Nathan Lyons’ In Pursuit of Magic — A Book Review
There can be little doubt that Nathan Lyons was a tour de force in the world of twentieth-century photography. He was a curator at the George Eastman House! He was also a driving force in launching important careers like those of Lee Friedlander and Garry Winogrand. No brief footnote indeed. There is also little doubt that promoting others in this way was at least partially responsible for eclipsing his own career — unfortunately not a novel phenomenon.
© Nathan Lyons
When we begin to delve into Lyons’s own work in this volume, we have many reasons to grow a little perplexed and even scratch our heads. Like far too many artists, Lyons produced his most compelling work early in his career. Here, in the sections that deal with this period, I have no qualms about championing the work as great photography. In a turn of events, we have a couple of lines from a photographer and a professor, about some of this early work, where the photographer is the more obtuse of the two. That said, I do want to quote both of their remarks. Photographer Barbara Morgan wrote about one of Lyons’s abstracts that it “yields optical shifts, and vibrates mysteriously, like a visual fugue, in varying fields of force.” Unsure about what’s going on in this comment, I’m confident I’d still like to have it said about any of my own work. It is a compliment, right? RIT professor, Charles Arnold Jr., was slightly more coherent writing, “Lyons’s images flow like a narrative, a cumulative journey to the valley of the shadows” (Lyons, 22). Simply put, his early work is darn good, even if it may make some viewers like myself wanting Minor White’s work instead. White, a photographer who made similar pictures just a little ahead of Lyons, seemed to produce a lot of similar work but with greater energy. Interestingly, it is worth noting that the two were in conversation, with Lyons editing some of White’s work as recently as 2008.
© Nathan Lyons
Getting in close to objects, many of which were merely “found” on the streets, and producing these visually compelling abstracts is still surely no easy feat. Yes, in my opinion, White is the master here, but Lyons succeeds at it again and again also. In fact, it is the success of some of these close-up captures of street surfaces that, I believe, leads Lyons down a rabbit hole late in his career. As has plagued far too many photographers, an attempt to replicate early successful work later in life is almost always folly.
This brings us to Lyons’s later works, as represented in this massive, hardcover retrospective volume. In the 2010–2016 period, the period which disappoints most, Lyons returns to the street to try and capture “magic” in photographing many of the same types of surfaces that brought his early work success. It is a failed endeavor. Pictures of graffiti, street art, lamp post stickers, and painted sidewalk stencils about Trump and the like are less than impressive to me. Perhaps even more disappointing are the very ordinary pictures he makes of items inside the 911 museum. As impactful as those artifacts may be, a very pedestrian photographic reproduction of them inserted into this otherwise very good body of work is perplexing. Indeed, it does not speak well about the individuals who curated this retrospective publication. Lyons did make good pictures in his 80s and there is evidence of them in this book, however poorly edited it may be. Some of this later work, such as the book’s cover image, is strong work but suffers from being smothered with too much other very ho-hum photography.
© Nathan Lyons
Nathan Lyons was a great photographer. His work, even as represented in this mediocre publication, speaks volumes about the power of simple seeing. It also speaks to the power of “straight photography” in an age of all things constructed, altered, and post-processed (or even post-produced). It is a shame the book, as a whole, must suffer from the poor editing it received. Lyons produced a lot of compelling photography in the 80s and 90s (and earlier) of signage, words, letters, and images as found on the street. It is good because it is situated in the time and space when it was made. It is also good because we are viewing it now, in a time separated by decades — a vital ingredient in the recipe. The later images Lyons made of much the same subject matter are insignificant because our visual sensibilities are no longer the same. In a world dominated by social media and a constant barrage of images, we can no longer view a photographic reproduction of street art with reverence, no matter who fired the shutter. We cannot see this subject matter with adequate unfamiliarity or strangeness. The material for a stellar book is contained between these two covers, but it fails to emerge, as published, as a result of too much poorly considered content around it. For those who are willing, dig, dig deeply! You will, if you work for it, find remarkable photography in this book. There is much to be learned by studying the way Nathan Lyons saw the world from this volume. There is also much to be learned about the ills that plague contemporary art publishing between these covers too.
© Nathan Lyons
10.5X9.5 inches | 304 pages
157 B&W and 90 color photos
Michael Ernest Sweet is a Canadian photographer and art critic. He is the author of hundreds of art-related interviews, book reviews, and feature articles spanning publications in the USA, Canada, and Europe. Follow or suggest titles for review on Instagram, Twitter, or through his website.
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