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

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

The Vernon Public Art Gallery's new Regional Reach program which sends supplies and lessons to classes, has been a hit in the North Okanagan classrooms. (VPAG photo)
Travelling art kit a hit in North Okanagan schools

Art Gallery’s new Regional Reach program delivers art education to the classrooms

A kaleidescope of colours was captured over Lake Country Sunday, Feb. 28. (Wendey Innes-Shaw photo)
Colourful close to month with North Okanagan sunset

From all angles: Vernon and Lake Country photographers capture sunset Feb. 28

(File photo)
UBCO introduces another reading break in November

The break only affects the Okanagan campus

The Okanagan Screen Arts Society is set to take over Vernon’s historic Towne Cinema on 30th Avenue June 1 as fundraising for building upgrades is a third of the way to its goal. (Photo contributed)
Historic Vernon cinema rolling into society’s hands

Okanagan Screen Arts Society will take over and run with volunteers the Towne Cinema starting June 1

A student from Dawson Creek is the winner of Tolko’s Orange Shirt Day design contest for 2021. (Tolko photo)
Vernon-based Tolko contest features northern winner

Student from Dawson Creek beats out entries Canadawide for Orange Shirt Day design contest win

Langley resident Carrie MacKay shared a video showing how stairs are a challenge after spending weeks in hospital battling COVID-19 (Special to Langley Advance Times)
VIDEO: Stairs a challenge for B.C. woman who chronicled COVID-19 battle

‘I can now walk for six (to) 10 minutes a day’

Pastafarian Gary Smith, pictured here dressed as a pirate, wanted to wear his tricorn (also pictured here) in his driver’s licence photo, arguing that the display was a religious observance. Photo: Facebook
B.C. Pastafarian loses Supreme Court fight to wear pirate hat in driver’s licence photo

Gary Smith of Grand Forks, put his case to the Supreme Court in Rossland in early February

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry updates B.C.’s coronavirus situation, May 8, 2020. (B.C. government photo)
B.C.’s weekend COVID-19 cases: 532 Saturday, 508 Sunday, 438 Monday

Fraser Health still has most, eight more coronavirus deaths

City council passed resolution in support of an expansion of the licence area at Salmon Arm’s Marionette Winery for the inclusion of a lounge area. (Marionette Winery/Facebook)
Salmon Arm council supports lounge addition at Shuswap winery

Marionette Winery expanding licence area to host small gatherings

(File photo)
UBCO introduces another reading break in November

The break only affects the Okanagan campus

An injured skier was helivaced from Apex Mountain Resort to Kelowna General Hospital Monday, March, 2021. (Linda Geggie / Facebook)
Injured skier helivaced from Apex Mountain Resort

The skier was taken to Kelowna General Hospital

B.C. Attorney General David Eby speaks in the legislature, Dec. 7, 2020. Eby was given responsibility for housing after the October 2020 provincial election. (Hansard TV)
B.C. extends COVID-19 rent freeze again, to the end of 2021

‘Renoviction’ rules tightened, rent capped to inflation in 2022

Face mask hangs from a rear-view mirror. (Black Press image)
B.C. CDC unveils guide on how to carpool during the pandemic

Wearing masks, keeping windows open key to slowing the spread of COVID-19

Churches, including Langley’s Riverside Calvary Church, are challenging the regulations barring them from holding in-person worship services during COVID-19. (Langley Advance Times file)

Most Read