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

The river behind the ball field. (Tyson Whitney - North Island Gazette)
Pulled by the flow: river stirs up childhood memories

Gazette editor makes trek through Port Hardy wilderness to swim in the river

FILE – Perry Bellegarde, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, takes part in an event on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, July 7, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Indigenous Peoples Day must be a ‘call to action’, says Assembly of First Nations chief

Discovery of children at Kamloops residential school site must lead to change, Perry Bellegarde says

Black Press file photo
RCMP seek suspect in Vancouver Island-wide crime spree

Crimes stretched from Deep Bay to Qualicum, Ladysmith, Chemainus and Youbou

Alert Bay council has decided to cancel Canada Day celebrations. (Alertbay.ca photo)
Alert Bay council cancels Canada Day celebrations

The decision was made in wake of the mass graves being found at former residential schools

Things are looking up for Vancouver Island as zero COVID-19 cases have been reported for the first time since October. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Island records zero new COVID-19 cases for the first time since October

For the first time since October, the province is reporting zero new… Continue reading

The border crossing into the United States is seen during the COVID-19 pandemic in Lacolle, Que. on February 12, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson
VIDEO: Border quarantine to soon lift for fully vaccinated Canadians

Eligible travellers must still take multiple COVID-19 tests

Skeena MLA Ellis Ross. (Photo by Peter Versteege)
BC Liberal leadership candidate condemns ‘senseless violence’ of Okanagan church fires

Skeena MLA Ellis Ross says reconciliation isn’t about revenge for past tragedies

A coroner’s inquest will be taking place at the Capitol Theatre in Port Alberni for the next week. (ELENA RARDON / ALBERNI VALLEY NEWS)
Teen B.C. mom who died following police custody recalled as ‘friend to many’

Police sent Jocelyn George to hospital after intoxication had gone ‘beyond the realm’ of normal detox

FILE - In this Nov. 29, 2020, file photo, Las Vegas Raiders defensive end Carl Nassib leaves the field after an NFL football game against the Atlanta Falcons in Atlanta. Nassib on Monday, June 21, 2021, became the first active NFL player to come out as gay. Nassib announced the news on Instagram, saying he was not doing it for the attention but because “I just think that representation and visibility are so important.” (AP Photo/John Bazemore, File)
Nassib becomes first active NFL player to come out as gay

More than a dozen NFL players have come out as gay after their careers were over

Penticton Indian Band Chief Greg Gabriel speaks to the Sacred Hearts Catholic Church burning down early Monday morning, June 21, 2021. (Monique Tamminga Western News)
Penticton band chief condemns suspicious burning of 2 Catholic churches

Both Catholic church fires are deemed suspicious, says RCMP

COVID-19 daily cases reported to B.C. public health, seven-day moving average to June 17, 2021. (B.C. Centre for Disease Control)
B.C.’s COVID-19 infections drop to 90 on Sunday, 45 Monday

Pandemic spread dwindles as 77% of adults receive vaccine

Emergency vehicles are parked outside of the Wintergreen Apartments on Fourth Avenue. (SUSAN QUINN / Alberni Valley News)
Port Alberni RCMP investigate stabbing on Fourth Avenue

Two men were found with ‘significant’ injuries near Wintergreen Apartments

By protesting uninvited in First Nations’ territories, conservationists are acting in a neocolonial or paternalistic manner, says Huu-ay-aht Chief Robert Dennis. Photo by Heather Thomson
A closer look: do Vancouver Island First Nations support the war in the woods?

First Nations/environmentalist old growth alliance uneasy, if it exists at all

Bernadette Jordan addresses the media following a swearing in ceremony at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on January 14, 2019. Jordan says the government will provide $2 million to allow First Nations to continue to strengthen the marine safety system across Canada. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
First Nations receive federal funds to purchase marine rescue boats

Quatsino, Heiltsuk, and Kitasoo First Nation’s among eight across Canada to receive funding

Most Read