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

Delta Police Constable Jason Martens and Dezi, a nine-year-old German Shepherd that recently retired after 10 years with Delta Police. (Photo submitted)
Delta Police dog retires on a high note after decade of service

Nine-year-old German Shepherd now fights over toys instead of chasing down bad guys

In 2017, a member of the Disneyana Fan Club curated a small Community Treasures exhibit at the Museum of Surrey about the early days of Disney and the cartoonist Walt Disney. The museum is now accepting applications for its 2022 Community Treasures exhibition. (Photo: Submitted)
Museum of Surrey wants to spotlight local organizations and clubs

Museum now accepting applications for its 2022 Community Treasures exhibit

Pindie Dhaliwal, one of the organizers for the Surrey Challo protest for Indian farmers. She says organizers were told by Surrey RCMP that the event was not allowed due to COVID-19. Organizers ended up moving the protest to Strawberry Hill at the last minute. (Photo: Lauren Collins)
Indian farmers rally moves as organizers say Surrey RCMP told them they couldn’t gather

Protest originally planned in Cloverdale, moved to Strawberry Hill

Musician Dana Vande is seen in a screenshot from a music video on Youtube. Vande recently released a pro-lockdown track in response to an Eric Clapton and Van Morrison anti-lockdown track.
Cloverdale musician writes pandemic response song to Van Morrison and Eric Clapton

Dana Vande answers a Clapton-Morrison anti-lockdown track with a pro-lockdown track

Surrey RCMP Constable Mike Della-Paolera as seen in a cut-out used for the detachment’s Operation Double Take program. (File photo)
Surrey’s tall ‘Operation Double Take’ cop is on the move

Cut-out of Constable Mike Della-Paolera used in program to curb speeding and dangerous driving

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry prepares a daily update on the coronavirus pandemic, April 21, 2020. (B.C. Government)
B.C. adjusts COVID-19 vaccine rollout for delivery slowdown

Daily cases decline over weekend, 31 more deaths

(Realtor.ca)
Rent dropped to 2019 rates across parts of Metro Vancouver in December: Rentals.ca report

Rent costs have declined since May, a trend expected to continue due in part to the COVID pandemic

A female prisoner sent Langford police officers a thank-you card after she spent days in their custody. (Twitter/West Shore RCMP)
Woman gives Victoria-area jail 4.5-star review in handwritten card to police after arrest

‘We don’t often get thank you cards from people who stay with us, but this was sure nice to see’: RCMP

An elk got his antlers caught up in a zip line in Youbou over the weekend. (Conservation Officer Service Photo)
Elk rescued from zip line in Youbou on Vancouver Island

Officials urge people to manage items on their property that can hurt animals

A Trail man has a lucky tin for a keepsake after it saved him from a stabbing last week. File photo
Small tin in Kootenay man’s jacket pocket saved him from stabbing: RCMP

The man was uninjured thanks to a tin in his jacket

Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation Chantel Moore, 26, was fatally shot by a police officer during a wellness check in the early morning of June 4, 2020, in Edmundston, N.B. (Facebook)
Frustrated family denied access to B.C. Indigenous woman’s police shooting report

Independent investigation into B.C. woman’s fatal shooting in New Brunswick filed to Crown

Nurses collect samples from a patient in a COVID suspect room in the COVID-19 intensive care unit at St. Paul’s hospital in downtown Vancouver, Tuesday, April 21, 2020. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward)
5 British Columbians under 20 years old battled COVID-19 in ICU in recent weeks

Overall hospitalizations have fallen but young people battling the virus in hospital has increased

Canada released proposed regulations Jan. 2 for the fisheries minister to maintain Canada’s major fish stocks at sustainable levels and recover those at risk. (File photo)
New laws would cement DFO accountability to depleted fish stocks

Three B.C. salmon stocks first in line for priority attention under proposed regulations

Most Read