Ellen Lyons, with husband William, was a pioneer in collecting and selling fine art photography. Lia Crowe photography

Ellen Lyons, A Pioneer In The Art Of Collecting Photographs

The William Lyons Gallery of Photography opened in 1979

  • Dec. 18, 2020 7:00 a.m.

– 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.

Story courtesy of Boulevard Magazine, a Black Press Media publication

Like Boulevard Magazine on Facebook and follow them on Instagram

ArtArts and cultureCulturePhotography

Just Posted

A worker at Wee Geordies Liquor Store held at knifepoint on Wednesday at 3:30 p.m. A female entered the store and grabbed a bottle of liquor and produced a knife and demanded money. She was not located. (Wee Geordies video surveillance screenshot)
VIDEO: Two stores robbed on the same day in Kitimat

The first incident was at 5:45 a.m. and the second incident occurred 3:30 p.m.

Do Your Part Recycling Co is celebrating 15 years of its operation in Terrace this May. (Binny Paul/Terrace Standard)
How a homegrown Terrace business became a vital cog in the regional recycling initiative

Do Your Part Recycling owner Kasey Lewis on how they started 15 years ago

Construction continues on Coast Mountain College’s student residence on May 12, 2021. (Ben Bogstie/Terrace Standard)
VIDEO: Work continues on major projects at Coast Mountain College

Price tag of $35 million set for housing, substantial renovations

Terrace city council gave first and second reading to zoning amendment bylaws for the proposed transload facility located next to Keith Ave. (Image courtesy Hatha Callis, Progressive Ventures Group)
Next inland port public hearings set for June

Terrace council gave first and second reading to establish new zone, rezoning application

Skeena Valley Farmers Market will host Northern Health’s COVID-19 vaccination booth on May 15. ( Skeena Valley Farmers Market/Facebook)
Northern Health to set up COVID-19 vaccine booth at Skeena Valley Farmers Market

The booth will be set up on the south side of the market towards Park Ave. on May 15

(Historica Canada)
VIDEO: Heritage Minute marks 100th anniversary of work to discover insulin

Video centres on Leonard Thompson, 13, the first patient to receive successful injections for Type 1 diabetes

Conservation Service Officer Kyle Bueckert holds a gold eagle that was revived from acute rodent poisoning Monday, May 12. Photo: Submitted
‘Obviously, he’s a fighter’: Golden eagle, recovered from poisoning, back in Kootenay wild

CSO Kyle Bueckert released the eagle into the wild Thursday, May 13

A fledgling white raven was spotted near the end of Winchester Road in Coombs. (Mike Yip photo)
Legend continues as iconic white raven spotted once again on Vancouver Island

Sightings rare everywhere in world except for central Vancouver Island location

Capt. Jenn Casey died in a crash just outside of Kamloops, B.C., on May 17, 2020. (CF Snowbirds)
Snowbirds to honour Capt. Casey, who died in B.C. crash, in 2021 tour

Tour will kick off in Ontario in June before heading west

A pedestrian wearing a mask to curb the spread of COVID-19 is bundled up for the cold weather as snow falls in downtown Vancouver on Saturday, February 13, 2021.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Snow possible in mountain passes as cold front hits southern B.C.

Much of B.C.’s southern interior will see temperatures plunge from highs of 30 C reached over the weekend

A vial of AstraZeneca vaccine is seen at a mass COVID-19 vaccination clinic in Calgary, Alta., Thursday, April 22, 2021. Dr. Ben Chan remembers hearing the preliminary reports back in March of blood clots appearing in a handful of European recipients of the Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
Science on COVID, VITT constantly changing: A look at how doctors keep up

While VITT can represent challenges as a novel disorder, blood clots themselves are not new

Poached trees that were taken recently on Vancouver Island in the Mount Prevost area near Cowichan, B.C. are shown on Sunday, May 10, 2021. Big trees, small trees, dead trees, softwoods and hardwoods have all become valuable targets of tree poachers in British Columbia as timber prices hit record levels. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jen Osborne.
Tree poaching from public forests increasing in B.C. as lumber hits record prices

Prices for B.C. softwood lumber reached $1,600 for 1,000 board feet compared with about $300 a year ago

The warm weather means time for a camping trip, or at least an excursion into nature. How much do you know about camps and camping-related facts? (John Arendt - Summerland Review)
QUIZ: Are you ready to go camping?

How many camp and camping-related questions can you answer?

On Friday, May 14 at Meadow Gardens Golf Club in Pitt Meadows, Michael Caan joined a very elite club of golfers who have shot under 60 (Instagram)

Most Read