Nathan Lyons

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Nathan Lyons
Born 1930
Nationality American
Known for photography
Awards Infinity Award from ICP

Nathan Lyons (born 1930) is an American artist, curator and educator. He has exhibited his photographs since 1956; his works are in numerous collections worldwide.[1] He was curator of photography and an associate director at the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York,[2] and in 1969 founded the independent Visual Studies Workshop in Rochester which established a course of study relating to the history and practice of the photographic art form as well as curatorial studies pertaining specifically to the medium of photography.[3] He started the Society for Photographic Education, and was its first chairman.[1] In May 2000 he received the Infinity Award of the International Center of Photography for lifetime achievement in photography.[4][5]

Education and military service[edit]

In 1945 Lyons became interested in photography after viewing a darkroom demonstration and he began to photograph with a plastic Falcon camera while working in his family’s glass and mirror business. In 1947 he received a camera as a graduation gift and between 1947-48 he photographed around Times Square, New York and assisted various photographers. From 1948-50 Lyons enrolled at New York State Agricultural and Technical Institute, Alfred, New York where he studied business and marketing. In 1950 he withdrew from business classes and chose instead to take creative writing and philosophy courses at Alfred University. The same year he enlisted in the United States Air Force as a photographer and reported to Grenier Air Force Base in Manchester, New Hampshire. Between 1951-53 he served as senior photographer in a photo intelligence unit in Kimpo, Korea and was recommended for a Bronze Star Medal for his work in establishing a mobile photographic reconnaissance unit.

In 1953 Lyons returned to the United States and worked for the Air Force as a staff news writer and public relations photographer in Marietta, Georgia. In 1954 following honorable discharge from the Air Force he enrolled at Alfred University where he majored in English literature and minored in Theatre. He also studied photography and exhibition design with the artist John Wood who became his primary mentor and an influential force behind Lyons’s creative practice.[6]

Curatorial work[edit]

After graduating in 1957, Lyons began working for the George Eastman House as the director of public information and assistant editor of Image magazine. In 1960 he was appointed assistant director and began a series of exhibitions on the work of young contemporary photographers. At this time he was also named the regional editor of Aperture magazine.[6]

In 1961 Lyons curated the exhibition "Seven Contemporary Photographers" that included the work of Ralph Eugene Meatyard and Ray K. Metzker. Lyons gave Lee Friedlander his first solo exhibition in 1963. Lyons’s curatorial aim was to promote the notion of a photographer’s distinct “point of view” and individual creative motivations. Additionally, Lyons validated and defined the “snapshot aesthetic” in his exhibition "Toward a Social Landscape" in 1966 that included the work of Bruce Davidson, Lee Friedlander, Danny Lyon, Duane Michals and Garry Winogrand and further explored the aesthetic in his lecture “Photography and the Picture Experience” regarding the snapshot as “authentic picture form”. Lyons also organized the exhibitions "The Persistence of Vision", 1967, "Photography in the Twentieth Century", 1967, and "Vision and Expression", 1969 at George Eastman House.[3] During this time, Lyons also founded the Society for Photographic Education, a nonprofit membership organization that provides a forum for the discussion of photography and related media as a means of creative expression and cultural insight.[7]

In 1969 Lyons resigned from George Eastman House and founded Visual Studies Workshop. Three years later he founded Afterimage, a play on Image magazine published by George Eastman House. In 1983 he organizeed Oracle, an annual meeting of curators and directors of photographic institutions.[1] In 2008 he organized the retrospective exhibition "John Wood: On the Edge of Clear Meaning",[8] held at the International Center of Photography.[9]


In 1960 Lyons published the book Under the Sun: The Abstract Art of Camera Vision along with the artists Syl Labrot and Walter Chappell. An exhibition of works by all three artists accompanied the book and was displayed at the Poindexter Gallery, New York.[10] Six of Lyons’s photographs were also included in the exhibition "The Sense of Abstraction in Contemporary Photography" at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York.[11]

In 1964 Lyons’s photographs were included in the exhibition "The Photographer’s Eye" at MoMA and the exhibition "Photography in the Fine Arts IV" at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.[12] In 1971 Lyons exhibited "Notations in Passing, 1970: Photographs by Nathan Lyons from the Collection of the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa".[3]

He published his first major book Notations in Passing: Visualized by Nathan Lyons. This book is the first instance of Lyons’s creative exploration of the extended meaning forged from reading his photographs as diptychs contained within a larger sequence.[13] In 1978 one of his images was included in the seminal exhibition "Mirrors and Windows" at MoMA. In 1987 he exhibited an early version of this series called Verbal Landscape at the Albright Knox Art Gallery.[14] His work is also included in the exhibition, "Photography and Art; Interactions since 1945" at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

The series Riding First Class on the Titanic! was completed in 1999 and the works exhibited in various public institutions and museums including the Addison Gallery of American Art, Andover, MA.[15] The first major retrospective of his work, "Nathan Lyons: A Survey, 1957-2000" was held at George Eastman House.[16]

In 2001 Lyons retired from The Visual Studies Workshop and began his series After 9/11, which he completed in 2003.[17] In 2006 he exhibited his three completed series: Notations in Passing, Riding First Class on the Titanic! and After 9/11 in the exhibition, Trilogy at the Bruce Silverstein Gallery, New York.[18] In 2011 he published a text-image collaboration with the poet Marvin Bell entitled Whiteout.[19] In 2013 he completed his fourth publication, Return Your Mind to Its Upright Position and exhibited works from all four of his series at the Bruce Silverstein Gallery, New York in 2014.[20]



  • Notations in passing. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1974.
  • Riding 1st class on the Titanic!. Andover, Massachusetts: Addison Gallery of American Art; Cambridge: MIT Press, 1999.
  • After 9/11: photographs. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Art Gallery, 2003.
  • Return Your Mind To Its Upright Position. ARTISANworks Press, 2014.

Further reading[edit]

  • Jessica S. McDonald (ed.) (2012). Nathan Lyons: Selected Essays, Lectures, and Interviews. Austin: University of Texas Press


  1. ^ a b c Nathan Lyons. ARTISANworks. Accessed May 2014.
  2. ^ Indepth Arts News: "Nathan Lyons: A Survey, 1957-2000". World Wide Arts Resources Corporation. Accessed May 2014.
  3. ^ a b c Nathan Lyons: Selected Essays, Lectures, and Interviews; Edited by Jessica S. McDonald. University of Texas Press. Accessed May 2014.
  4. ^ Riding First Class on the Titanic!: Photographs by Nathan Lyons; International Center of Photography, April 15 – June 18, 2000. International Center of Photography. Accessed May 2014.
  5. ^ After 9/11: Photographs by Nathan Lyons. Yale University Press. Accessed May 2014.
  6. ^ a b "Nathan Lyons Is Out To Find Elusive Meaning Of Our Culture" Chicago Tribune 19 April 1985. Accessed November 2014.
  7. ^ [1] Society for Photographic Education History
  8. ^ A Photographer Who Refused to Think Like a PhotographerNew York Times 21 May 2009.
  9. ^ [2] John Wood: Quiet Protest press release
  10. ^ Photo Exhibit Opens Monday Newport Daily News 3 February 1962. Accessed November 2014.
  11. ^ [3] Museum of Modern Art The Sense of Abstraction press release
  12. ^ [4] Museum of Modern Art the Photographers Eye checklist
  13. ^ Photography Review New York Times 12 May 2000. Accessed November 2014.
  14. ^ [5] Liggett, Helen. Urban Encounters. University of Minnesota Press. ISBN 978-0816641260
  15. ^ [6] International Center for Photography press release
  16. ^ [7] George Eastman House Curators
  17. ^ After 9/11: Photographs by Nathan Lyons
  18. ^ Nathan Lyons: Trilogy at Bruce Silverstein Gallery
  19. ^ [8]
  20. ^ Nathan Lyons: Return Your Mind To Its Upright Position
  21. ^ "National Endowment Awards Grants in Arts" New York Times 30 October 1984. Accessed November 2014.
  22. ^ [9] Grants in Support of New Writing on Photography
  23. ^ a b c d e [10] International Center for Photography Infinity Awards 1996-2006