Concerning the Power of the Preposition: The Photographs of Nathan Lyons



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Leroy Searle

English & Comparative Literature

University of Washington

Seattle, WA 98195-4330


Concerning the Power of the Preposition:

The Photographs of Nathan Lyons
When I first met Nathan, he had already taken on in my mind the status of something midway between a legend and a rumor. I had also begun to suspect (a suspicion later abundantly confirmed) that he was perhaps also a wizard. About the first thing I had heard of him was how he had created a full-fledged graduate program in photography (that did not even require him to go to department meetings in Buffalo--that's serious conjuring) and moved it, on a couple of months notice, into the old woodworking factory across the street. Throughout this weekend, as the Visual Studies Workshop has its 30th Anniversary celebration, no doubt there will be many more occasions to tell stories about the Workshop which has been (and still is) 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 story I want to start with pertains very specifically to his photographs. I think it was late 1973, perhaps the spring of 74: I had only been teaching for a few years (at the University of Rochester) and I had been invited by my wife Annie, just in the process of deciding to go to work for the wizard, to see a presentation of the images that were shortly to appear as Notations in Passing. I no longer remember the venue (Nathan might: he never forgets anything), but I remember the experience as if it were yesterday. Nathan said hardly anything, but he said enough to indicate that he was using the language with a force and intelligence quite out of the ordinary, enough so as to be a little bit annoying: the nouns and verbs seemed to be dropping out of his sentences with no serious loss of meaning. It was very disconcerting: I would not have thought it possible to understand what I actually was understanding. He just showed the slides, two by two, with a measured pace and a few syncopated pauses at just the places where one needed a little extra time to look. 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!. [L1: SEE! From Notations] It was perhaps the most dazzling presentation I had ever seen, not because these images, one by one or even two by two, were spectacular or astonishing or breathtakingly beautiful or whatever. On the contrary, they were not: they were images such as one might see everyday, gathered up from the unnoticed commonplace, pointing up the profound strangeness of the ordinary. In Notations, the organizing motif of a blank billboard, a place for messages, appears as the “Introduction” [L2, Introduction, From Notations], enigmatically calling attention to what Coleridge called the need of the communicating spirit, evoked something like the feeling of message found in a bottle, only the paper is blank or illegible. It is a powerful metaphor, touching deftly on what is embedded in our daily lives so pervasively and obsessively that it becomes all but invisible to us. I'm grateful for that night, at least most of the time, because a quarter century later, I'm still working out the implications of what it means to look and see by way of the severe and vexing logic of metaphor, with my own awareness seemingly permanently inflected, perhaps dislocated by this primary move of reflection and contemplation. I owe Nathan an enormous and unpayable debt, and it is gratifying to know that I am not alone—and not just in the sense that misery loves company.

The quality in this work that makes it so provoking is the clear intuition that it is up to something: it is not casual, but designed, careful, even meticulous. [L3: Mirror on Lawn, from Notations; R1: Cannon from Notations] But what is it up to? As Adam Weinburg recalls in his preface to Riding 1st Class on the Titanic, he and many others associated with the workshop would "frequently stay up into the night … arguing about the significance and validity of a particular sequence of photographs" (11). Having been in such company more than a few times, I can confirm that it is intense. What ought to be, once it is raised, an answerable question: ‘What does this photograph or this sequence of photographs mean?’ invariably turns out to be the launching point of a serious and possibly endless discussion that might touch on anything before it winds down. In Plato's Republic, the old codger Socrates recommends to his late night interlocutors that they set up their schools to study only those things that he calls explicitly, "provocatives." Here's the passage, concerned with how thought is awakened:

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 I set down as provocatives, when the perception no more manifest one thing than its contrary, alike whether its impact comes from nearby or afar [Republic 523c].

This quality of contradictory perception, however, runs through not only Notations in Passing but continues, more richly, in Riding 1st Class on the Titanic. From the start, however, Lyons did not give us merely the oddity of the billboard shapes with the (withheld) promise of a message, but a thunderous excess of signification, having a remarkably similar effect. Here are two images, not originally juxtaposed, from Notations [L4: Chiquita Banana; R2: Plaster Yard Animals] in which the messages are multiple, garbled, yet still powerfully coherent—and strangely disturbing. One cannot escape the sense of commentary, where the act of presenting a picture is an invitation to judgement. Here now are two images, originally juxtaposed, from Riding 1st Class, [L5: Toxic Pyramid; R3: Catherine SALOON] where the incipient forces of a culture struggling to decide what it is crystallize in an expanded frame, looking to a toxic future and a caricature of a past that can be explicated to whatever level of detail one has the patience to endure. But what is remarkable is that these images, thought and seen together, cannot be simply reduced to a paraphrasable message. They are, in the best sense, provocatives, with a design on us: their intention is precisely to make us think.

I'm sure many of you have read Vicki Goldberg's fine review of Riding 1st Class on the Titanic in The New York Times (May 12, 2000) which begins by remarking on 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, the point is an important one. The work on display in the gallery here at the George Eastman House will show you that this puzzling and provocative work comes out of a long and rich history of visual thinking. Indeed, Riding First Class is a direct continuation of Notations in Passing, and taken together, these interconnected projects show the profound power of visual ideas. That is, I believe, the source of Nathan's influence and it runs much deeper than celebrity. The "contradictory perceptions" in Lyons' work are all invitations or inducements not just to think, but to think photographically. Now, I know that I am doing what I am talking about, since just that implicit injuction--Think Photographically!--no more brings to mind one thing than its contrary. What is at stake in this puzzle, however, is not mysterious: it is to recognize that photography is not just a medium of representation, in the point-and-shoot modality that made George Eastman's fortune, that endowed this great House. It is a medium for the mind and spirit, a medium in and through which to feel and think in a focused and precise way that is ordinarily lost to us in the sheer speed and fluidity of temporal events.

In the brief time I have here, I want to make just three points about this work that may help to put it in perspective, and to suggest why it is that for an entire generation of photographers, as both an educator and a maker of pictures, Nathan's influence is hard to overstate. It comes first from being grounded on and embedded in the history of the photographic medium. Sometimes we see it in a more or less direct quotation, the force of which is to link present work with its immediate past, as in this instance, a photograph from Robert Frank’s The Americans, together with a photograph from Riding 1st Class: [L6: American Flag over Window, Frank’s The Americans; R4: American Flag around building, Riding 1st Class] Or in might be a more oblique allusion that deflects and shapes the interpretation of one image by its recollection in reference to another, as in this case, a photograph from Walker Evans’ American Photographs with a photograph from Notations in Passing: [L7: Couple in Car, American Photographs; R5: Couple painted on car door, Notations in Passing] In either case—and the permutations of both of them—the three points I want to make take the form of a drastically compressed commentary that could, and should, be opened up into those late night discussions to which Adam Weinburg alludes.

The first point is that in Nathan Lyons' work, the individual photograph is not necessarily the locus of value. They are not just sumptuous artifacts--though as we all know, any well-made photograph, particularly given the abstract elegance of silver halides rendered in black and white, can be at least that, just as most of Nathan’s are exquisite on this criterion. These photographs are not like paintings, not like words, not like anything except what they are: Photographs are are not so much objects as conscious interventions in the realm of the visible. While photographers can certainly spend almost all their time in their darkrooms or studios, whether, like Ansel Adams (or his assistants) finishing prints, or at a far remove, Cindy Sherman (and her assistants) setting up a scene, the core tradition of photographic practice starts with the photographer present in the scene. On a casual view, one might for that reason quickly associate Lyons with Eugene Atget, with Paul Strand, Walker Evans, Robert Frank, Dorothea Lange, Lee Friedlander, celebrated company to be sure, but photographers who worked the streets and fields, usually (except Atget) relying primarily on hand-held cameras, and exploring the possibilities of the snap-shot. But at the same, Lyons seems to exceed that association, since he can just as well be linked with Steiglitz, with Minor White, Aaron Siskind, Harry Callahan or John Wood, where the commonplace and familiar is more likely to be 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, for example, altogether obvious that if Nathan had meant only to go out and shoot, he knows as well as anybody alive (or dead, for that matter) where to stand, when to move, what to capture on film, if all one were after were striking or interesting photographs--not that that wouldn't be enough. [L8: E Pluribus Unim; R6: Fall of Icarus] [These images are from Riding 1st Class though not in their intended order]. But the result of the common practice of selecting the striking or interesting mages is too desultory, leaping from this to that, producing collections which the 18th century was right to term miscellanies. It is clear without ever being quite self-evident that Lyons' photographs are not miscellaneous, not casual—as here, restoring this pair to their original order: [R7: Bucking Horse mosaic] makes clear that there are reasons for them to be where they are, exactly as they are. The poetic force, the making of art, however, is is never identifiable solely with the making of an object or even a collection of objects, as these prints, in the expectation or hope that collectors and curators will fight over them. No: what is made is visual sense. It is why these pictures are so provoking, at once gritty and cerebral, of the every-day yet surpassingly rare.

My second point follows from this: Visual consciousness lives in the sequence, the continuum, not the isolated image. The image is important not just for its sensuous qualities, but as a locus of connections that can be as various and fugitive as living itself. This point, of course, could be generalized for any mode of consciousness, which does not so much happen when we have thoughts, but when, to quote Charles Sanders Peirce, the founder of pragmatism, we are in thought, as fish are in water or birds in the air. Lyons' images are virtually all done in sequences, starting with one image and proceeding in pairs, from juxtapositions, that locate the reader precisely to be 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; [L9: Cluster of Skyscrapers; R8: Vietnam Memorial] but carried through on rich ethnological or semiotic grounds, as here, the shape of monumental architecture is linked to a somber monument to political folly and waste in the Vietnam Memorial. We could of course spend a lot of time on this, but it will have to wait. The main point is that a first juxtaposition, placing this image next to that 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, as in this case: [R9: 2nd Cluster of Skyscapers] where the concurrence of a figure of buildings is then quite differently articulated by an ironically displaced juxtaposition: [L10: The Death Mask]. If we wanted to put a little more punch in this narrative, we might then look to this pair: [L11: Ruins of building; R10: Scaffolding before facade] But in the manner of a Borges’ story—I’m thinking of “The Garden of the Forking Paths”—we might then find ourselves looking at a scene of hilarous irony that still manages to preserve both a visual link and an undertone of thematic gravity. [L12: Lady Liberty and the Chimp; R11: Light through window into empty storefront].

These examples may help to explain why Lyons' work gravitates to the book: the portable display that can control and focus the readers' vision with the ready rhetoric of pages that have to be turned, backward and forward--or to the visual essay: the immediate presentation of slides so that what is seen is controlled even more tightly by turning out the overhead lights. [This is a shameless plug: after you see the show, go at once and buy the book.] I don't know, since I have never asked, but I would guess that a curator trying to hang a show of Nathan's work goes a little bit crazy, since the logic of display, with all its intimate subtleties and dependencies on space and light is already internally constrained by the very way in which it was made. On the other hand, the curator might go still crazier upon the recognition that almost any juxtapositions with this work have a multiplied effect so that it is very hard to decide what goes next to what. But then again, maybe craziness is the natural condition for curators.

Let us consider again: “What is this work up to?” We can see in it 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. [L13: blank; R12: Ready or Not... Jesus is Coming] What follows this prophetic shriek in the language of a childhood game, for instance, is Eve (or is that Cindy Sherman??) [L14: Statue of Eve with Apple] put side by side with a shark [R13: Shark]. That’s pretty cool, even if, in this context, it may recall T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” waiting in the year of “Christ the Tiger” metamorphosed here into this hungry fish. But the next turn of the page goes back to Adam and Eve—upside-down and missing her ‘V’[L15: Adam & E-E]—juxtaposed with Tina Turner [R14: Tina Turner].

What is going on here 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 [L16: Jesus Saves; R15: What?] ; they scream, [L17: Pigs Murder for Order; R16: Think Before you Act]; they make you laugh [out of sequence: L18: First Hindu Celtic Pagan Church of Los Angeles; R17: No penis, No God] they worry you [L19: John Wayne/Rambo; R18: Cosmetics / The War Game]. Ralph Waldo Emerson, in speaking of the imagination, called it a "high sort of seeing" in which the page we are reading becomes "luminous with manifold allusion." This is an important idea, since it captures the very quality of sense that once it is made, it is not fixed, not finished and done with, but just starting out on its unpredictable divigations, its promiscuous career. The general drift of art away from making a fetish of the beautiful object does not, in this sense, put our sense of the beautiful in peril. It just acknowledges that art is also about the most fundamental conditions of our lives, even, or especially, if we live in a time of troubles. [L20: Protesters & Bulldozer mural; R19: Mr Meany says you look like shit today].

From this follows the 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. For some time I have been 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 the much narrower idea of reasoning as confined to the logic of propositions. There's a big mistake here that we have dutifully repeated for at least a couple of millennia, when we assume that reasoning is about getting the one unique "right" answer to a question, when reasoning is always about going from what we know to what we do not know, by specific means: the result is new knowledge as the reasoning allows us to come into possession of what we did not know. The peril of the visual is that we flatter ourselves by thinking 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. Within the lifetime of everyone hearing [reading] this immoderate discourse, the world as it appears has grown so strange as to be scarcely intelligible. Just a little reflection on it and we do know for a certainty that "seeing" it is anything but automatic. [L21: Lower torsos / Palm trees; R20: Motorcycle & sign in window] . What is clear is that we are surrounded by signs, in all the senses of that word; and that we are, more or less, in deep trouble. [L22: Deposit for Drugs; R21: Si - ns]

Over the last quarter century, there has been, consequently, a palpable sense of situation, not just in photography, but all the arts. Perhaps the most assertive manifestation is the post-modern or post-structuralist insistence that no work of art is innocent--and we are rarely allowed to forget it when the committed artist proceeds so as to demonstrate that art is either already guilty of something or can legitimately take only 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, though often producing not very much light, a good deal of heat, and no small amount of acrid smoke. [L23:blank; R22: Experience Rage ] Once again, Lyons has been responding to this sense of the post-modern situation for a good thirty years, acutely aware that we seem to be, as a civilization, at a difficult threshold, possibly at the edge of a cliff or an abyss, with the nervous sense explored by the French theorist of the Post-Modern, Jean François Lyotard, that all of our master narratives which formerly made sense of the world are in a kind of intellectual receivership. [L24:Marxist-Leninist Party; R23: Words are shit]

Though it is sometimes a palpable strain, Lyons' acute sense of irony permits him to respond to the frequent element of the comic, the pathetic, the dead serious, without coming off as, Oh-so-much-more-politically-correct-than-thou [think of that as one word], or presuming to tell us what we ought to think or feel. The specific means that Lyons uses is visual juxtaposition, the pairs of images that, as we have seen, comment on each other, putting a proposition that seems to line right up with motherhood and apple pie [L25: Listen and be Listened to; R24: Spanking, Bondage, Wrestling] right next to one that maybe one doesn’t want to hear. But this strategy of the visual discourse, if you will, wields a counter-pressure of extension: to go from the relations established in one juxtaposition to multiple, simultaneous pathways of reflection and imagination. While this is what makes these photographs initially so hard to understand, it is finally what makes them so remarkable: each image fits not with just one other image, just as it does not focus on one theme or subject. Instead, it branches out to embrace what may (or may not) be in the viewer's own visual memory; it points forward and backward to other images in the book--or back from Riding 1st Class on the Titanic to Notations in Passing; and it organizes a meditation on connections that does not require us to somehow "get it right" as if we were solving a puzzle or doing a math problem. For all that, there is no interpretive laissez-faire here, as if the images meant simply whatever we might want them to mean. What has hard edges is the concrete situation in which the photographer or any artist actually intervenes: it is not so much a problem to be solved as a predicament to which one has to respond. Getting it right more simply and profoundly involves taking the risk of moving from what we know to what we do not know, by specific means--and that is, by contemplating these pictures, in order. [L26: Graffiti on Brick; R25: Knowledge is Superior to Ignorance].

I should repeat the last point: the move is from what we know to what we do not know, for it is the path of discovery. Ignorance is that condition in which we are already satisfied that we know enough, and what we “know” becomes the very poison that can kill us. The fact that the pictures frequently include words is simply given, and we can no more not respond to them, having an already established semantic register, than we can prevent ourselves from seeing them as specifically visual elements in a scene. But these photographs then become an instrument of provocation to connect knowing and seeing, whether from nearby or afar.

The fine irony of the title of Lyons' latest book--and the serendipity that it was, as it were, a gift, simply there on a wall, waiting to be photographed--illustrates the point. [L27: blank; R26: Riding 1st Class] Riding 1st Class on the Titanic is a phrase worthy of a post-modern, wacked out Jeremiah, close cousin to all those other desperate authors of sayings and slogans spray-painted on any surface that will hold a text—and that turns out to be almost anything, as these images prove. 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, that we at least think about it. Lyons goes one step farther: he imagines it, he images it, to ground thinking in actual circumstances, real places, but with a deft wit and grace that keeps us from getting buffaloed by pathos or turning giddy with frivolity.

To review, now my three simple points:


  1. 1. Photographs are not so much objects as 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 really are simple propositions, though as the poet and painter William Blake would remind us, there is a great gulf that separates simplicity from insipidity. I think they are manifest in the sustained, and still continuing project of Nathan Lyons’ photographs; and 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. [L28: blank; R27: Madame Susan, Palmist] 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 a lot more modest, and for my money a lot more interesting. Recall when I began these remarks my recollection of annoyance when I first heard Nathan speak, as if the nouns and verbs dropped away, leaving me with an experience that was intelligible but not nailed down and defined by the author of these ingenious provocations. Here’s what it is: we think we want someone to tell us the truth, without knowing how hard it is to get into a position where we could either grasp it or know what it was worth. In this brief run-through, I hope I have been able to suggest just how much more there is to think, to say, and to meditate, in the work of this man whom I think I would like to nominate as the master of the preposition, that little, inconspicuous part of speech that leverages everything else in the language: It concerns 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 enormously precision because it slows us down, and in the most literal way pre-positions us to attend with a little more humanity, a little more intelligence, to what is right before our eyes. So now I’m done; thank very much for this opportunity. [R28: Dinosaur Sat Down]


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