Nathan Lyons – In Pursuit of Magic

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Review by Wayne Swanson

Are you fluent in photography? Not f-stops and apertures. Not representational or abstract, fine art or documentary. Not Ansel or Robert Adams. Rather, do you understand the visual language of photography?

For the late Nathan Lyons (1930 – 2016), the world was “a vast repertoire of signs that await being ‘read.’” In a career spanning six decades, his photography made a strong case for the medium’s vital role as a language all its own.

Lyons is renowned as a curator, educator, and critic. During his years at George Eastman House, he championed the work of artists not yet accepted into the mainstream, including Garry Winogrand, Lee Friedlander, Duane Michaels, and Danny Lyons. Yet he was also a pioneering photographer in his own right. He was often ahead of the times, producing work that emphasized photography’s ability to convey meaning on multiple levels and anticipating the overwhelming influence of imagery in today’s world.

Nathan Lyons: In Pursuit of Magic is a retrospective monograph of his photography, co-published with the George Eastman Museum in conjunction with an exhibition of the work. It presents the arc of his artistic journey as he, fine art photography, and society evolved over more than half a century. The images and insightful essays in the book chart his photographic career, his influences, and the development of his philosophy about what photography is and what it’s capable of.

Urban street photography would be the shorthand label for Lyons’ work. But Lyons disliked labels, and there’s something much more sophisticated going on here. He explored the mark-making, symbols, signs, and graphics of the urban landscape. The resulting images are formal and distilled, even in his final works filled with the graffiti, pop culture, and references to the social upheaval of today.

The book presents Lyons’ work chronologically, and the images explain the grammar, composition, and elements of style that are his idea of visual literacy. His early works were black-and-white explorations of found forms, textures, and abstraction. A sparse early image of a cracked wall with just a directional arrow and the words “Reach For” on it introduces the types of signifiers that would be ongoing elements in his works.

Then he began to see beyond the individual print, through juxtapositions, sequencing, and diptychs that created a conversation among the elements. He also played with symbols such as the flag and pop icons to show how their meanings change with their context. When he was in his 80s, Lyons shifted to color photography, continuing to explore his lifelong themes while adapting them to reflect the inundation of images and advertising in contemporary life.

Jamie M. Allen, associate curator of the Department of Photography at George Eastman Museum notes in one of the book’s essays that “Lyons asks his viewers to think on many levels: What are the signifiers in this image and what do they stand for? What does this image say in relation to the one next to it? Does it change when it is included within an extended sequence? How does the addition of other sequences change the reading?”

Nathan Lyons: In Pursuit of Magic presents a compelling case for the Lyons’ view of photography as a form of language. And language arts aside, it is filled with beautifully crafted photographs that capture the wonderment of the everyday world.

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Photographer: Nathan Lyons (born Queens, NY, resided Rochester, NY; 1930–2016)

Publisher: University of Texas Press, Austin, TX, 2019

Essays: Bruce Barnes, Jessica S. McDonald, Lisa Hostetler, Jamie M. Allen

Text: English

Hardcover book with dust jacket, sewn binding, 157 black-and-white and 90 color photographs, 304 pages, 10 ½ x 9 ½ inches, selected chronology and selected bibliography, printed in Italy

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