The Photographs of Nathan Lyons concerning the Power of the Preposition
Searle, Leroy F., Afterimage
When I first met Nathan Lyons, I anticipated something midway between a legend and a rumor--entirely appropriate for someone who, in the venerable tradition of wizards, had created a full-fledged graduate program in photography affiliated then with SUNY-Buffalo. This arrangement did not even require him to go to department meetings. As if that were not amazing enough, he moved the program from the George Eastman House to an old woodworking factory, enlisting every new class of graduate students into remodeling (from the walls to the wiring) and turning the Visual Studies Workshop into one of the most remarkable institutions in the contemporary history of American art and culture, whose graduates, faculty, and friends are, without much exaggeration, the Who's Who of American Photography.
But the most enduring impression for me pertains to his photographs. In late 1973, my wife Annie and I went to see a presentation of the images shortly to appear in book-form as Notations in Passing. I can't recall the venue, but I will never forget the experience. Nathan said only enough to indicate that he was using language with an unaccustomed force and intelligence--but mildly annoying, as if all substantives fell away, leaving only the prepositions. He just showed the slides, two by two, with a measured pace and a few syncopated pauses precisely where one needed time. As he proceeded, I had the sense of being surrounded, overwhelmed, invited and provoked by these images, to which Nathan simply deferred, pointing, not even needing to say: See! It was a dazzling experience, but not because these images were breathtakingly beautiful. On the contrary, they were not: they made love to the ordinary, gathered up the commonplace in all its strangeness. In Notations in Passing, the organizing motif of a blank billboard [see above, right] is the "Introduction", enigmatically postulating communication as if by casting about for some message in a bottle, only to find the paper blank or illegible. This metaphor touches on things embedded so deeply in our daily lives that they become invisible. Like so many people, I owe Nathan an unredeemable debt for the experience of being induced through this difficult logic of metaphor to learn how to see.
Nathan Lyons's work is not casual, but designed, meticulous. But what is it up to? In his preface to Riding 1st Class on the Titanic!, Adam Weinburg recalls the Workshop experience of staying up late "into the night ... arguing about the significance and validity of a particular sequence of photographs" (ii), an experience shared by countless others led by Nathan's images and example, as a simple question launches an inquiry that might touch on anything before it winds down. In Plato's Republic, Socrates recommends to his late night interlocutors that they set up their schools to study only those things that he calls "provocatives":
The experiences that do not provoke thought are those that do not, at the same time, issue in a contradictory perception. Those that do have the effect that I set down as provocatives, when the perception no more manifests one thing than its contrary, alike whether its impact comes from nearby or afar [The Republic, 523c].
This quality of contradictory perception runs through Notations in Passing and continues, more richly, in Riding 1st Class on the Titanic!. From the start, however, Lyons gives us not just the oddly withheld promise of a message but a thunderous excess of signification, marks made upon marks, as provocative as anything in Plato. Take the two images above, not originally presented side by side in Notations in Passing in which the messages are multiple, disturbing, saturated with latent connections that sketch out an enormous field of meaning. Strategic visual juxtaposition is an invitation to judgment. The launching of sequence as in Riding 1st Class on the Titanic! positions before us the incipient forces of a culture struggling to decide what it is, looking to a toxic future and a caricature of the past, a culture where judgment takes form only by way of explication, to whatever level of detail one has the patience to endure. Make no mistake: no one ever 'gets it' the first time through.
In her astute review of Riding 1st Class on the Titanic! in The New York Times (May 12, 2000) Vicki Goldberg begins by remarking Nathan's profound influence, exercised, as she says, "without much fame or any celebrity." While that depends not a little on who you talk to, at stake is the influence of imaginative patience, not trying to create an explosion so as to get famous, but to foster thought and to follow where visual intelligence leads. Thus, Riding First Class continues Notations in Passing, as both draw upon sources in Lyons's earlier concerns with the power of visual thinking. By extension, his work belongs to a larger history with innumerable players, engaged in the ongoing enterprise of learning to think photographically. As an injunction, "Think photographically!"--surely that must be written on some billboard--hinges on a re-cognition with a slower rhythm that photography is not just a medium of representation, in the point-and-shoot modality which made George Eastman's fortune. any more than it is merely a tool to announce (or denounce) propaganda or get up a political parade. More centrally, it is a medium for the mind and spirit, through which the subject/operator feels and thinks in a focused, precise way that is ordinarily lost to us in the sheer speed and fluidity of events.
I will shortly make three simple points about Lyons's work to suggest why it is that for an entire generation of photographers Nathan Lyons's influence as educator and a maker of pictures is hard to overstate. His is a career grounded on and anchored in the history of the photographic medium, sometimes evinced by quotation that links present work to its immediate past, as in a visual leitmotif from Robert Frank's The Americans, carried across to Riding 1st Class on the Titanic!, or through allusion that shapes the interpretation of one image by its remembrance of another. What these strategies achieve is a harbor in the storm of berserk originalism that instead of screaming, 'Look at ME!' creates the space' to make the visual details of cultural life accountably discussable.
The first of my three points begins in that space: in Nathan Lyons's work, the individual photograph is not necessarily the locus of value. (2) Photographs are not so much objects as conscious interventions in the realm of the visible. These images, accordingly, are not just sumptuous artifacts; they are not like paintings, not like words, not like anything except photographs. While photographers (or their assistants) can certainly spend their time in their darkrooms or studios setting up or finishing prints, the core photographic tradition starts with the photographer present in the scene. In this Lyons keeps company with Eugene Atget, with Paul Strand, Walker Evans, Robert Frank, Dorothea Lange, Lee Friedlander, photographers in the field, on the street--but he is just as much in the company of Steiglitz, Minor White, Aaron Siskind and John Wood, where the commonplace and familiar is the site of a strenuous transformation, an intense concentration on the idea of art in the old Greek sense of poesis or making.
It is likewise clear that if Lyons had meant only to go out and shoot, he has known as well as anybody alive (or dead, for that matter) where to stand, when to move, what to capture on film, if the only point was to make interesting photographs (not that that wouldn't be an achievement.) But the common practice remains desultory, leaping from this to that, to produce collections which the 18th century was right to term miscellanies. It is clear without ever being quite self-evident that Lyons's photographs are not miscellaneous, not casual--Nathan's pairing of photographs, as applied to Notaions and Riding 1st Class makes clear that the images are placed exactly so because only so do they create visual sense. At once gritty and cerebral, these pictures transform the every-day into a luminous persistence.
My second point follows from this: visual consciousness lives in the sequence, the continuum, not the isolated image. This proposition takes nothing away from the individual image, since it (and not merely the scene it may record) is the locus of connections; but without the connections there is nothing. This point too is general and pertains, as Charles Sanders Peirce (the first pragmatist and the first semiotician) often argued, to all forms of consciousness: when we think, it is not so much that "thoughts" are in us as that we are in thought; just as when we move we are "in motion." (3) When images matter, it is because they are in the medium. Lyons's reliance on sequence is no mere stylistic preference or quirk of habit: sequence is the principal way to situate the viewer as visual reader in the space of visual awareness, not looking at one image, but held in the relations that exist between several. The connections may be cued by a visual similarity, an effect of shading and light, mass and focus; but they are carried through on rich ethnological or semiotic grounds. To reiterate: placing one image next to another one, is the beginning, not the end of the sequence, which may be extendable without any clear prior sense of when, if ever, it will end. One might proceed, for example, to cases where linked elements open up the historical vista of a relation: where, for instance, the concurrence of a figure of buildings is articulated by an ironically displaced juxtaposition with a detail of the Vietnam Wall in D.C. (See Riding 1st Class, pp. 18-19). But in the manner of a Borges' story (4) we might then find ourselves looking at a scene of amusing but treacherous irony that still manages to preserve both a visual link and an undertone of thematic gravity.
This is also why Lyons's work gravitates to the visual essay or the book as a portable display, facilitating the readers' vision within the familiar rhetoric of pages that have to be turned, backward and forward. It is worth a moment of mental silence to honor any curator who has to hang a show of Lyons's work: one would want, let us say, swinging walls and folding floors to get everything in relation to everything else.
When we ask again, "What is this work up to?", it may now be a little clearer how consistently it aims at an expansive relationality--which is the source of its power as a kind of imaginative ethnography, notes on the life of a culture that is taking and making notes all over itself, in a riot of contradictory icons and traditions. What follows this prophetic shriek in the language of a childhood game, for instance, is Eve (or is that Cindy Sherman?), along side a shark (Riding 1st Class, pp. 102-103). That's pretty cool, even if, in this context, it may recall T.S. Eliot's Waste Land, waiting in the year of "Christ the Tiger" metamorphosed into a hungry fish. But the next turn of the page goes back to Adam and Eve--upside-down and missing her 'V'--juxtaposed with Tina Turner (ibid pp. 104-105).
While this does not shy away from the visual pun or joke it is a profoundly meditative artistic practice, an immediate consciousness of contact with the world, where anything that appears is open to connection to its sources and its consequences. These images, though fixed in time and place, are emphatically not static: two by two, they interrogate each other; they scream, they make you laugh, they worry you. Ralph Waldo Emerson, in speaking of the imagination, called it a "high sort of seeing" when the intellect "is where and what it sees" (5) and when we follow it, the page we are reading becomes "luminous with manifold allusion." (6) This idea captures the very quality of achieved sense, which is never finished and done with, never indefinite but not fixed and always starting anew on its glorious divigations, its promiscuous career. The general drift of art away from the cult of the Beautiful Object does not put our sense of the beautiful in peril: it just acknowledges that art is about the irreducible conditions of our lives, especially in times of trouble.
From this follows my third point: any body of artistic work asserts its claim upon us by the intensity and scope of the connections it makes between us and the world. I have spent some time working out a fifty-dollar theory of this, organized around the proposition that art is a fundamental mode of reasoning, in fact the foundation and ground of that much narrower idea of reasoning as confined to the logic of propositions (7). In this arena we have dutifully repeated a terrible mistake for a few thousand years in assuming that reasoning is about getting one unique "right" answer, when the vital issue of reasoning is to go from what we know to something that we do not know, by specific means. The visual is perilous because we flatter ourselves that we do not have to think in order to see: it's automatic, isn't it? Just open your eyes, and there's the world and all its elaborate furniture. But that is merely to look at things, usually without seeing them, without understanding their implications, their connections, their manifold trajectories and tricks. Especially in our times, there is nothing automatic about seeing. We are surrounded by signs, in all the senses of that word, while meaning misses us, and our minds float off, distracted, putting us in the way of destruction.
Over the last quarter century, there has been, consequently, a palpable sense of situation, not just in photography, but all the arts. It has become one of the commonplaces of our times that no work of art is innocent--from which we leap to the suspicion that it must therefore be guilty of something or other, or worse luck, can legitimately only take up accusation and guilt as its subjects. Art in this mode takes upon itself the contrary function of the critique, in which the mirrored stances of being piously moralistic or rambunctiously outrageous enliven the scene, but unfortunately succeed primarily in reducing moral awareness to paralyzing dogmas while confounding passion with rage. But for a good thirty years, Lyons has been responding to this sense of the postmodern situation in the acute awareness of observing and participating in a civilization caught in an intractable dilemma, diagnosed by the French theorist of postmodernity, Jean Francois Lyotard, as the dawning realization that all of our master narratives which formerly made sense of the world are in a kind of intellectual receivership (8).
Lyons's characteristic response to this is a supple reliance on irony, allowing him to respond to the comic, the pathetic, the dead serious, without coming off as Oh-so-much-more-politically-correct-than-thou or presuming to tell us what we ought to think or feel. His preferred instrument, juxtaposition, can therefore place opposite each other propositions that only a moral imbecile would reject and images that we may have a too-ready inclination to do nothing but reject. These photographs are hard to interpret because each one branches out to embrace what may (or may not) be in the viewer's own visual memory, just as it points forward and backward to other images in the book--or back from Riding 1st Class on the Titanic to Notations in Passing. The books, then, organize a continuing meditation on connections that is more important to contemplate and consider than to solve as if it were a puzzle. For all that, there is no interpretive laissez-faire here, as if the images meant simply whatever we might want them to mean: the methodical element lies not in the subject nor in this or that ideology, but in a scrupulous attention to the means, which comes down to something very simple and very difficult: contemplating these pictures in this order.
The fine irony of Lyons's book title, Riding First Class on the Titanic--by serendipity, a gift, simply there on a wall, waiting to be photographed--illustrates the point. Here is a phrase worthy of a postmodern Jeremiah, close cousin to all those other desperate authors of sayings and slogans spray-painted on any surface that will hold a text--which turns out to be almost anything. But Lyons is not them: he records these anguished notations, also in passing, so as not to lose sight of the fact that the prophets of doom these days are not necessarily God's chosen ones, but just people, driven to craziness by pain, confusion, and desire, but refusing like the old-time prophets, to go down silently, insisting that we attend to what is happening without pretending it doesn't matter. Lyons goes one step farther: he imagines it, be images it, to ground thinking in actual circumstances, real places, but with a wit and grace that keeps us from getting buffaloed by the politics of pathos or turning giddy with frivolity.
To review, now my three simple points:
1. Photographs are conscious interventions in the realm of the visible;
2. Visual consciousness lives in the sequence, the continuum, not the isolated image;
3. Any body of artistic work asserts its claim upon us by the intensity and scope of the connections it makes between us and the world
These are simple propositions, though as the poet and painter William Blake would remind us, not insipid: they are manifest in the sustained, and still continuing project of Nathan Lyons's photographs. I think it can be fairly said that there is something prophetic in this work, carrying with it the post-modern burden of irony, intimate with itself, looking toward a future without very much of a sense of how it will turn out. We don't want the palmist to tell us our fate unless we are already in the anxiety of despair when it wouldn't matter anyway.
The particular prophetic power in this work is more modest and more interesting. I began with a recollection of annoyance when I first heard Nathan speak, as if the nouns and verbs dropped away, in an experience that was intelligible without being nailed down. Here's what it is: we think we want someone to tell us the truth, without recognizing how hard it is to get into a position where we could either grasp it or know what it was worth. In the work of this man whom I would like to nominate as "the Master of the Preposition," that little, inconspicuous part of speech that leverages everything else in the language: the power of the prophetic resides in the to, the from, the before, the after, the around, the in, the among, the above and the below. Because we are so marvelously made for sight, visual work like Nathan's is irreplaceable because it slows us down, looking for the after image: in the most literal way, it pre-positions us to attend with a little more humanity, a little more intelligence, to what is right before our eyes.
POSTSCRIPT: AFTER 9/11: PHOTOGRAPHS BY NATHAN LYONS
A little more than a year after the publication of Riding 1st Class on the Titanic!, the destruction of the World Trade Center put before our eyes a catastrophe similar to, but of a different order of magnitude than a doomed ship wrecking itself on the ice by trusting to its own invulnerability. Lyons' s book of photographs, After 9/11, deepens that sense of the prophetic to which the foregoing remarks allude. This book, following hard (very hard) upon Riding 1st Class, transforms the leitmotif of the flag by opening with the image of a hand, not quite in focus, picking up a star spangled scrap, not quite identifiable--a bandage, a matchbook, a handbill?--that brings a history into the frame without resolving anything about it. What follows is, among other things, a tiny sampling of the flood of flags after that day, an anguished grasping for anything of the symbolic, anything of the collective demos that might assure us that, however shredded the flag might be, we were still there.
The destruction of the twin towers of the World Trade Center happened with the unbebevability of the apocalypse, even as it was being recorded by camera, second by second, in patient frames repeated for days, of airplanes exploding into then imploding inside of the steel skin of the skyscrapers, of buckling girders and mayhem. These are events that disable the faculty of judgment, and not merely while they unfold. The peculiar value--and the difficulty--of Lyons's photographs of the aftermath of an unspeakable national tragedy lies in their demonstration of the impossibility of a decorous response.
These images record the absolute need to represent in any way possible what was lost, who was still missing, what is still being looked for. But the book itself has an in-your-face immediacy that captures the failure of art as decorous response that presumes a modest withdrawal from pain, which may make mourning possible but also, severely, perpetuates the wound. To see this photographically is an equally severe test of faith, to contemplate, for example, the stark incongruity of a flag appearing as a precious rectangle in the middle or the corner or along the edge of a visual assault of raw desire, for sex, for revenge, for help, for the continuation of somebody's business that has to go on, usual or not, for a cash machine that still works or a bank that is open again. It is not pretty.
That said, the ubiquitous impulse to decorate the window in which kids commemorate something irretrievably lost, something they will spend a lifetime failing to understand, is one of those primary gestures of the imagination that allows us to measure ourselves by their very failure. Their indomitable failure.
What becomes clearer in After 9/11 is the seriousness and the urgency of photography as one of the modern cornerstones of the idea of democratic art. In one of his best essays, William Carlos Williams wrote that "A work of art is important, only as evidence, in its structure, of a new world it was created to affirm." (9) The stumbling block in the very idea of democratic art is our own fastidiousness, our unwillingness or inability to affirm the world we are actually in--too much shit, too much ugliness, too much death and waste--and, thereby launching ourselves out of this world into the lunatic fantasy that art can somehow create a "new world." At its best, this leads to mere delusion; at its worst, it fosters self-righteousness as a principle of criticism, sending us out in the dawn's early light with the cudgels of discourse to beat the heck out of the Oppressor, or to give Capitalism its most stinging-ever tongue lashing, in a desperate striving after virtue, or at least a striving not to be associated with the monsters, the infidels, whom we seem to need so as to have somebody, something, to blame for all this wrong. We want the catharsis of the beautiful, the sublime, the absolution of the apposite.
In Paterson, Williams says, at the edge of despair, "Make peace, poet, with your world. It is the only truth." (10) That's very hard. It's much easier to conjure the villains and go after them. Such recourse to the fundamentalism of the left or the right, the rhetorical hijacking of the heart so as to turn it into a stone or a stick of dynamite, is a self-accelerating response that needs pictures to slow itself. The social function of art, that is to say, lies in restoring the imagination, addressed to the present, in the recuperation of a vision of reality, not a flight into the fantastic, or, what all too often amounts to the same thing, into the facistic.
In After 9/11, the predictable disabling of judgment in disaster ironically prevents its paralysis because the images stay in the medium, these pictures, in this order. It is easy to see how this subject might have cascaded into a visual rant--against going to war in the disastrous presumption that such would right this wrong; or for war against the evil doers who committed this wrong and should die, in a huge escalation of the ratio of carnage. Lyons does neither. He keeps his head, he keeps looking, precisely, exactly, at how things are positioned and how they position us. It is a tough book. It starts, significantly, with a preposition: After. It goes on, more difficultly still, in the attenuated sublimity of a democratic faith, that the after is not the end.
Leroy F. Searle
[Leroy F. Searle wrote the postcript to Riding First Class on the Titanic!]
1- An earlier version of this paper was delivered as a slide-lecture at the George Eastman House, in Rochester, N.Y., during the 25th anniversary of the Visual Studies Workshop, at the opening of Nathan
2- This is a point I have dutifully belabored as entirely general, in ""Language Theory and Photographic Praxis," Afterimage, 7 (Summer 1979), 26-34, and treated with a little lighter touch in "Photographs in Context:Photographic Sequences," in In Sequence (Houston: Museum of Fine Arts, 1982), 10-20.
3- See, for example, Collected Papers (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1931-58), 2.290: "Accordingly, just as we say that a body is in motion, and not that motion is in a body we ought to say that we are in thought and not that thoughts are in us."
4- I'm thinking of "The Garden of the Forking Paths" in Labyrinths (New York: New Directions, 1962).
5- This is from "The Poet," quoted from Selections from Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. by Stephen E. Whicher (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1957), 233.
6- This is from The American Scholar, p. 69.
7- About $5 worth of it can be gathered up from "The Conscience of the King: Oedipus, Hamlet, and the Problem of Reading." Comparative Literature 49 (Fall 1997), 289-315. More is coming.
8- See The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans by Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi (Minneapois: University of Minnesota Press, 1984).
9- It's in "Against the Weather: A Portrait of the Artist," in Williams' Selected Essays (New York: New Directions, 1958), reprinted from a 1939 issue of Twice-a-Year, at just the moment when the inevitable horror of World War II could no longer be ignored.
10- William Carlos William., Paterson (New York: New Directions, 1946-1958).…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: The Photographs of Nathan Lyons concerning the Power of the Preposition. Contributors: Searle, Leroy F. - Author. Journal title: Afterimage. Volume: 31. Issue: 4 Publication date: January-February 2004. Page number: 9+. © 2008 Visual Studies Workshop. COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group.
This material is protected by copyright and, with the exception of fair use, may not be further copied, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means.