Here are some photographs presented in order but out of context. They are an excerpt of Nathan Lyons’ ongoing sequence that currently totals 593 pictures, beginning in 1974 with his book Notations In Passing and continuing through Riding First Class on the Titanic (1999), After 9/11 (2003), and now, the book that these photographs are from, the just-released Return Your Mind To Its Upright Position. The pictures, seen individually, indicate Lyons to be a supremely active seer with a strong wit and what can look like a sense of uncertainty about the course of western civilization, but to fully understand the scope of his work, the photographs must be taken in their totality. In fact, the sequence is so important to the books that I’m using the word sequence here according to Lyons’ own coinage.
It would be practically impossible, and really just feel totally wrong, to write about this sort of visual syntax without citing Lyons. In an essay titled Display As Discourse for Issue 27 of The Journal of Artists’ Books, Lyons wrote:
Often the terms serial and sequential have been used interchangeably. Before proceeding, however, I would like to attempt to distinguish between a serial concept and that of a sequential concept, recognizing that the concerns of each may, and have been, incorporated into a single frame. Their subsequent structure in relation to time and space is an essential distinction to form. Series generally are thematically related or connected, while sequences are based upon disjunctive relationship. The Latin root of each term forms another distinction—series, “to join”; sequence, “to follow.” Therefore, a series is structured by allowing one image to follow another by an order of succession or arrangement, which is not apparently thematic or systematic.
Lyons continues by quoting László Moholy-Nagy’s famous, slightly goofball prophecy, “the illiterate of the future will be the person ignorant of the camera as well as the pen.” And appropriately, what Lyons has produced over the past forty years is, absolutely, a case of photographs as literature. The progression is non-linear and the narrative, if it exists, is astoundingly subjective. Pictures often reference pictures in a way that encourages readers to turn back, to reconsider. Lyons began in 1974 with a photograph of a blank billboard surrounded by trees under the word “Introduction”—the only text in the oeuvre that isn’t in a picture—but the sequence can be accessed from any point and read in any direction. It is not a photo essay.
Lyons once asked readers to “consider what the investigation of a vast quantity of photographs taken over an extended period of time might reveal.” Through his own confrontation of this problem he has created a long poem, incised from immediate history, which could only exist visually. It is an improbable accomplishment in a culture where some of the most influential artists in photography turn out books at a rate that feels more-than-annual, and it is one that owes its existence nearly as much to persistence as to the vision of its maker in the world.