– Words by Don Denton Photos by Lia Crowe
Standing in her front room near Nanaimo, light spilling in from the large deck windows, Ellen Lyons opens a box and begins pulling out photo prints. These are clearly not family snapshots. They are black-and-white prints, 11 x14 inches and larger, printed on thick, high-quality photo paper. These images are art, created by some of the biggest names in mid-20th century photography.
She looks over an image, talks about who created it and how it came to be in her hands. This one is by English photographer Bill Brandt, displaying his typical high-contrast black-and-white imagery. Another is by the troubled American genius of photographer W. Eugene Smith, noted for his printing skills and documentary subjects. There’s an Aaron Siskind. A Lewis Hine. The gems keep coming.
She talks about the appeal of a black-and-white print, saying, “Reading a composition is reading values, reading graphic values is fun but, in a colour, photographing the colour obscures the values.”
Ellen and Bill Lyons met in their freshman year of art school at the Pratt Institute in New York. Planning careers as artists, they hoped to use teaching as a way to subsidize their artistic goals. Ellen worked as well as an illustrator, drawing images for everything from books to magazine pages, while Bill worked on his photography.
The pair, interested in art in general, developed a passion for photographic prints, buying their first image in 1970, a Barbara Morgan dance photograph. Photographs, as artwork, in 1970s were still suspect, but that attitude was changing.
As their interest in collecting photography grew, so did a feeling that they weren’t alone in their passion, and this led the pair to open their own art gallery, dealing in photography.
Photography was a new art form and an art form that seemed American to them; as they themselves were young and American, they felt that connection spoke to them directly.
They needed work to exhibit and set out in true DIY fashion to find and collect it. Travelling across the US in a home-made van conversion, young daughter Hilary in tow, they sought out photographers and cajoled them into lending them prints to sell, or bought the prints outright.
As New York residents, they felt the city was, for its time, overrepresented by galleries dealing with photography, and decided to strike out for virgin territory—one with available interest and money—eventually opening the William Lyons Gallery of Photography in Coral Gables, Florida, with a first exhibition in late 1979.
If they thought photography in New York was a tough sell, Florida in the early ‘80s was even more challenging. The gallery only lasted a few years, but in that time the pair exhibited the cream of the photographic art world.
Art Rogers was among their photographers. Noted as a chronicler of his Point Reyes Station, California home and for his group portraits, Artremembers not only exhibiting at the Lyons Gallery, but recalls his portrait sessions with the Lyons and a group portrait taken inside the gallery with the entire opening night crowd. Amazingly organized, art was able—during a recent conversation—to access his files and pull out the invoices for the portrait prints he created for the Lyons.
The Lyons Gallery also showed Barbara Morgan, notorious New York paparazzi Ron Galella, landscape photographer William Clift, Neil Slavin and pioneering documentarian Lewis Hine, among others.
Despite the photographic firepower, sales didn’t follow and the Lyons were forced to move on and reinvent themselves.
After the gallery closed, Bill moved into the world of stockbroking and Ellen went back to school, eventually becoming a lawyer. They spent time on both US coasts before finding their way to Canada and Vancouver Island, where they bought property, built a house, then built a bigger and better dream home and filled it with art, paintings, photographs, carvings and more.
Bill Lyons passed away a few years ago, but Ellen remains eager to talk about their gallery time and their collection of photographs, which amounts to more than just memories: these are their favourites. Some adorn the walls of the house; some reside in portfolio cases ready to be taken out and looked over. In the front room, hangs a print by famed landscape photographer Ansel Adams. In the office sits a Danny Lyon image—one of his famed biker series.
Asked if she has a favourite photo, Ellen mentions two: one by her late husband, an image of the parachute jump ride in New York’s Coney Island; and the other by Brett Weston, son of the famous photographer Edward Weston, a landscape of trees in Belgium.
Art Gallery of Greater Victoria (AGGV)’s director, Jon Tupper, met Ellen as a volunteer for a gallery event and discovered her collection. After looking over the images, he said, “As a collection that is focussed in one particular area, it is very well put together. I’ve always liked the work of photographers like Les Krims and Aaron Siskind, which she has in her collection, and she also has a remarkable photograph by Imogen Cunningham, which I was unfamiliar with. Vancouver Island has some remarkable private collections and Ellen’s is certainly one of them.”
Ellen is an active member of the AGGV’s Art + Fare Committee, setting up fundraising events for the gallery. She has been a donor of artwork to both the AGGV and UVic’s Legacy Gallery and served on a panel about collecting art.
She hopes that a selection of her photographs, perhaps 40 to 50 images, will end up as a donation to the AGGV, creating a strong base for a new collection at the gallery that everyone can enjoy.