It's hard to quantify the impact that photographer, curator, writer, and educator Nathan Lyons had on Rochester and the wider field of photography. His career began in his teens in his native New York City, with an enduring passion for photography and writing that developed into a dedication to educating others on visual literacy. His photographic practice and passion for education are inextricably linked.
When Lyons died in 2016, he had shifted his lifelong focus on black and white images to the world of digital color photography. Now through June 9, George Eastman Museum is presenting a major retrospective of Lyons' work. It's the first retrospective that focuses on his photographs as a whole, exhibiting his late-life shift to digital color photography alongside his early work.
At the end of his life, Lyons began to work in digital color photography for the first time, but he didn't get to finish that work, says Jamie M. Allen, associate curator in the Department of Photography at George Eastman Museum. Allen worked closely with Lyons to begin putting his color work in order when he fell ill, and after his death she worked with his wife, Joan Lyons, to finish arranging the images for the book that the exhibit is based on.
"In Pursuit of Magic" includes 160 photographs and photobooks, offering a cohesive view of Lyons' life's work. The exhibit more or less moves chronologically through Lyons' various bodies of work, beginning with photos he created right after graduating from college, from 1957 to 1963. These images flirt with abstraction, showcasing the influence of avant-garde photographers he studied with, such as Aaron Siskind and Minor White.
"Yet Lyons's subject matter was often less mysterious than theirs and was recognizably urban, a characteristic that would intensify in his subsequent work," says the curatorial wall text for the "Early Works" section of the show.
Even his work that has been called abstract offers clear cues about what we are looking at. For example, in an untitled image a saw blade is reduced to a bright, jagged crescent on a dark and textured background, but there's no mistaking the object for anything else. Bits of signage, graphic symbols, graffiti, and murals appear in Lyons' early images and remain important elements in his work throughout his life.
This section of the show sets up the foundation for a couple of Lyons' enduring interests, namely visual literacy and built environments, Allen says. "In his photographs of Chicago, you start to see architecture take a place in his photographs, but architecture layered along the city. And the idea that our mark-making as humans -- murals, signage, all of those things -- become elements of his photographs," she says.
And the layering causes the viewer to question space and our relationship to those spaces, Allen adds.
Part of the quiet power of Lyons' work is his simple capturing of oddities, which often fall into the background as visual white noise in the urban setting. Lyons' subtle sense of humor comes through in his cropping in on a just a few words painted on a cracked wall in an untitled 1957 image: "REACH FOR" and an arrow pointing to the left leaves an unanswered question, and the picture also serves to direct the viewers onward to the next image.
The concept of sequencing, or Lyons' ability to control the order that viewers encountered his images, was an ongoing point of fascination for him, and informed the ways he curated his work in exhibition and photobook format. Beyond a simple encounter with an image, sequencing allowed him to play with the relationships between different images.
The images in the next section, "Notations in Passing" (which is named for Lyons' first photobook), were created between 1963 and 1973 and are snapshots made with a 35mm camera. They're filled with a wide variety of at-a-glance mundane visuals, like the dimensional push and pull of shadows and reflections on storefront windows and the interior of the stores visible through the glass.
Repetition of themes also emerges in Lyons' work. In one pairing in the exhibit, two images depict mostly open, empty sky, with mere slivers of rooftops. Low in each of the picture planes is a representation of a commercial aircraft: One is a sculpture anchored on top of a billboard, and the other is a picture of a plane on a billboard with the oddly phrased text, "Take one home to mother."
The next section of the show, "Riding 1st Class on the Titanic!" is named for Lyons' second photobook, the title drawn from graffiti he captured in one of the images. Created between 1974 and 1998, these images are mostly presented as diptychs, and reveal his "deepening engagement with street art, signage, and graffiti," the wall text says.
But Lyons' documentation of these markings, captured in specific moments in time, signifies more than the snapshots. "Taken together, the pictures are an incisive contemplation of the capacity of shared spaces to shape social behavior and prompt dialogue among anonymous correspondents," the curators write in the wall text.
One witty yet poignant pairing of pictures from this grouping presents this concept particularly well, and specifically creates an interplay between religions, culture, and communication. On the left is a shot of a small church with "JESUS HEALS" in bold lettering above its gated threshold, a message about love on a marquee, and a drinking fountain labeled "HOLY WATER" out front. The right-side image is of a wall with "WHAT?" spray-painted in the center of the photo, seemingly a witty response to "JESUS HEALS" if only because those are the largest, most noticeable words between the two photos. But then you notice the tinier few lines of Arabic graffiti in the right photo, and suddenly the English becomes a response to that.
Lyons' paired and grouped images are filled with shifting meanings and relationships that expand under your gaze, and looking at them is often a game of spotting the obvious and then the subtext. And, Allen points out, associations will vary for every viewer, particularly for ones who are familiar with the snippets of environments he shot. Natives of Rochester will see his Rochester photographs with different insight than we'll see his images from Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, or Mexico.
New York City is a space in perpetual flux in any time, but after 9/11 Lyons' hometown experienced a particularly dramatic shift in the visual landscape. He worked quickly to record his meditations on this tragedy, between 2001 and 2002, and published them in "After 9/11." That photobook, and the segment of the show that represents that work, is filled with imagery that notes the various reactions to horror and mourning, including the explosion of screaming patriotism and shallow xenophobia. The American flag is ubiquitous and becomes an icon of empty commercialism as much as a symbol of defiance. Bin Laden is a two-dimensional villain and Uncle Sam flips him the bird.
There's so much to see in this exhibit -- more sections are dedicated to other photobook works and sequencing explorations that Lyons created in the past two decades, building up to his works in color, created between 2010 and his death in 2016. For many years Lyons said he had no interest in color photography, Allen says. But introducing color became a logical conclusion, given his interest in the increasingly complex assault of layered images and advertising in our built environments.
Lyons created more than 500 color images in those few short years. And though introducing this new element into his work can be likened to learning a new language, there's a certain seamlessness between his earlier work and his works in color. The subject matter remains the same. And the presence of color both underscores the overwhelming nature of the visual terrain (especially where layers of murals, graffiti, signs, and stickers are present) and enhances the quieter, almost monochromatic shots of phrases such as "IN PURSUIT OF MAGIC," stenciled on the sidewalks by some anonymous city dweller.
Some public programs in association with the exhibit will be held throughout the run of the show, including a gallery talk with WALL\THERAPY director Erich Lehman and artist Todd Stahl on Lyons' use of graffiti and murals as visual language on Saturday, February 16, And there will be a gallery talk with artist and Lyons' wife Joan Lyons and exhibit co-curator Jamie M. Allen on their interpretations of the color photographs in the show on Thursday, March 21. Visit eastman.org for more events and information.