial assignments for income. The three met for dinner, then together headed to the Lyons residence to continue their conversation.
Though it is unclear what ignited the vigorous discussion—statements in the recording indicate that it began at the restaurant—the tape bears witness to the precarious position of photography in the arts in the mid-1960s and its complicated relationship to museums, publishing, and education. The remarkable conversation outlines few opportunities for young photographers wishing to explore the medium as an art form, and even fewer for those hoping to make a living doing so. In the 1950s and '60s, there was virtually no market for photographs and only rare opportunities for exhibition or publication. Out of necessity, photographers kept their "personal work" separate from their "commercial work," the former often collapsing under the weight of the latter.
Kalisher laments the limited career paths for photographers; other than teaching, he argues, there is really "no way to get out of" taking paid commercial jobs, and even teaching usually means instructing students in camera technique and studio lighting. He resents that photographers have so few options regardless of their talent, concluding that the overwhelming lack of institutional support prevents the possibility of artistic recognition for the individual photographer. Winogrand, only slightly more hopeful, describes his own concerns about what he perceives as misguided institutional control over the medium, calling the Museum of Modern Art's 1955 exhibition The Family of Man a "malfunction of a museum." He worries that such blockbuster shows only reinforce public interest in the kinds of images found in Life. magazine while subverting the artistic claims of individual photographers. Lyons, the youngest participant in this exchange, expresses his belief that the relationship of photography to the fine arts has been fundamentally "confused" and that this is a crucial moment for the field to "regroup." He invites the young photographers to act along with him. "Let's look at it and let's see what might possibly be done," he proposes. "Let's not just wait around for everything to happen." Confident that the situation would change, Lyons adds: "I'll project a future for photography and the photographer … in fifteen years an audience will exist that will be able to understand that a photographer can bring forward a piece of literature, and that the photographer will be functioning as author."
The intense, personal discussion between Lyons, Kalisher, and Winogrand reveals a great deal about their own experiences as photographers working in and around New York City, but also aptly reflects the state of American photography in the midsixties. Significantly, it stands as a striking example of Lyons's foresight; indeed, photography had experienced a remarkable transformation by the end of the next decade, through what we now know as the "photo boom" of the 1970s, a progression of events that came to pass in no small part due to Lyons's own comprehensive efforts.
Today, photography is broadly accepted as an art worthy of the museum and the gallery, and it is studied in the university as a distinct field with its own unique history. Despite the status photography now claims in American art and academia, its current position is largely the result of rapid expansion beginning in the 1960s; before that time, photography was alternately ignored or rejected by art world authorities and was excluded from university art departments. With few exceptions, art critics were overwhelmingly indifferent to photography, roundly resisting calls for the recognition of photography as a fine art. As unimaginable as it might seem now, there were few photography galleries in New York City through most of the 1950s and '60s. Helen Gee's legendary Limelight Gallery in Greenwich Village, also a coffeehouse and gathering place, closed in 1961 after a seven-year run. The Witkin Gallery was not founded until 1969, followed by Light Gallery in 1971. Besides a series of slim monographs published by the Museum of Modern Art, the majority of photography books and periodicals focused on technical aspects of the medium. The field could declare no established body of literature; while there was a long tradition of photographers writing about their medium, those essays and treatises remained largely inaccessible, scattered in defunct journals and out-of-print books. As museums couldn't be counted on to collect photographs, the task often fell to photographers to preserve and promote the work of past generations. Photographic education was centered on the development of the medium as a vocational pursuit, not a means of personal expression. Students eager to practice "creative" or "art" photography had few options, and they flocked to private workshops led by Ansel Adams, Minor White, or Henry Holmes Smith. Outside the centers of Rochester and New York City, pockets of intense photographic activity were scattered throughout the country, particularly on the West Coast and in Midwestern cities like Chicago and Minneapolis, though they were in no way unified in theory or function. One really couldn't speak of a coherent "field" of photography. Such were the circumstances fueling the vigorous discussion between Kalisher, Winogrand, and Lyons.
At the time of his bold prediction that night in Manhattan, Lyons had been living and working in Rochester for just over seven years. Arriving there as a photographer in the fall of 1957, out of college and on his way to graduate school in Chicago, he quickly became engaged in the activities of a small group of photographers who met informally every Thursday night at Minor White's North Union Street apartment, placing their work on the makeshift print rail and bracing themselves for lively critique. Sharing a commitment to the potential of the medium to extend beyond documentation or illustration, this group believed that photography, like other arts, could inspire a greater understanding of self and of society, and that photographs, while always in some way a record of the world, could convey complex messages far more meaningful than what could be expressed through subject matter alone. Encouraged by these like-minded friends and colleagues, and invigorated by a challenging new position at the largest photography museum in the country, Lyons made his home in Rochester, never moving on to Chicago. By the time of his conversation with Kalisher and Winogrand, Lyons had emerged as an influential curator, educator, and champion of photography.
Lyons's ambitious program of exhibitions and publications at Eastman House was gaining momentum and international attention, paralleled only by that of John Szarkowski at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. At a time when few museums collected photographs, and even fewer exhibited them, Eastman House and MoMA were two outstanding exceptions. Lyons, in particular, focused his program on emerging photographers, and his broad, inclusive definition of the medium marked him as a trailblazer. Spearheading an array of education programs, Lyons viewed each lecture, essay, conference, and workshop as one step toward creating the informed audience he envisioned, one that would recognize photographers not just as technical masters but as authors with unique points of view. For Lyons, this was always a reciprocal proposition—he demanded time and thought from audiences, challenging them to cast aside their expectations and be receptive to "unfamiliar views." He issued this challenge to his students as well, preparing them for key positions as critics, curators, museum directors, teachers, and artists. Lyons's efforts as a photographer, mentor, curator, editor, and writer were remarkably coherent and necessarily entwined, thus rendering any boundaries between the various aspects of his career entirely arbitrary. What follows is an examination of these parallel movements, demonstrating the extraordinary scope of Lyons's vision for the field of photography and his powerful influence on its growth.
Lyons was born January 10, 1930, into a family of mirror manufacturers. When asked to describe his early childhood in Jamaica, New York, Lyons recounts vibrant visual impressions: kites flying on a nearby plateau, the grape arbor that his grandfather erected in the backyard, the sturdy wooden icebox on the porch, peacocks prancing in the yard next door. He was introduced to photography at the age of fifteen, when Sid Winston, an optometrist, amateur photographer, and friend of the family, invited Lyons's father and him over for a basic darkroom demonstration. Lyons stood captivated as he watched the image of a DC-3 transport plane come up in the developer, and he immediately asked about making his own photographs. Winston offered to sell Lyons some of his surplus supplies, and Lyons worked over the summer at his family's mirror business to save up for equipment. Around this time in 1945, Lyons's father moved the family into Manhattan—one of several moves the family would make by the time Lyons finished high school—and there Lyons photographed with his plastic Falcon camera and made contact prints in the darkroom he set up in a closet. When Lyons received a 3F1/4 x 4F1/4 inch Graflex Speed Graphic press view camera in 1947 for his high school graduation, he began intently photographing the city. He hung around at Willoughby's Photographic Supply, eavesdropping on the professionals, and was thrilled to see the famous press photographer Weegee (Arthur Fellig) working on the street one day. Expected to enter the family business, however, he completed a certificate in architectural drafting at the Manhattan Technical Institute in 1948 and left the city for New York State Agricultural and Technical College at Alfred in New York's rural Southern Tier for a two-year program in business administration and sales.
Early on in his studies at Alfred, Lyons realized that business was a subject of little interest to him. By the end of his second year, he had stopped attending classes at the Technical College, but eager to explore other disciplines and encouraged by an English professor, Lyons enrolled in two summer courses, one in philosophy, the other in creative writing, at nearby Alfred University. The creative writing course was offered by the noted poet Galway Kinnell, who insisted that Lyons write a poem before completing the term. Admitting to his professor that he "hated" poetry, and feeling frustrated with the assignment, Lyons hitchhiked to one of his favorite bars in a neighboring town. After a few drinks, he resolved to walk the thirteen miles back to campus and write the poem along the way. On the empty rural road, his senses sharpened by darkness and his imagination fueled by whiskey, Lyons recorded everything he experienced on a small notepad. His notes constituted the lines of a poem, which he titled "Night Walk" and submitted to Kinnell.
This approach to writing poetry, conceived from a variable chain of observations and notations, would later become the fundamental model for his visual as well as verbal work; yet just as he began pursuing this new mode of inquiry, Lyons left Alfred. His father's sudden illness required him to return to Manhattan to help out in the family business. A few months later, at the end of 1950, Lyons enlisted in the United States Air Force. The war in Korea had erupted, and to avoid being drafted into the Army, Lyons joined the Air Force with the intention of becoming a military photographer. Initially assigned to duty as a draftsman, he convinced a sympathetic captain at Grenier Air Force Base in Manchester, New Hampshire, to redirect him to the base photo lab. In December of 1951, hoping for a tour of duty in Europe, Lyons was instead shipped out to Kimpo, Korea. There he joined the 67th Reconnaissance Technical Squadron, which processed thousands of prints each day in its darkrooms. Under the supervision of Lyons, soon promoted to corporal in charge of the photo intelligence control center, the unit was responsible for correctly filling and routing 85 percent of the aerial reconnaissance orders in Korea. Meanwhile, to prevent his parents from worrying, Lyons assured them he was stationed out of harm's way, in Japan.
After completing a thirteen-month tour in Korea, Lyons returned to the States, hoping to be reassigned to film school once he landed in California. Instead he was routed to Dobbins Air Force Base in Marietta, Georgia, to serve his remaining eighteen months as the base photographer and news writer for the Southeast Air Defense Command Unit. He photographed radar installations, base events, visiting dignitaries, and the scenes of criminal and accident investigations, and trained control tower operators in the use of the stereo camera to photograph UFOs. Lyons spent his free time at the USO in Atlanta, sometimes documenting interviews and conversations with other servicemen with his cumbersome wire recorder. Lyons continued to write poetry throughout his military service, and when he was discharged from the Air Force in 1954, he returned to Alfred, this time enrolling as an English major at Alfred University.
When Lyons informed his father of his decision not to enter the family business, the senior Lyons refused to provide additional financial support. Lyons relied instead on the GI Bill and income from freelance work for the university's publicity office. He also carried on multiple extracurricular activities, becoming English Club chairman, coeditor of the campus literary review, and vice president of the drama club, writing and directing plays. He contributed to the school yearbook and was editor of the college newspaper, the Fiat Lux. He simultaneously produced an underground mimeographed newspaper called La Verdad (The Truth), satirizing the apathetic student body and the discriminatory policies of campus fraternities. He initiated and led a poetry workshop, developing a format and philosophy of collaborative inquiry upon which he would model his later photography workshops. As an aid for his own poetry, Lyons habitually carried a small notebook in which to transcribe his visual impressions, until the day he realized the camera hanging from his neck might accomplish the task more directly. This was a transformational moment for Lyons, as he recognized that his practice of notation based on observation was, for him, the key connection between photography and his own writing.
After years as a military photographer, documenting parades, award presentations, and ceremonial handshakes, Lyons found himself drawn toward a more private, nonrepresentational kind of imagery. This reversal marked the beginning of an intense period in which Lyons became consumed with ideas of abstraction, producing images that were highly subjective and, as he now acknowledges, "not as accessible to others as much as to myself." He found a rich source for this kind of imagery at Dirty John's, a sort of combination dusty thrift shop and junkyard, sprawling over 240 acres outside Angelica, New York. There he made carefully composed studies of weathered materials and decaying surfaces, shattered glass and rusting saw blades. Walking amid the endless jumble of castoffs, focusing intently with his camera, Lyons found the private space he needed as he recovered from his experience overseas. As he later reflected, that period "helped not only organize a lot of my thinking, but also helped the transition from the military service to returning back to civilian life."
Lyons's investigation of nonrepresentational imagery was further stimulated by some of the problems given him by the artist John Wood, his most influential teacher and mentor at Alfred. In 1954, the same year Lyons returned to Alfred, Wood was hired to teach visual design, typography, book design, and printmaking. Trained at the Institute of Design (ID) in Chicago—founded as the New Bauhaus in 1937 and first directed by László Moholy-Nagy—Wood used photography, painting, drawing, lithography, collage, and countless other techniques in his work, endlessly combining, altering, and recycling images. His own most important teacher at ID was Harry Callahan, known for "communicating as much by gesture and expression as through words . . . pointing at pictures more than really discussing them." When Lyons arranged a course of independent study with Wood, meeting with him weekly in the student union, Wood adopted this "pointing" approach. In the Bauhaus spirit of open exploration, Wood typically presented a general theoretical problem and sent Lyons out to respond through images. Wood wrote in one of his teaching notebooks of his belief that "every problem" should be "presented with minimum of explanation and examples such that meaningful solutions be possible by each student." When Lyons returned with his solution, Wood pointed, posed questions, and issued challenges rather than giving direct feedback. Wood encouraged Lyons to think beyond the single print, introducing him to extended sequences through exhibition design and to the potential of visual books. These discussions with Wood established the fundamental pedagogical questions that would remain vital to Lyons as an artist, theorist, and teacher.
When Lyons graduated from Alfred University in 1957, Wood encouraged him to pursue graduate school but also to meet with important figures in the field to discuss options and opportunities for photographers. Wood suggested Lyons first see Edward Steichen at the Museum of Modern Art and Minor White in Rochester before heading to Chicago to see Aaron Siskind and Harry Callahan at the Institute of Design. For his appointment with Steichen, Lyons brought with him a "whole raft" of materials, including a six-foot folding exhibition model, copies of the Fiat Lux, portfolios of photographs that included a series of junkyard automobile headlights, and various writing samples. Lyons arrived to find that Steichen's second wife had just died, so he met instead with Steichen's assistant, Dee Knapp. Lyons arranged to see White in Rochester a few weeks later, and by the end of their meeting, White invited Lyons to return in the fall and attend his private workshop. Lyons agreed, intending to find work there that would sustain him just long enough to save up for the trip to Chicago.
Before he returned to Rochester, Lyons traded in his old Jeep for a brand-new Plymouth, with three months to find a job before the first payment was due. He settled temporarily in a friend's basement and secured a number of interviews, including one at a local newspaper, where he expressed an interest in both photographing and writing; the interviewer explained that he could do one or the other but not a combination. At an interview with Eastman Kodak Company, he inquired about ongoing research into the psychological and social impact of photographs on people. Bewildered, the interviewer suggested Lyons look into an opening at George Eastman House, a photography museum on East Avenue that Lyons had noticed but not yet visited. Lyons arranged an interview with Beaumont Newhall, the distinguished historian and then curator of photography. Newhall offered him a position as director of information and editorial assistant of Image magazine, filling a position White had held before he resigned the previous year to teach full-time at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT). The photographer Walter Chappell had just been hired to take over White's curatorial duties, and he and Lyons would become close friends and collaborators.
At Eastman House, Lyons spent evenings poring over the vast collections, feeling as if the whole history of photography had opened up before him. Anxious to make up for his lack of academic training, he stayed late into the evening, with open access to photographic prints, apparatus, and literature. His own research files accumulated, and soon he was writing for Modern Photography, Aperture, and Popular Photography, as well as contributing extensive articles on landscape photography and photographic books to Willard D. Morgan's Encyclopedia of Photography and other reference books. Just a year after Lyons arrived on staff, he was made editor of publications and developed a newly expanded format for Image, a monthly magazine primarily concerned with the historical and technical aspects of photography and cinema. In its new iteration, it was to be published quarterly, with an "increased scope" and plans to reproduce portfolios of photographs. The revamped publication drew praise for its critical articles, book reviews, and current scholarship, but it was reduced to a four-page monthly members' bulletin in 1960. Scrambling to find another vehicle for in-depth research and contemporary issues, Lyons proposed a series of members' publications, consisting of one catalogue and one monograph distributed annually. Before the first "bulletin" edition of Image was distributed in January 1961, Lyons quickly designed the inaugural publication in the new book series, Robert Doty's Photo Secession: Photography as a Fine Art (1960). He followed that by designing the first volume of The Daybooks of Edward Weston (1961), edited by Nancy Newhall, and finding a publisher for it, after the Newhalls had tried unsuccessfully to do so for years. Beaumont Newhall later called the Daybooks "the most important publishing job that Nathan did," because "no other publisher would touch it." This book, and the titles that followed, attracted members and, more significantly, enriched the literature of the field.
This was an incredibly productive period for Lyons, professionally, personally, and artistically. In 1958, he married Joan (Fischman) Lyons, an artist whom he had met at Alfred, and together they moved into the house on Rutgers Street where they raised three children and have lived for over fifty years. Lyons offered private photography workshops there, a practice he established in 1959 after attending White's photography workshop only briefly. Alongside his ongoing efforts in teaching, publishing, and research, Lyons began exhibiting his own work. Seven Days a Week, an exhibition of twenty-six photographs, opened at Alfred University's Glidden Gallery in 1958. The influence of John Wood was evident in Lyons's unconventional exhibition design, which presented groups of images at varying heights and distances from the wall, shifting from representational images to those with less easily "identifiable subject matter." There were no captions or accompanying text; a photograph by Walter Chappell at the exhibition entrance served as its introduction.
Chappell invited Lyons to show the exhibition at Eastman House later that year, and significantly, the press release establishes an area of inquiry that would continue to occupy Lyons: "'The added concern over the way in which a series of photographs is presented is of primary importance,' states Mr. Lyons, 'and can not only create the proper atmosphere in which the presentation is made but also become an extension of the "visual flow" conveyed by the relationship of images.'" Lyons soon began a collaborative project with Chappell and Syl Labrot, simultaneously presented as an exhibition and a book of photographs titled Under the Sun: The Abstract Art of Camera Vision (1960). Challenged for the first time to write a statement about his own photographs, Lyons stated that an image is "the fusion of intellect and emotion into a single reality," and offered the dictum "the eye and the camera see more than the mind knows." Six of Lyons's photographs from this period were included in the 1960 exhibition The Sense of Abstraction at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and these abstract photographs earned him a place amongst that year's "New Talent USA" in Art in America.
In the next few years, however, Lyons moved away from the kind of subjective, introspective practice that produced his nonrepresentational imagery, turning his attention out into the world. While installing an exhibition at the New York State Exposition in 1962, Lyons borrowed a friend's 35 mm camera to photograph as he walked around the fairgrounds, a visual environment Lyons remembers as fantastically dense and layered. Liberated from his customary 4 x 5 inch, tripod-mounted view camera, Lyons photographed with renewed energy, marking the start of a transition toward a less deliberate, more immediate way of working. This coincided with a private reevaluation of his nonrepresentational work. Increasingly concerned about the ongoing conflict in Vietnam, and deeply affected by the suicide of one of his English professors at Alfred, Lyons wondered if his earlier work had been self-indulgent. If abstraction had provided him with a way to transcend subject matter, it had also prevented him from confronting the social issues that weighed on him. Now, he began exploring the urban landscape, especially the areas undergoing "renewal. During this period, he photographed intensively in Rochester, as well as in Chicago, where he replaced Aaron Siskind for a semester's sabbatical at the Institute of Design in 1963, and in Minneapolis, where he filled in for Jerome Liebling at the University of Minnesota in the spring of 1965. By 1964, Lyons had completely abandoned the view camera, making his last intentionally abstract image and adopting instead a responsive notational system grounded in a snapshot approach.
Envisioning a Field
Concurrent with this personal and artistic development, Lyons's work at Eastman House was rapidly intensifying. Lyons was promoted to assistant director in 1960, and after Chappell left in 1961, it was Lyons who directed the curatorial vision of the museum. With Newhall engaged in overseeing the museum and conducting historical research, Lyons was given the freedom to develop an ambitious program of exhibitions that surveyed the contemporary scene. The first major group show he organized was Seven Contemporary Photographers in 1961, including work by Ralph Eugene Meatyard and Ray K. Metzker.18 That same year, he converted a room on the second floor of the Eastman mansion into a small gallery dedicated to the work of contemporary photographers. There he held one-person shows featuring Simpson Kalisher, Aaron Siskind, Bruce Davidson, Robert Frank, Joel Meyerowitz, Sanne Sannes, and many others in quick succession, including Lee Friedlander's first one-man exhibition in 1963. With his contemporary exhibitions, Lyons established a number of principles to which he would remain committed throughout his career. He believed it was within the purview of the museum to provide exposure and support for individual living photographers, and starting with his design of the catalogue for Photography at Mid-Century, an exhibition curated by Walter Chappell in 1959, he conceived of each exhibition catalogue as a platform for such exposure, essentially contributing to a growing index of photographers. Lyons has referred to this as a "graphic index," a visual directory of contemporary photography, supplemented with biographical details and contact information for photographers that could be mined by curators at other institutions.
Lyons expanded his index with a series of contemporary surveys, starting with the exhibition Photography '63: An International Exhibition, presenting work by "a younger generation" of photographers, including Lee Friedlander, Mario Giacomelli, Eikoh Hosoe, Kenneth Josephson, William Klein, Ralph Eugene Meatyard, Jerry Uelsmann, and Garry Winogrand, all nominated by an international panel of photographers, editors, and educators. Invigorated by the range of new work revealed in Photography '63, Lyons followed up with Photography '64: An Invitational Exhibition, in which the nominating structure was reversed, with members of the "younger generation" nominating their important influences. These influences included acknowledged "masters" such as Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen, and Edward Weston, but also drew attention to figures who at the time, according to Lyons, were unexpected, such as Robert Frank, Harry Callahan, Aaron Siskind, and Frederick Sommer. Also committed to recognizing photographers who had made significant contributions to the field over a period of decades, Lyons organized Aaron Siskind: Photographer, Siskind's first major retrospective, in 1965. In an unusual show of support, the Eastman House provided Siskind with materials and a rented enlarger so that he could print the photographs for the exhibition.
Understanding the curator's role as one of discovery rather than directive, Lyons insisted on presenting a broad overview of contemporary practice rather than a selection of works that fit neatly into established categories. Believing it productive and enriching to challenge conventional ideas of "good" photographs, he wished to promote the notion of authorship, a term he used then to indicate that photographers, rather than serving as anonymous camera operators, were driven to photograph by their own ideas and intuitions—their own "point of view." One emerging pattern he noticed in the midsixties was a shifting approach to landscape photography, one in which photographers addressed their immediate environments rather than seeking the majestic views of pristine nature captured by Ansel Adams and others before him. In 1964, Lyons wrote, "The central theme of the landscape in the nineteenth century was directed toward the depiction of the 'ideal.' Its depictive quality in its 'truth to nature' was of the utmost importance. The landscape emerged in the twentieth century more as a realization of identity, the objectification of an inner landscape found in correspondence with the physical world." Lyons investigated this shift in the landmark exhibition Toward a Social Landscape in 1966, bringing together the work of Bruce Davidson, Lee Friedlander, Danny Lyon, Duane Michals, and Garry Winogrand, arguing that each was working in a style consistent with a long tradition of the snapshot in photography. Lyons quickly followed with The Persistence of Vision and Photography in the Twentieth Century, both in 1967, and with Vision and Expression in 1969, all presenting work by artists exploring multiple exposures, mixed-media collage, historic processes, and new technologies. At this point, Lyons could confidently write, "For many picture-makers, preconceptions about the photographic medium seem less significant at this time than they have in the past."
Lyons recognized that a crucial component of his efforts to support photographers was to expand the audience for photography. He began outside the museum, organizing exhibitions at nontraditional sites such as the New York State Exposition from 1962 to 1965, and the Kodak Pavilion during the New York World's Fair in 1964, for which Lyons presented photographs in watertight frames to allow the entire outdoor exhibition area to be hosed down each night. Lyons was instrumental in expanding the international audience for photography as well, most notably through his massive 1968 exhibition From the Collection of the George Eastman House: The World's Greatest Photographers, sponsored by the Japan Professional Photographers Society, coordinated by photographer Eikoh Hosoe, and composed of nine Eastman House traveling exhibitions assembled for tour to four cities in Japan. Because there were no museums in Japan regularly exhibiting photographs, the work was mounted in department store galleries in Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya, and Niigata, standing as one of the first times original prints from Western photographers were shown in that country.
Lyons also investigated alternative formats within the museum; as an experiment, in 1964 he simultaneously presented the exhibition A Dialogue with Solitude—A Photographer's Commitment: Dave Heath in traditional framed print form and in a slightly enlarged slide-show form with audio narration, and arranged an exit survey to ask viewers about their response to each. Further experimentation led to the 1968 exhibition Conscience: The Ultimate Weapon, a groundbreaking multimedia presentation featuring the work of Benedict J. Fernandez and examining the right to dissent during this time of great social and political upheaval. Lyons layered sequences of images from ten slide projectors with contemporary folk music, political speeches, and recorded interviews, all playing simultaneously in a darkened gallery, stunning viewers and critics alike; in his review of the exhibition, A. D. Coleman reported being "emotionally shaken" and called it the most experimental exhibition he'd seen.
Lyons organized some of the most provocative and far-reaching exhibitions of his time, most of them widely circulated through the Office of Extension Activities at Eastman House, instituted in 1963 with the "primary responsibility for planning and developing programs to extend activities of the George Eastman House beyond the city of Rochester." While "outreach" had always been part of the museum's mission, the Office of Extension Activities was formalized in part as a response to one of Lyons's educational initiatives, the 1962 Invitational Teaching Conference. Its twenty-eight participants, a calculated combination of acknowledged leaders and emerging thinkers, convened over three days at Eastman House, presenting papers aimed at identifying key concerns for the growth of the fledgling field. They pointed to the need for more critics, more resource materials, and more opportunities to view original photographs. They unanimously agreed that a permanent organization should be formed to further investigate these concerns, founding the Society for Photographic Education (SPE) the following year in Chicago and appointing Lyons its first chairperson. Not content to simply identify problems, the members got to work immediately, organizing loan exhibitions and print exchanges, publishing resource materials, providing a job placement service for individuals, and offering consultation for new departments of photography across the country.
Meeting annually since its founding, SPE became an early platform for advancing theoretical debate and sharing historical research. On the occasion of the second SPE conference in 1964, Lyons organized the Symposium on the History of Photography, the first major conference dedicated to scholarship in the history of the medium. Heinrich Schwarz, Eugene Ostroff, Robert Heinecken, Van Deren Coke, Walter Rosenblum, Peter Bunnell, John Szarkowski, and others delivered papers in the Dryden Theater at Eastman House, with Paul Vanderbilt, Jerry Uelsmann, Barbara Morgan, Aaron Siskind, Henry Holmes Smith, Arthur Siegel, and Minor White all contributing to panel discussions. It was at this conference that Lyons delivered his pioneering lecture "Photography and the Picture Experience." Known to many as Lyons's "snapshot lecture," the presentation traced a historical context for the snapshot in amateur photography, drawn from years of research in the Eastman House collections, and was illustrated with over three hundred slides. Through various iterations of this lecture delivered as early as 1962, Lyons situated the snapshot as an "authentic picture form" employed by the untrained amateur and evolving unencumbered of a prescriptive pictorial tradition. According to Lyons, his lecture irritated many in the audience, even enraging a few who resented Lyons's inclusion of Stieglitz's 1897 article on the hand camera and photograph "Snapshot, Paris, 1911" in his investigation. Lyons persisted, attempting to understand the historical precedent for the snapshot rather than introducing it as a new trend in contemporary art practice.
Two years later, still responding to the needs identified at the Invitational Teaching Conference, Lyons published his seminal Photographers on Photography: A Critical Anthology (1966), regarded as the first collection of primary literature available to students of photography. Lyons was keenly interested in reviewing the photographic literature of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, asking "Who were the principals?" and "What were their arguments?" In addition to serving as a resource, the book was, for Lyons, a demonstration of the vigorous debates and thoughtful discourse occurring inside the field by photographers with their own ideas, so often unfairly dismissed as simple technicians. With the depth of the Eastman House library available for his research, Lyons selected thirty-nine essays by twenty-three photographers, from early works by Henry Peach Robinson and Alfred Stieglitz to contemporary works by W. Eugene Smith, Robert Frank, Edward Steichen, and Minor White. Originally published in journals with limited circulation, many of these essays were essentially unavailable to students and researchers and had been largely forgotten. Lyons added biographies of the authors and selected bibliographies, culled from his own research. The book was widely adopted as a critical text for the proliferating number of college courses in photography, eventually sustaining twenty consecutive printings.
Committed to using the resources of Eastman House to train scholars and curators, Lyons instituted a suite of fellowships, internships, and workshops aimed at professional development. In 1967, the first Museum Training Program provided five two-month funded fellowships at Eastman House, and the Advanced Studies Workshop offered a four-week program "directed toward the development of museum skills, research in the history of photography, and the teaching of photography." The workshop was attended by twenty-six graduate students and photography teachers, with guest lectures by Grace Mayer, Robert Frank, and Nancy Newhall. Both programs continued in 1968, the year Lyons organized the museum's first student conference. He followed with a second student conference in the spring of 1969, with lectures by Jerry Uelsmann, Paul Caponigro, Ray K. Metzker, and Garry Winogrand. Out of these programs Lyons was able to hire talented young scholars for a growing number of staff positions at Eastman House. In 1967, Lyons's curatorial staff included Alice Wells, Thomas Barrow, Robert Fichter, and Reginald Heron, with Roger Mertin in charge of the reproduction center and Robert Bretz heading the research center. He hired curators Robert Sobieszek and Marie Czach in 1968, first as interns, and brought in Harold Jones as assistant curator of exhibitions. Over thirty years later, Sobieszek reflected upon this invigorating period at Eastman House: "While not precisely a university context, the Eastman House was a gravitational nexus for much of the academic and creative photography playing out across the country … It would have been nearly impossible to duplicate the atmosphere and chemistry of the Eastman House in that short period of time in the 1960s."
Building on this educational momentum, Lyons developed the first graduate program in Photographic Studies, aimed primarily at training those who would fill the growing number of positions in newly founded departments at museums and universities. When members of the art department at the State University of New York at Buffalo approached Eastman House with the idea for an advanced studies program offering a master's degree, Lyons agreed to design the program with the provision that it be offered in Rochester, utilizing the rich resources of the city and the museum. Rather than designing a traditional fine arts program, Lyons insisted that the program be interdisciplinary, addressing the broad spectrum of ways in which images function in society, with primary research applications in sociology, anthropology, psychology, and education. In his modest three-page proposal for the new program, Lyons outlined a philosophical position rather than a curricular structure, writing,
We do not think that one need question the extent to which the visual environment which man has created to extend his perceptual concerns has conditioned his responses to the world … we are continuously bombarded, both consciously and unconsciously, by visual stimulation, [yet] in a world that is relying more and more upon the effect of visual associations, we have done very little to understand and interpret the basic structures of this language.
Eric Larrabee, provost of Arts and Letters at SUNY Buffalo, described the program as "the basis ultimately, of a broad educational attack on what has accurately been described as the 'visual illiteracy' of far too many Americans." A pilot program began in the fall of 1968 with two students: Anne Tucker and Richmond Hare.
The new graduate program began near the end of what would be Lyons's last full year at Eastman House. As associate director and curator of photography, positions to which he was promoted in 1965, Lyons's program to expand the audience for photography was in full swing. In a report submitted to the board of trustees in November of 1968, Lyons stated that 185,000 people had visited Eastman House so far that year, 50,000 more than the previous year, the increase due in part to the success of Conscience: The Ultimate Weapon. According to the same report, Eastman House exhibitions, publications, and research services had reached an additional audience of over two million people through Lyons's Office of Extension Activities. Twenty-five exhibitions were available for travel that year, including eight contemporary surveys and a wide range of historical and contemporary solo shows. Lyons continued lecturing across the United States and Canada.
Lyons, along with John Szarkowski at the Museum of Modern Art, was recognized as a key leader in the field. Through their positions at the premier American photography institutions, Lyons and Szarkowski had emerged as the medium's most visible and outspoken figures, though the ideas they promoted were often contradictory. Since taking his post as director of MoMA's Photography Department in 1962, Szarkowski had carefully built a case for photography as an autonomous medium with its own inherent characteristics, establishing a distinct brand of rigorous formalism best embodied by the single, straight print. In The Photographer's Eye (1966), his first major theoretical statement, Szarkowski argues that photography is "a process based not on synthesis but on selection." Paintings, writes Szarkowski, are made, but photographs are taken. By comparison, as critics such as Charles Desmarais have noted, "Lyons demonstrated considerably more catholic taste than his Manhattan counterpart, including, in one show or another, virtually every contemporary approach to the medium." At Eastman House, Lyons was one of the few American curators actively collecting "hybrid" and "experimental" photography, earning for the institution an international reputation as a center of innovation. Pleased with these developments, Newhall made his recommendation to the board that Lyons succeed him as museum director when he retired, something he planned to do within the next three years.
Not everyone at Eastman House was pleased with Lyons's program, however. When he arrived in 1957, the museum's emphasis was on preserving the legacy of George Eastman, including his house and gardens, and on interpreting the scientific and technical applications of photography. Exhibitions of prints customarily celebrated established masters of the medium, such as Fox Talbot, Roger Fenton, Alfred Stieglitz, and Frederick Evans. Writing for Contemporary Photographer in 1964, photographer Nicholas Dean expressed a widespread perception of Eastman House in its first decade: "For a long time, it seemed to function more like a mausoleum than a museum of photography, shutting its eyes to all contemporary activity and concerning itself mainly with photographers already dead, and the deader the better." But Dean points to "an abrupt turnabout in the attitude at Eastman House" in recent years, which he credits in large part "to the initiative and zeal of Eastman House's perspicacious young Assistant Director, Nathan Lyons." To some members of the community, and of the board, however, the pluralistic range of imagery Lyons supported was increasingly extreme, even offensive; rather than rehearsing the masters, his exhibitions presented unproven photographers with radical approaches to the medium. In a letter addressing his concerns about the Siskind retrospective in 1965, one trustee noted that "this same type of 'far-out' photography is invading the cinematography field." Another asserted that Siskind's photographs of feet were "pornographic." Another board member unsuccessfully demanded that Lyons cancel Conscience: The Ultimate Weapon, uncomfortable with its overt engagement with politics. Complaints mounted through the late 1960s, contributing to what historian and critic Bill Jay would later call a "hornet's nest of intrigue" divided between "pro-Nathan or anti-Nathan partisans."
The circumstances under which Lyons ultimately left Eastman House have reached legendary status, replete with vague references to witchcraft, scandal, and conspiracy, yet the event in question was the culmination of years of disagreements between Lyons and the museum administration. In the summer of 1969, while Lyons was away at a conference titled "Non-Verbal Materials in the Social Studies" in Cooperstown, New York, associate curator Alice Wells, herself an accomplished photographer, confronted the museum's bookkeeper, Autumn Kubissa, who was regarded by some at Eastman House as a troublemaker and a saboteur, relentlessly accusing Lyons and his staff of "fraudulent" purchases made on behalf of the museum and threatening to alert members of the board. When the bookkeeper refused to issue payment for a portfolio of Wells's own photographs that Lyons had acquired for the museum, Wells feared for her professional reputation. Eager to defend her character, and unable to pursue legal action, she "felt that some kind of dramatic stand or protest would bring some light onto the real issues of personal rights and an investigation into the indifference by the management to the stated aims of the Eastman House, its charter, and the success of the programs to which we had committed ourselves."
Wells's response to the situation was indeed dramatic and provocative. She composed a statement, witnessed by Newhall's secretary Pam Reed and graduate student Anne Tucker, and delivered the statement to the bookkeeper. Dated July 31, 1969, the statement warned, "I AM GOING TO EXORCISE AN EVIL SPIRIT: Autumn Kubissa, I, Alice Wells, withdraw from you the power to do evil in this House. From this moment on you have only the power to harm yourself. All further communications with this office are to be in writing. Now get out, and may GOD be with you." The bookkeeper read the note and immediately phoned a member of the board, reporting that Wells had put a hex on her. There was no immediate response, but when Lyons returned from Cooperstown, he was informed that there would be a review of the event by the board president, Dr. Cyril Staud. Two days after a closed-door meeting on August 5, to which Lyons was neither invited nor permitted to offer testimony, both Wells and Kubissa were dismissed. Astonished that he had not been consulted in the dismissal of an employee under his direct supervision, Lyons told Newhall that if no suitable resolution could be found, he would have to resign as a matter of principle, and requested a meeting with Dr. Staud. A meeting was scheduled for the following morning, at which Dr. Staud quickly characterized Lyons's protest as a cheap attempt at blackmail and gave him three hours to resign and clear out his office. Just two hours later, Lyons handed his written resignation to Newhall.
There is no transcript of that meeting with Staud, no audio recording or official minutes. Word spread that Lyons had resigned in protest. Lyons, however, never considered his resignation voluntary. In what can be understood as an attempt to set the record straight, Lyons drafted a report of the event, distributing a copy to each member of the board of trustees.46 According to Lyons's account, "Dr. Staud demanded that my resignation be submitted by 5:00 pm that day, and that my personal effects be removed from the premises by Monday. He expressed that 'These are my wishes, and those of Eastman Kodak Company.'" In the letter, Lyons questions the independence of the museum, as its board was made up of a number of Kodak executives, and suggests that Kubissa was receiving some encouragement from "outside what could be interpreted as the normal structure of the Eastman House." In closing, Lyons writes: "To suggest that my resignation was voluntary, that I didn't have my way, or that in some strange way the Eastman Kodak Company is not indirectly involved, is a myth that I shall find hard to adjust to—possibly for the rest of my life." Letters and telegrams from photographers, curators, and editors poured into George Eastman House and to its board members at Kodak, expressing disbelief and requesting clarification.47 Lee Friedlander withdrew his prints from the exhibition Toward a Social Landscape, which was touring at the time.48 A telegram from Edward Steichen admonished, "Strongly urge you to reconsider."
Challenging Visual Education
Lyons left the Eastman House on August 8, 1969, with twenty-eight new students expected to arrive in just weeks for the graduate program in Photographic Studies. With Lyons no longer based at Eastman House, the future of the program was uncertain. When Lyons contacted Provost Eric Larrabee, an early advocate of the program, Larrabee offered to transfer the program to Lyons if he could quickly form a not-for-profit organization. This arrangement suited Lyons very well, as it was compatible with the workshop format he had envisioned, and free of the institutional constraints of the museum. Lyons set out immediately to find a location for his new "non-institution." With his severance pay of $450.00, Lyons rented the finishing room of an old woodworking factory at 4 Elton Street, just a block from the Eastman House. The space was three thousand square feet, much of it layered with lacquer and sawdust. Lyons sent a cryptic telegram to the incoming students, indicating that the program would have a new format and location, and that if they didn't mind arriving a bit early, they could help to build the school. The students, with diverse backgrounds in history, sociology, philosophy, and dance, were handed hammers and paintbrushes, and within three weeks the space was entirely transformed. They had scraped every surface, sanded the floors, built the darkroom, moved in equipment, repaired windows, and hung sheetrock. "Work call," as it came to be known, continued long after the building was first renovated. In an interview in 1976, Lyons explained, "Everything that's involved is important … I can possibly reach a student here over a hammer and saw more directly than in a conventional classroom."
Photographers and friends appeared in Rochester that first fall, opening the trunks of their cars and unloading enlargers, printing easels, and safe lights; some, like Robert Heinecken and Dave Heath, stayed to help with the renovation. A small shelf with Lyons's own books formed the basis of the research center, and obsolete equipment from an out-of-business newspaper office provided the tools to start a printing operation. A corridor between two buildings, one at a slightly higher elevation than the other, formed the Slightly Sloping Gallery, the Photographic Studies Workshop's first exhibition space. What the new school may have lacked in resources, it made up for with its impressive faculty and staff. Lyons taught studio practice and theory, and John Wood taught two-dimensional design and visual books while on sabbatical from Alfred University. Despite his abrupt departure from Eastman House, Lyons remained cordial with Newhall, who continued to teach his history course for the Workshop. Reginald Heron left his position as curator of what was then called the "equipment archive" at Eastman House to become the Workshop's darkroom manager and technical assistant. Lyons hired Alice Wells to assist with the administrative work necessary to form and operate the new school.
To begin earning income, Lyons immediately formed two traveling exhibitions, starting with a body of Wells's work called Found Moments Transformed, and adding Photographs and Etchings, the 1969 portfolio collaboration by Lee Friedlander and Jim Dine. In the spring of 1970, a fund-raising exhibition held simultaneously at the Workshop and at six galleries across the country brought in over three thousand prints donated by Lyons's network of friends and supporters and raised $28,000. When the Workshop took over the entire factory building a year later, it expanded to fourteen thousand square feet, with a larger darkroom, an expanded research center, and a "print loft," where students worked in alternative processes. There was a media center for video and film, a press shop, a lecture hall, and a large professional gallery. Soon Joan Lyons and Keith Smith joined the faculty, becoming leaders in a growing community of book artists. In 1972, Lyons founded Afterimage, the groundbreaking new journal of media criticism—its name a clever nod to the Eastman House publication Image—and subsequently appointed graduate student Charles Hagen as its first editor. Soon changing its name to the Visual Studies Workshop, the organization flourished while preserving its hands-on, do-it-yourself attitude; over the years, Lyons could be spotted mowing the lawn or repairing leaks in the roof.
The Visual Studies Workshop (VSW) became one of the earliest independent not-for-profit artist-run spaces in the country. Although in 1969 there was no immediate model for a graduate program that combined a not-for-profit organization and a university, the Workshop's interdisciplinary focus, collaborative structure, and experimental atmosphere had their precedents in the Bauhaus and in American schools, such as the Institute of Design in Chicago, founded on those principles. Some students were certainly committed to making fine art photographs, yet Lyons hoped to broaden their awareness of other issues as well, including the ways images function in the human environment. The Workshop supported an awareness of social concerns as well as an attitude of resistance to conventional photographic standards; students were encouraged to engage in cultural and political critique, appropriate mass-media imagery, and combine photographs with other graphic arts and text. They were free to introduce various forms of manipulation and intervention into traditional printing processes, adopting historic techniques and experimenting with the imaging possibilities presented by new photocopier technologies. Challenging the boundaries between photography and other visual arts, they created sculptural works and artist's books and staged "nonverbal performances."
Historian Geoffrey Batchen has recently written that in addition to serving as a stimulating laboratory for students, the Workshop was a gathering place for what he calls the "Rochester Group," which included Thomas Barrow, Robert Fichter, Betty Hahn, Alice Wells, Harold Jones, Roger Mertin, Bea Nettles, Keith Smith, and Robert Sobieszek—all artists and curators "interested in contesting the conventions of straight photography." With their attention to popular culture and their contempt for media boundaries, this group, Batchen argues, offered "a take-no-prisoners critique of the fine print fetishism then prevailing in art photography circles." Having no particular allegiance to John Szarkowski or the New York City photographers he promoted at the Museum of Modern Art, these artists and curators were more connected to the "West Coast scene," via photographer Robert Heinecken at UCLA and curator Fred Parker at the Pasadena Art Museum in particular, and through frequent intersections in Rochester and at SPE meetings. Therese Mulligan has also written that "to the dismay of photography purists," this far-flung group of dissenting photographers "were photograph makers, rather than photograph takers, self-consciously calling attention to the process or the idea of the creative act."
The workshop model allowed students and these members of the larger community to work closely with other emerging and established leaders; the list of visitors in just the first decade includes some of the time's most vibrant figures in art and other disciplines. Photographers such as John Pfahl, Eikoh Hosoe, and Frederick Sommer gave extended workshops; John Wood taught book arts; Robert Frank and Stan VanDerBeek made films with students; and pioneering video artists Nam June Paik and Peter Campus held residencies. Historians William Parker and Michael Lesy taught courses, Giselle Freund and sociologist Howard Becker lectured on social uses of photographs, and A. D. Coleman served as "critic in residence." Hollis Frampton, Bill Viola, Peter Crown, Bill Etra, and David Court all screened film or video works at the Workshop, and a continuous stream of photographers "stopped by," sometimes for days or even months. The Workshop Gallery maintained an ambitious exhibitions schedule that presented a variety of artists, from photographers such as Jacques-Henri Lartigue in 1975 to theorist Richard Bolton, whose 1988 installation The Imaginary Avant-Garde critiqued the role of art and photography in advertising. With rare exception, artists and visitors occupied the dinner table at the Lyons residence, sharing spaghetti, playing games with the children, and talking late into the night.
In his own courses at the Workshop, Lyons drew upon his experience conducting private workshops at his home over the previous ten years. His workshops had drawn students from RIT and other schools where they acquired advanced training in the technical aspects of photography, but where investigations into the medium's expressive potential were limited. Instead of the manuals that were a mainstay of most photography courses, the reading list Lyons assigned to his students drew from theoretical texts in art, education, philosophy, history, and literature. Students read Gyorgy Kepes's Language of Vision (1944) and New Landscape in Art and Science (1956), László Moholy-Nagy's Vision in Motion (1947), Susanne K. Langer's Philosophy in a New Key (1942), Henri Bergson's Matter and Memory (1911), and Herbert Read's Forms of Things Unknown (1960). These texts addressed ideas about visual perception, memory, and culture that were central to Lyons's own development and to the interdisciplinary way he encouraged his students to approach the medium. In a notice published in the last pages of Aperture in 1960, Lyons describes his workshop as "the establishment of a mutual experience situation for the exploration of vision. The articulation of space is a primary consideration, working with and without the camera, toward advanced studies in visual communication. Prerequisite for the workshop: imaginative preoccupations." The word "photography" is noticeably absent. Lyons assumed students could gain technical proficiency elsewhere and warned against the "exquisite rendition of absolutely nothing."
At Alfred University, John Wood had given Lyons "problems" rather than "assignments," and Lyons followed suit with his own students, emphasizing exploration over mastery. These problems typically focused on an issue of perception or observation rather than subject matter. For example, Lyons might ask students to photograph the same object in several different environments to "see what effect the environment had on the object or the object had on the environment." Students returned to the workshop every week with their discoveries. Susan E. Cohen later wrote about these meetings, based on audio recordings made during workshop sessions in 1965. She described the atmosphere this way:
Lyons's workshop is held in the evening. There are six participants; one of them, Roger Mertin, brings a tape recorder. People light cigarettes, drink coffee. The radio is always on. The news is of troop movements in Saigon and nuclear testing; the music is soft or cool. In the Lyons's living room, most of the talk is by Nathan, who sometimes writes on a pad of newsprint. There is silence as the group scrutinizes photographs set out by one of them, a "solution" to an assigned problem. People write in notebooks, conversations drift, until Nathan refocuses the group with a contradiction or a challenge: "What do we mean when we say, 'it works?' beyond the mumbo jumbo, mystical incantation, aesthetic jargon? What are you asking of it, or of yourself? What do you demand?"
This mode of questioning formed the basis for Lyons's pedagogical approach at the Visual Studies Workshop. Lyons once said in an interview, "I was very cautious of the whole notion of imposing something. I wanted something investigated; not declared, simply investigated."62 His style wasn't immediately accessible to everyone. When former students give accounts of participating in Lyons's seminars, they inevitably begin with admissions of confusion, quickly followed by appreciations of how Lyons taught them to think independently. Interviewed in 2000 by a Rochester newspaper on the occasion of the Workshop's thirtieth anniversary celebration (held a year after its actual anniversary), Anne Tucker, one of the Workshop's first two students, relayed her experience as follows: "Nathan's seminars—sometimes I didn't know what he was talking about." Charles Desmarais recalled Lyons's classroom atmosphere this way: "He'd lob an idea into the middle of the room and then kind of leave it there. People would be forced to pick it up and reshape it and adopt it for themselves. In a very important way, he taught us to think by not driving very carefully what the conversation was." For the same article, Adam Weinberg explained that "Nathan was always very cryptic, and that intrigued me. What I liked was that Nathan didn't provide answers to questions, he provided questions to questions." Lyons refused to be judgmental, insisting on possibilities rather than answers; this challenged students, often making them uncomfortable.
By 1972, there were seventy master's degree students and dozens more who attended as "workshop students," enrolled in classes but not seeking a degree. Students had available to them a growing research center, now expanded far beyond its first few books to include a collection of nineteenth- and twentieth-century prints, negatives, lantern slides, albums, scrapbooks, illustrated journals, and rare books, in addition to contemporary works contributed by visiting artists and graduating students. The total collection of images soon numbered in the hundreds of thousands. The media center had its own growing archive of films, videos, and audiotapes, preserving, for example, Beaumont Newhall's entire history course delivered at RIT in 1966–1967. It was customary to record lectures delivered at the Workshop and to interview visiting artists and scholars, creating a rich oral history collection.
A key part of each student's training was "work study," which often meant service as a coordinator of one of the various areas of the Workshop, such as the research center, the media center, the gallery, or the traveling exhibitions program. Students were required to complete a one-semester internship, and many did so as adjunct faculty members at other workshops and universities across the country, in both undergraduate and graduate programs. One particularly important teaching and internship site was the Visual Studies Workshop Press, a pioneering publisher of artists' books directed by Joan Lyons and founded in 1972. The VSW Press produced over 450 titles by the time Joan Lyons retired in 2004, including the VSW Reprint Series and a collection of seminal anthologies, and it continues publishing. One channel of distribution for these early publications was the "Book Bus," based at the Workshop and directed by Joe Flaherty. The bus traveled to college campuses along the East Coast, selling small-press books on art and literature that were unavailable at conventional bookstores.
The workshop philosophy emphasizes the integral role of the artist in society, and as an artist-run organization, the Visual Studies Workshop assumed an important position in the Rochester community, both at its original Elton Street location and later, when it moved into its current buildings at 31 Prince Street in the last weeks of 1977. The Workshop provided media equipment to artists, held free outdoor screenings, and organized children's programs in media and visual perception. In 1970, the Workshop initiated a grant-funded project in which high school students photographed their neighborhoods, often sites of urban renewal in the city's economically disadvantaged areas, and created four improvised galleries in vacant lots. The Workshop continued to be a center of community activity, perhaps reaching its zenith with the organization of Montage '93: International Festival of the Image, a month-long event investigating new imaging technologies, with media installations, exhibitions, screenings, lectures, and symposia at nearly every cultural institution in the city of Rochester as well as in vacant buildings, storefronts, malls, and buses.
In a 1982 interview with Alex Sweetman, one of Lyons's former students, Lyons explained, "If there was any way of projecting out a physical model for a lot of what's going on in my head, it probably would be the Workshop—in relation to everything that is there and the range of activities that are going on—from the resources to the relationship that we attempt to explore between things and the direction all this takes." If there is a way of mapping his influence, especially after leaving his highly visible post at Eastman House, it might be through tracing the paths of his students, who have gone on to be influential leaders in photographic practice and scholarship. Willis "Buzz" Hartshorn, a graduate of the Workshop and director of the International Center of Photography in New York, wrote this about Lyons in 1999: "I know of no other teacher of his generation who has had the impact Nathan has had. From a modest building in an isolated city he can count students in every aspect of the photographic field. It is equally remarkable how a program designed mostly for practitioners has produced so many curators, museum directors, critics, arts administrators and educators." These include curators and museum directors Anne Tucker, Charles Desmarais, James Borcoman, Adam Weinberg, and William Jenkins; photographers Henry Wessel, Jr., and Mark Klett; and critics David Levi Strauss and Charles Hagen, among many others. Many of his former students regularly attend Oracle, the annual meeting of international photography curators and directors, initiated by Lyons in 1983 and first hosted by James Enyeart in Oracle, Arizona.
Believing What You See
Despite his pervasive influence as an educator and curator, Lyons identifies himself primarily as a photographer and has continued making his own photographs for over sixty years. In 1974, he published his first book of photographs, Notations in Passing: Visualized by Nathan Lyons, the product of more than a decade spent scrutinizing American culture. Containing a sequence of ninety-seven images, the book reveals a concern with visual display as a form of social dialogue. As Anne Tucker wrote in 1995, Lyons "'collects' into his pictures various public displays: lawn decorations, wall posters, advertisements, historical sites, store windows, and billboards. What people display, plus how and where it appears, reveals what they value and often what their community values." Human figures are absent from all but a few of his photographs, though their residue and traces are evident in each. When he showed an early version of his Notations in Passing at the National Gallery of Canada in 1971, Lyons speculated in the small catalogue that "this series of photographs could be about me. But I think it is probably a series of questions about us and our stuff—pictures, objects and things. They may question us more honestly than we can ourselves."
Twenty-five years passed before Lyons followed up with Riding 1st Class on the Titanic!, constituting the second volume of what he originally thought would be a trilogy. Here Lyons collects visual displays of language, expressed in the form of signs and graffiti. The images are by turns ironic and poignant, amusing and painful. In a 2000 review in the New York Times, critic Vicki Goldberg describes his photographs in the same way Lyons's students have often described him. "Scrupulously refraining from didactics, they refuse to say exactly what viewers should think," she writes about the photographs in Riding 1st Class. "They maintain a certain emotional reserve even in their judgment of American culture, which appears to be as hard to fall in love with as it is to condemn in its entirety—and is in any event impossible to ignore." This complicated view of American culture is palpable in his next project as well, an unplanned continuation of his larger body of work. Horrified by the images he saw on the news on the morning of September 11, 2001, Lyons began photographing the television screen. He never published these first images, instead becoming increasingly interested in how people were reacting to the event in the days that followed. Within a week, Lyons was in New York City, photographing the public response. Lyons has characterized what he saw in the weeks following as "a heightened patriotic zeal" combined with an underlying sense of solemn questioning. He noted the prevalence of the American flag visible at what seemed to be every home, business, and public space across the country, and this became the dominant theme for his third book, After 9/11.
For Lyons, gathering the images for any of his books is a gradual process of observation and discovery. Describing his approach to creating Notations in Passing, he once explained, "There was just a feeling that what I had to do was carry out this visual journal—just openly responding to things I was seeing, and then beginning to understand something about my own responses and bringing that together. It was really dictating more about what was happening than I was." The full implication of each photograph is rarely evident initially, becoming clear only after an extended period of reflection and revision. Lyons may photograph for years, revisiting old contact sheets and evaluating patterns and concerns that emerge. The editing process proceeds through several drafts, until Lyons is satisfied that each sequence has reached completion. While he acknowledges the exhibition format as a space for experimentation and evaluation of early "drafts" of his sequences, his real commitment, and his true accomplishment as an artist, is in his sophisticated employment of the book format.
The book format allows the photographer to create the context for his own images; for Lyons, this is primarily a visual context. The only text that appears in Notations in Passing is the word "introduction," paired with a single opening image. Lyons uses images to signal movements within the book as well, often employing the blank billboard as an invitation for a new set of questions. The rigorously structured sequences expose complex layers of reference between images; connections build, and each association is modified and rephrased as the context is elaborated. Readers turn forward and back, perhaps starting over after reaching the end, discovering relationships within each spread that expand to incorporate images on the following or previous pages. These might begin with fairly direct associations such as subject matter, or visual associations in terms of tonal values, shapes, or surfaces. The dominant theme of one image may be suggested much later in another; a hint of texture or a graphic form might repeat, taking on several identities. Lyons explains in an artist's statement,
If metaphor is a verbal strategy to evoke images, then as a photographer I'm interested in combining images to alter associations by extending the image itself. A juxtaposition of images enhances this possibility, while an extended sequence of images establishes a highly interactive structure that does not simply identify objects or events in a narrative sense but transforms the meaning of objects. It is this act of transformation, interactively between images, that I find most challenging.
Lyons received the International Center of Photography Infinity Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2000 and was honored with a major retrospective exhibition, Nathan Lyons: A Survey, 1957–2000, at Eastman House the same year. To some, these milestones may have capped off a productive career, but for Lyons, they signaled the beginning of a new phase in which he could pursue projects of great personal significance. After his retirement from the Visual Studies Workshop in 2001, and the completion of After 9/11 in 2003, he organized On the Edge of Clear Meaning, the first retrospective exhibition and catalogue of the work of John Wood, completed in 2008. He simultaneously edited Eye Mind Spirit: The Enduring Legacy of Minor White, published in 2008, and has recently finished a collaborative project with his friend, the poet Marvin Bell, pairing his own photographs with Bell's responses in a book called Whiteout. Work spanning Lyons's entire career has consistently appeared in solo and group exhibitions, most recently in Abstract Expressionism at the Museum of Modern Art in 2010.
When discussing his work, Lyons speaks of his books not as distinct publications but as volumes of an extended exploratory sequence evocative of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass. Continuing this, his most important, lifelong project, Lyons has nearly completed his fourth volume of photographs, Return Your Mind to Its Upright Position, with 144 meticulously sequenced images that expand his study of found language and public display, something he first addressed in Seven Days a Week. In Return Your Mind, begun shortly before the events of September 11 would occupy his attention, Lyons intensifies his pointed assessment of American society and extends his comprehensive sequence, now spanning five decades and four books, to include nearly 600 photographs. As a philosophy that encompasses his own photographs as well as his work as an educator and leader in the field, the notion of "seeing," which to Lyons is active, as opposed to "looking," which is passive, continues to be emphasized by him; Lyons positions active seeing as central to a belief system that he has steadily elaborated over his lifetime. When pressed to explain, he answers, "Well, do you see what you believe? Or do you believe what you see? That's something for everybody to sort out. Are you learning anything if all you see is what you believe? For me it's always been a question of really being challenged by my responses, not necessarily just using them to confirm known responses."
The following selection of essays, lectures, and interviews demonstrates that Lyons's work as a curator and educator has unfolded in much the same purposeful way as his work as a photographer. His efforts to engage audiences, enrich the field's literature, support photographers, train practitioners and scholars, and expand the scope of photographic studies were established during his tenure at George Eastman House and sustained through decades at the Visual Studies Workshop, an organization that has had an enduring impact on both the academic and museum worlds. In the course of this cumulative effort over fifty years, Lyons's ideas about photography have penetrated the field, making him one of photography's most distinguished voices and strongest champions. Indeed, the extraordinary changes he envisioned in 1966 developed at a pace surely unimaginable even to him; after their spirited discussion early that year, he and photographers Simpson Kalisher and Garry Winogrand witnessed a radical transformation in photography, evident in a sudden spike in exhibitions, publishing, scholarship, and market values. It would be difficult to overstate Lyons's role in that transformation, yet until now, his far-reaching influence has not been thoroughly addressed. This volume attempts to redress this oversight, honoring his unique and fundamental role in expanding the field of photography.
Jessica S. McDonald
Rochester, New York