Nathan Lyons, a remembrance

September 8th, 2016

When I first arrived at the Visual Studies Workshop in late summer of 1976, I was wide eyed, a bit naïve, an eager young sponge ready to soak in everything to come. I had enrolled in what was called the “Workshop Program” which was a full time non-credit course of study that was the same classes offered to the MFA program. I was a bit younger and less experienced than most of my classmates, having foregone a traditional 4 year undergraduate program. Those first few days I began to wonder if I had gotten in over my head.


The Workshop had already gained the reputation as the single most vital program in the country for artists working in photographic media and stories of Nathan’s classes were legendary. He did not disappoint. I often left his class confused, baffled even, over what we had discussed. He was clearly operating on a different level, a level way over my head.


Back at my apartment I would spend hours pouring over Notations in Passing, looking for insights, clues. Each viewing taught me something new, a fresh discovery.


He could be maddening to a student looking for a shortcut, or to be told what was right or wrong about an image. These were not classes about how to take good pictures. I recall that Nathan didn’t put much importance on an individual image. He taught us to look at groups of images, study contact sheets and engage with them, to try and understand what the body of work was saying. Images that popped out were either the good ones, or the bad ones that didn’t fit. Which was which was up for us to decide.


Over the years those discussions and lessons would often emerge from the deep recesses of my mind, ideas about photographs as language, how images can have conversations with each other, and how different combinations or sequences of the same group of images can tell different stories. These ideas and many others have stayed with me and have informed the direction of my work throughout my career.


When I say I studied with Nathan, I mean much more than simply taking classes with him. I mean I studied and worked with an amazing collection of artists and teachers. People like Dave Heath, Keith Wood, Bill Johnson, Michael Bishop, and of course the amazing Joan Lyons. There was a near constant parade of visiting artists dropping in to talk about their work, or just hang out. I worked alongside an equally impressive group of fellow students who went on to do important vital work in the field of photography; curators, museum directors, photo editors, and of course artists. The names read like a who’s who of contemporary photography.


And the one common thread, the reason all of these people were there at the Visual Studies Workshop was because Nathan had brought them there.


My few years working, studying, creating, learning, at the Visual Studies Workshop changed the course of my life. The experience opened doors and possibilities I never imagined existed for a boy from the delta of Arkansas.


I’ve been back to Rochester only a couple of times, once in the late 1990’s when I was invited to exhibit my work in the gallery (one of my life’s greatest honors), and once for Nathan’s retirement celebration. Each visit, I witnessed how the Workshop had matured over the years, not just survived, but had thrived and continued to carry out the mission Nathan had envisioned. It has done so by the sheer force of Nathan’s will and the work of those he inspired to work alongside him, as well as those to follow in his giant footsteps.


My sincerest condolences to Joan, Elizabeth, Ethan, David and to everyone who mourns his passing. Through so many people he taught, mentored, and inspired, Nathan’s life’s work, and his spirit will endure. I can think of no greater testament to a person.


Thank you Nathan.


Robbie McClaran