When Nathan Lyons, the internationally renowned photographer, curator, educator, author, and editor, succumbed to pneumonia on Wednesday, August 31, at the age of 86, tributes by major institutions and loving memories from individuals around the world were immediate. Throughout his life, Lyons made enormous contributions to photography, through his own philosophic work, and through his tireless efforts to raise and sustain discussions in the field.
A native of New York City and a long-time Rochesterian, Lyons served as the curator of photography and an associate director at George Eastman Museum from 1961 to 1969, when he resigned and founded Visual Studies Workshop. He was a distinguished professor emeritus at SUNY Brockport.
City asked members of the photography, museum, and gallery scenes who knew Lyons to share a memory or thoughts about the man. We welcome your memories; add your thoughts to the comments section below.
"There are few superlatives that don't apply to Nathan Lyons. For me, a trusted colleague in the arts community; an insightful collaborator on temporary exhibitions; and, over the years, a beloved mentor to several staff members at the Memorial Art Gallery. Rochester is blessed with institutions and individuals who have attained national, even international, reputations in the arts. Nathan Lyons is one such individual: his legacy is deep and true."
— Grant Holcomb, Director of the Memorial Art Gallery, 1985-2014
"Nathan was the modest source of all facts, ideas, and thoughts photographic. He was never available to sources of wealth and power...especially when such sources made attempts to influence the direction of his work, his efforts for students, friends, and the field he loved and supported for his entire adulthood. He was an ideal human being. He was a devoted member of an international visual//verbal family. He leaves a vacuum that may be impossible to fill."
— Carl Chiarenza, Fanny Knapp Allen Professor and Artist-in-Residence Emeritus, University of Rochester
"No one would dispute that Nathan Lyons has been one of the most important and accomplished people in the photography community for the past six decades. His photographs encouraged us to look deeply at the world around us with an open mind, taking pleasure in the visual conundrums of everyday life. The exhibitions he curated and his associated writings introduced us to the work of other artists who expanded our appreciation of photography's unique power not only to reflect but also to shape our perception of our surroundings, ourselves, and those around us. His impact as an educator at the Visual Studies Workshop is difficult to overestimate; numerous photographers, curators, scholars, photobook makers, and citizens have been inspired and challenged by him.
"I feel tremendously lucky to have had the privilege to know him personally, if only briefly. Shortly after I arrived in Rochester, he invited me to lunch. I eagerly accepted, despite being acutely aware and rather daunted by the prospect of dining with the man who organized landmark exhibitions such as 'Toward a Social Landscape' and 'Vision and Expression' at the very same institution where I now worked. Nevertheless, I gathered my confidence and went. Of course I discovered that I shouldn't have been so anxious, for I love photography and that was enough common ground for us to enjoy meaningful conversation. And conversation, both visual and verbal, was his true talent. He used it to erode the surface of observational chitchat and expose the moral consequences of seeing. But he did it gently so one almost didn't notice, because he'd rather enlighten than embarrass.
"Nathan was a regular presence in the Rochester arts community, where he will be sorely missed. His absence from the global community of artists will be felt equally profoundly. As for those of us in the photography community — which exists in part because of him — we will always feel him there with his camera, noticing everything and sharing its resonance."
— Lisa Hostetler, Curator in Charge, Department of Photography, George Eastman Museum
"Nathan Lyons was the reason I moved to Rochester. My husband had finished a teaching stint at the University of the South and wanted to do post-grad work at VSW. He loved Nathan's lectures but felt lost at sea with the academic reading assignments. Nathan listened patiently as Jim explained that he just wanted to make pictures — and then offered advice that has never been forgotten: "Then go make pictures." He sent him over to see Rick Hock at the Eastman House, who gave him a job that allowed him to immerse himself in great images all day long. I remember vividly the first time I met Nathan myself. It was at an opening and I was struck dumb in the presence of this man who had assumed such mythic proportions in my mind over the years. Never did I imagine that one day I'd be receiving curatorial advice from him over lunches, and later, including his work in my last major exhibition at MAG. His dry humor, his kindness, and his encouragement are the memories Jim and I will treasure.
— Marie Via, retired Director of Exhibitions at Memorial Art Gallery
"My perspective is more grounded in being an observer of and a participant in the arts community. I saw Nathan as an upholder of two somewhat antithetical impulses, risk-taking and community building. Risk-taking in his own photography, in his refusal to succumb to the conservatism of the regional philanthropic and artistic community, and in the bravado with which he established institutions, publications, and exhibitions that were often outside of the mainstream. Community building, in that he was one of the leaders who attracted gifted people to Rochester and kept them coming back; in that he himself stayed and poured himself into the life of the community here; in that he was always the person who was at the heart of things at artists' breakfasts, at lunch at 2Vine, with old and new friends.
"For me, Nathan's bifurcated life path is best expressed by his multi-site project Montage 93: International Festival of the Image. A New York Times review touched on a few of the venues — MAG, George Eastman House, Hallman Chevrolet, Strong Museum, streets, and malls — and didn't mention Nathan, the prime mover behind the pre-Fringe, pre-Jazz Fest photography festival. Another reviewer commented: 'The complexity of the equipment involved must have presented considerable logistical headaches for the organizers.' To say the least!
"There are a few of us around who still remember the pain. But only Nathan could have had the audacity to envision Montage 93; to bring together the most staid of corporate and governmental funding sources with the most cutting edge artists and technology; and to convince a chopped salad of disparately focused cultural and municipal institutions with vastly varying resources to be tossed together for a summer because — well, because Nathan wanted it to work. Risk and community building. It doesn't happen very often around here in the form of one human being.
— Marjorie Searl, retired Chief Curator at Memorial Art Gallery
"I knew of Nathan for a long time before we were friends. In the 80's the world of photo curators was very small. Even internationally, we all knew each other, and sometimes I felt I was the only one of us who hadn't started out as Nathan's student. Nathan was the founder of several professional communities I was a part of and he was present at most of their gatherings as leader, mentor, and elder statesman.
"We became friends once I came to Rochester. We had lunch together, maybe once a month and sometimes I would join the Saturday morning gathering of old men drinking coffee at one or another Rochester café. My bond with Nathan was our membership in the tiny community of curators of the Eastman House collection; only someone who has done it too, can grasp the delights and challenges of that position. We talked mostly about photography and its people, and exhibitions we had seen or were planning to do.
"Nathan's love for us and the work we do was fierce and wise. His passion for his own work was irresistible. He fought jargon, smugness, and abuse of power. I loved him with all my heart.
— Alison Nordström, Senior Curator of Photographs at George Eastman House from 2004 to 2013
"Nathan Lyons made me hate photography — and fall in love with it all over again. The summer of 2011, Nathan Lyons was scheduled to teach his very last IMAGE/SEQUENCE/SERIES workshop at Visual Studies Workshop. As a graduate student at VSW at the time, I had to register. Even before I started graduate school, the name Nathan Lyons was one that was revered every time I heard it mentioned in conversation. He changed photography. He was a local legend. He was the founder of VSW. His IMAGE/SEQUENCE/SERIES workshop was notorious. I was given this perhaps, and what turned out to be for me, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to study with him. I jumped at the opportunity.
"Now, this workshop wasn't the first time I had met Nathan. He was always attending events at VSW. My first summer at VSW I ate a hotdog with him. Even though he was a constant throughout my graduate school career, the summer of 2011 was the first time I had the experience of working with him on my own photographic work.
"The IMAGE/SEQUENCE/SERIES workshop that summer was one week long. Every day we were tasked to shoot at least 100 images and bring contact sheets back the next day. Going through my notes from that week, it's funny, I've never hated photography more.
"The biggest take-away from this workshop for me was Nathan reminding me the difference between "looking" at something and "seeing" it. A simple concept but one I often disregarded.
"That week I shot over 400 images and walked away with a sequence of 21 images in a series I titled 'The Whole Vast Machine.' This series was then the catalyst for my photobook, 'Landed,' I published in 2012.
"Nathan changed the way I think about photography that summer and that experience has helped shape my career in the field."
— Megan Charland, Photography Program Manager at Genesee Center for the Arts & Education
"When I was introduced to Nathan Lyons it was 2003 and we were in the corridor outside the Dryden Theatre at the George Eastman House. He was about to give a lecture on his project 'After 9/11,' the third of four books in an extended sequence spanning five decades of pictures. At that time I only knew Nathan and his work from the interview with him I had read in Thomas Dugan's great compendium, 'Photography Between Covers: Interviews with Photo-bookmakers,' his images and sequence in the book, 'Notations in Passing,' and the fact that I was two weeks into my first semester as a student in the Master of Fine Arts program at Visual Studies Workshop that he had created about 35 years earlier.
"The Nathan Lyons I knew from reading the master photo-bookwork ("Notations...") and the interview with Dugan were quick-witted and drolly funny, cool and intellectual yet quietly observant with an affinity for noting intimate communications between one human being and another. But I forgot what I knew from my reading while in the presence of the man. Because when a fellow classmate introduced me as, 'a new student in the MFA program,' his biting response to this description was, 'Does that make him important or something?'
"A decade later, having been the Visual Studies Workshop's director for five years by that point, after many lunches and board meetings and discussions about managing this artist space, and pedagogy, and how to support artists and critics, I joked with Nathan about what he said when we were first introduced. He shot me a quick, guilty smile, averted his eyes, and lightly chuckled while I went on to say that after getting to know him better, I interpreted his past remark to mean that he was happy to be introduced to a fellow human being, whether or not I was 'important' by some professional notion of one's standing in the world. He humbly agreed with my interpretation though he would never outright acknowledge in words his own sense of equality. His egalitarianism was made known through his actions, and his pictures.
"I'm reminded here of a few lines from Walt Whitman's 'Leaves of Grass' — a collection of poems I studied because Lyons acknowledged it as supportive for his four-book photographic sequence. 'Stranger, if you, passing, meet me and desire to speak to me, why should you not speak to me? And why should I not speak to you?' What I learned from Nathan — through his photo-bookworks, his notion of sequence, has to do with how individuals are all connected. He taught me a way of knowing that nothing ever exists discretely. I can return to his books, which remain very much alive, but I will miss his quiet comments and his small lessons in humanity."
— Tate Shaw, Director of Visual Studies Workshop
"Nathan was a tireless supporter of the photographic community in Rochester as well as around the world. It is impossible to describe the full extent of his teaching, photographs, writing, curating and mentoring to many people within the photographic community, including myself.
"I have known Nathan throughout every stage of my involvement with the medium of photography: student at the Visual Studies Workshop, photographer, business involvements with photography, board member and chairman at the Visual Studies Workshop, and most importantly friend. He was and will continue to be my mentor in all aspects of my photographic life.
"Vicki Goldberg was quoted in the New York Times obituary from an article she wrote about Nathan in 2000. Making reference to Nathan's photographic style, she noted he created sequences of images often presented as diptychs, 'little apercus of offbeat moments that, when sequenced, add up to more than the sum of their parts.' This perhaps, is a metaphor which describes the many aspects of Nathan's life and the legacy he leaves behind.
"What it doesn't describe however, is the love all who knew him hold in their hearts for a man who so quietly brought to so many the tools for deciphering a greater understanding of the world we live in. He will be greatly missed."
— Bill Edwards, Owner of Lumiere Photo
On Sunday, September 18, at 10 a.m., a lecture delivered by Lyons at the National Art Gallery of Ontario in 1967 entitled "Photography and the Picture Experience" will be presented by Tara Nelson, Curator of Moving Image Collections at VSW, on her show Art and Archive on WAYO 104.3 (wayofm.org).
EDITOR'S NOTE: This article has been corrected. Lyons' lecture will be broadcast at 10 a.m. on Sunday.