Happy 80th Birthday Nathan Lyons!

Nathan Lyons, Untitled, from the “Notations in Passing” series, 1962–74

Nathan Lyons is a photographer (Verbal Landscape/Dinosaur Sat Down, Notations in Passing, Riding First Class on the Titanic!, After 9/11), educator (founder of Visual Studies Workshop), curator/coordinator (John Wood: On the Edge of Clear Meaning), and award winner (ICP Infinity Award for Lifetime achievement, 2000).

To hear Nathan Lyons speaking at ICP in October 1975, click here.

From the press release from his 2000 exhibition at ICP, Riding First Class on the Titanic:

In May 2000, Nathan Lyons was honored with the International Center of Photography’s Infinity Award for Lifetime Achievement in Photography. Artist, curator, educator, and founder and director of the Visual Studies Workshop (VSW) in Rochester, New York, Nathan Lyons has exerted a profound effect on the field of photography, and has had an enormous influence on countless students, artists, critics and curators. Although much of his career has been spent teaching and directing at the VSW, Lyons has continued to photograph and produce a major body of work that reveals his unique view of America and its social landscape. As a young photographer in the late 1950s, Lyons used a view camera to create images that emphasized the medium’s expressive rather than documentary potential. In 1962, he moved to the more portable and lightweight 35mm camera. In doing this, he joined contemporaries such as Lee Friedlander and Garry Winogrand they turned a speculative eye toward contemporary culture. Nathan Lyons: Riding First Class on the Titanic, on view at the International Center of Photography from April 5 through June 18, 2000, is composed of 100 black and white framed diptychs. It represents a continuation of an earlier project, “Notations in Passing”, which was organized into extended sequences that explore the variety of visual relationships and meanings made possible by pictures unaccompanied by text. This current project continues from 1974 to the present, encompassing work that has been generated over the past 36 years. According to Lyons, “The passage of time is in itself an important factor in the development of Riding First Class on the Titanic. While it records a series of cultural artifacts in real time, the sequential structure establishes a contextual display that encourages a reading and an expansion of visual language. The title of the exhibition and book derives from a particular image in the sequence in which this graffiti message is spray painted onto a wall. According to Lyons, “Riding First Class on the Titanic expresses a metaphor that reflects an important transitional stage in our culture, the assumption of invulnerability, the Titanic, is revealed as a contradiction when experienced through its ultimate vulnerability…” Reflecting his predilection for photographs that include words and interest in found language, Lyons’s images give the viewer the challenge of layered interpretations that question our cultural assumptions and beliefs. ICP curator Edward Earle asserts: “It is not so much the isolation of text found in the landscape that is significant as it is the resolved context of the sequence of images. Books and exhibitions are exercises in discourse for Lyons. Riding First Class on the Titanic takes us on a critical journey into American culture and into the process by which photographs contribute to a visual vocabulary.” This exhibition at ICP is accompanied by an artist’s book, Riding First Class on the Titanic (1999, MIT Press and the Addison Gallery of American Art). The book highlights Lyon’s 36-year photographic project, and features a preface by Adam D. Weinberg, Director of the Addison Gallery of American Art, Andover MA, and an essay by Leroy F. Searle, Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Washington.

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