Robert Lyons

Director—MFA Limited Residency Photography Program

MFA Photography

Hartford Art School

MFA, Photography, Yale University

BA, Photography, Hampshire College

Robert Lyons lives and works in Berlin, Germany and Portland, Oregon. He has taught extensively in the United States and Europe at various institutions including Emily Carr College of Art & Design, University of Washington, Photographic Center Northwest, International Center of Photography, and the Ostkreuzschule in Berlin.

Lyons has received numerous awards for his work including: NEA Survey Grant, Ford Foundation Grants, and most recently a MacDowell Residency 2009. His work has been widely exhibited in the United States and Europe and is represented in numerous permanent collections including: The Metropolitan Museum, Seattle Art Museum and the University of Washington—Henry Art Gallery, Microsoft Corporation, Hallmark Collection of Photography, Nelson-Atkins Museum, and Beth Hatefutsoth Museum of the Diaspora, Tel Aviv, Israel.

Career Highlights

Another Africa, Bantam Dell Doubleday. Anchor Books, 1998

Egyptian Time, Doubleday Books, 1992

The Company of Another, Catalogue: Galerie Michael Schultz. Berlin, 2003

Intimate Enemy Images and Voices of the Rwandan Genocide, Zone Books, 2006

One Eye Crying, Roman Nvmerals, 2016-2018

Pictures from the Next Day, Zatara Press, 2017

Embassy - Canada’s Foreign Policy Newsweekly. Portrait of a Génocidaire as a Human Being, April 2006

April 6th marks an anniversary that most Rwandans--and indeed the world--would rather forget. It's the 12th anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda, which lasted for three months. In that time, 800,000 Tutsi and moderate Hutu lost their lives, while thousands more were irreversibly affected by those crimes.
It's these survivors --the victims, génocidaires, and those involved distributing justice--whom Robert Lyons and Scott Straus turn their undivided attention to in the new book Intimate Enemy: Images and Voices of the Rwandan Genocide. The abstract and horrific concept of genocide is rendered vulnerably human in the dozens of faces and corresponding stories of the men, women and even children who participated in the killings, or who lived through the ordeal (men who survived attempted murder, and women who were raped while their families were killedWhile raw, unanalyzed interviews given by these Rwandans with Scott Straus, an expert on violence in Africa, open the book, it's the striking black and white portraits taken by Robert Lyons which are so absorbing. Over 59 faces stand alone on the pages --some defiant, some confused, others filled with guilt and grief-- uncluttered by their names or details. You can almost guess at their stories, before turning to the back pages revealing their names and predicaments. Photography this poignant is a good reminder that a picture really can speak a thousand words. This is a hauntingly beautiful book.


Seattle-Post-Intelligencer, by Regina Hackett, April 2006

Candida Hofer wants to be alone. Hey, no problem. After 30 years in the limelight, her fame paves the way. When she asks to shoot an empty library, concert hall or museum, gatekeepers hand her the keys. Organized by Florida’s Norton Museum of Art and California State University Museum in Long Beach, “Candida Hofer: Architecture of Absence” hangs in the hallway at the Frye, a minor space for a major figure.She’s one of Hilla and Bernd Becher’s most celebrated students from the Düsseldorf Academy in the 1970s. Using a brutally reductive vocabulary, the Bechers articulated the serial rhythms of industrial structure. Their students took the Becher approach uptown, rejecting the raw in favor of the florid.

Some hit gold with sumptuous serialism. Hofer’s the weak link. She’s responsible for some notable pictures, but none of the images root into the content and wake you up.This is Hofer’s first North American Retrospective, although she’s in frequent gallery rotation, including at Seattle’s Winston Wachter.What Jay Gatsby said about Daisy’s voice, that it was full of money, is true of Hofer’s photos. They cushion the world instead of cracking it open.Remarkably, the Henry also is hosting photos that explore people-free, domestic spaces. Curated by Sara Krajewski from the Henry collection, “The Empty Room” throws in relief what’s wrong with Hofer’s efforts. Krajewski’s photographers don’t need to print big and decorate with color. Fourteen small, nearly all black and white photos fit into one little gallery without crowding and bring widely carrying worldviews into sharp focus.The only light in Lee Friedlander’s “Philadelphia” comes from a TV set. On the screen is a beautiful young woman. If this is your room, she’s looking through you. If this is your room, she’s out of your reach.

Ralph Gibson’s untitled print presents a room as a lover. The corners of its walls are her thighs, pressing together, their tops shadowed into intimacy.
The gold streak in Gordon Matta Clark’s “Splitting” is not a reflection. That’s daylight pouring through the vertical slit the artist made by hacking into the wall. Talk about activating empty space. Adam Barto’s “U.N. Room” is deliberately drab to set off its radiant core. Subtle color saves the scene from itself, warming the chairs and making the silver lamp and ashtray glow. Evelyn Hofer’s “Two Chairs, London” suggests a cozy couple own them. Wearing identical baggy sweaters, they’re in the kitchen, making tea. Leland D. Rice inflects a dark wall with smoke. A white door on the right waits for you to walk through and change your life.
Christopher Rauschenberg uses light as a club. You know it’s just light, but you have the uneasy feeling that some brute might bring it down on you.

Robert Lyons’ “Siwa Oasis” is about beauty, how in some cultures it’s a given. This bar has a mud floor, but its walls are pink and baby blue, and its windows run a spectrum. Look closely, and you’ll see, along the Arabic writing, palm trees and roses.Everybody in this exhibit is worth noting. Besides those mentioned above, “The Empty Room” includes Steve Kahn, Andre Kertesz, Joanne Leonard and Philip Melnick.


PhotoNews, Special to the Los Angeles Times, Art Review by Leah Ollman, October 2001

Two basic truths emerge from Robert Lyon’s Rwanda photographs at Paul Kopeinkin Gallery. First, photographs remain fundamentally ambiguous until words are implied to direct their meaning. And second, humans don’t fall into mutually exclusive categories of victim and perpetrator, but are born into the potential for both.
Lyons has been photographing in Africa since the late 1980s, and his 1998 book, “Another Africa,” is a gem of humanistic poetry and environmental portraiture. In this new series on Rwanda, Lyons takes a radically different approach, shooting in black and white, and stripping his subjects of context. The men, women and children in these portraits are rendered with startling clarity, but even more startling is the realization that such straightforward, direct representation s yield no obvious interpretations, but only unanswered questions and moral equivocation,

The portraits are beautiful, elegant, sympathetic. Most of the subjects look clear –eyed into the camera, which neither accuses nor aggrandizes them. A gentle evenhandedness applies throughout, whether the subject is a man who confessed to having killed a child in the Rwandan genocide, a child confessed to having killed his neighbor, a man with a soft crater in his skull from a bullet wound, or a young women who survived the killings by living in hiding. Cues to the identity of each have been suppressed to the point where the captions alone tell us whether the subject is guilty or innocent. “No Single Truth” is Lyons’ title for this work and his bottom-line take on the complexities of the Rwandan genocide. His photographs are powerful in their ambivalence, striking for their paucity of answers. The give the lie to the pseudo-science of physiognomy, which claims a correlation between a person’s physical features and his or her character. Here, an utter democracy reigns, and the hands of a woman who admits her capacity to murder are pictured with the same dignity and studied elegance as the fronds of a banana tree. There is no single truth to be drawn from this collection of images, only multiple questions, and not just about tribal politics, but about our faith in photographic documents to serve as evidence.


The Oregonian by Randy Gragg, April 1998

In his Photos from Africa, Robert Lyons sees a poetic tension in the absorption of foreign ideas

From the time of its invention, photography has been entwined with travel. One part show-and-tell, another part proof “I was there,” travel photography made use of one of the mediums most powerful aspects: making the world more portable. But with most early travel photographers coming from the First World, and most of their subjects being in the Third World, the genre also became entangled with colonialism. As capitalists exploited foreign lands and missionaries converted foreign people, photographers often preserved the foreignness of both.

To twist an old slogan: “Kodak-it’s the next best thing to being how it was.”These days of course photography has become such an extension of living that few of us would even think of traveling beyond the city limits sans camera. Like bats projecting sound waves to “see” the world around them, we photograph, perhaps to navigate a world ever increasingly shaped by images. Any photographer of foreign places, however, who calls himself an “artist”, lives by a higher law. Hanging the pictures in a gallery, selling them to collectors and, perhaps, one day establishing them in a museum collection is about more than snapping cool shots. It’s a self-conscious effort to present a historic vision. And far more than being about reportage, exotic landmarks or pleasing compositions, this kind of photography is about ethics.

At first glance, Robert Lyons’ photographs of Sudan, Mali, Niger, Ghana and Morocco might not seem worthy of such high-falutin’ scrutiny. The photos, now on view at Savage Fine Arts, often seem rather casual: a straightforward portrait here, a still-life there, and the odd-occasional landscape, sometimes not. But over time, Lyons’ images tend to collect in the mind, much like the patina of humanity so frequently found in each of his compositions. Lyons is a photojournalist by trade who frequently works for the New York Times Magazine and other high-end publications. But left to his own devices, he’s interested in almost anything but the news.

He shows us the Safari Nightclub in Zinder, Niger, festooned with mirrors, foil-covered plywood, lace and Christmas tree garlands-but entirely empty. His still-life of a pair of blue fish crossed like swords on a cutting board is isolated against the gray floor of a Ghanaian market, blank but for a rotted banana peel. Yet imbedded in each of the photographs is a quiet and often poetic tension between the evidence of Western influence and the absorption of it. We see things we know-molded plastic kitchen utensils, high-design modern chairs, or a children’s swing set-but they’ve become African. Like surrogates for our own Western sensibilities, they have been subsumed, altered and sent back to us, via Lyon’s pictures, in ethnic dress.

The complexity of Lyons’ work is perhaps best understood by his simplest images-those of people. The man standing in La Gingette River of Burkina Faso; the sinewy and scarred Sudanese boxer raising his fists; and the Nigerian nanny cradling a white baby, each show profoundly different emotions, and consequently widely different interactions between photographer and subject. Though he is ultimately just another white man in a long tradition of photo-colonists, Lyons quietly shows us the many reactions to the handshake of the camera, whether friendly, bemused, theatrical, careful or, occasionally, hostile. Indeed, one of the most engaging images in this show is a large panorama of the Dogon Market in Tirelli, Mali. Here, poetry and fact flirt but remain in separate rooms, in a metaphor for the parallel dilemmas of understanding other cultures and photographs. In a collage of patterned fabric, meager wares, blurred movement and the tightly entwined interactions of daily life, a man at the center stands staring baldly back. As you meet his gaze, it’s the classic experience of photography as both a window and a mirror: a view on another culture and the reflection of what’s different about our own.