Archives Series | Case Study – Visual Studies Workshop

Visual Studies Workshop

Archives Series: Case Study – Visual Studies Workshop

Dateline: September, 2016

Before we go into our overview of just what Visual Studies Workshop is all about, we must take a moment to honor Nathan Lyons, the Workshop’s founder, who passed away on August 31st, 2016.

While the following blog briefly describes Nathan’s importance in the establishment of VSW, his far-reaching influence on the shape and direction of contemporary photography was probably greater than any single individual since Alfred Stieglitz.

A few of us here at Archival Methods either studied with Nathan, or with those he himself trained as image-makers and teachers. Some of us even taught at the Workshop ourselves, including the author of this blog.

Yet no words we could write can express the depth of this man’s knowledge and understanding – his capacity for instilling a sense of inquiry in others – so we will leave it to some of those who knew him best.

We hope you will click on the image below to go to Visual Studies Workshop’s memorial page dedicated to Nathan Lyons. There you will find short reminisces and a photo gallery which we hope will help all of you know the man and his work, if only briefly.

Nathan Lyons, on the right, with Aaron Siskind. Photography by Jerry Uelsmann.
Nathan Lyons, on the right, with Aaron Siskind. Photograph by Jerry Uelsmann. (Please click on this image to go to the VSW memorial page celebrating the life of this hugely influential photographic visionary, teacher, curator, and humanist.)

Rest in peace, Nathan Lyons. Your spirit of inquiry will live on in all who knew you, and will be spread exponentially by the thousands of lives and you have touched.

With that, here’s our Visual Studies Workshop blog, as written before Nathan’s death.

So, before we begin (cuz, well, just because), a quick pop quiz:

Rochester Map
Rochester, NY, the home of both Visual Studies Workshop and the George Eastman Museum. (Please click on the image for more information.)

  Visual Studies Workshop       Visual Studies Workshop  
(Please click on either image for more information.)

Pop Quiz #1:  Have you ever heard of the George Eastman Museum (formerly known as the International Museum of Photography and Film at George Eastman House)?

Yeah, it’s that world-class museum of the photographic arts and motion pictures – and preservation! – right here in Rochester, NY (where the author of this blog lives).

  Visual Studies Workshop       Visual Studies Workshop  
(Please Click on either image for more information.)

Pop Quiz #2:  Have you ever heard of Visual Studies Workshop?

No? Well, for those in the world(s) – plural on purpose – of fine art photography, video & film, artists books, and education, Visual Studies Workshop is a similarly storied and important institution for the study and advancement of the photographic arts here in Rochester (which also has Archival Methods in the general neighborhood!).

  Apples       Oranges  
Yeah, VSW GEM, just as apples oranges (see below).

The reason I’m bring Visual Studies Workshop (VSW for short) up in the context of the George Eastman Museum (GEM for short) is that the former is often overshadowed by the latter in terms of name recognition, yet any comparison between these two important institutions is really an apples and oranges analogy (see pix above).

While their core missions are focused on photography and related fields – in all their permutations – the general trajectories that each institution follow are in fact significantly different.

So, let’s take a moment to see what Visual Studies Workshop is all about.

Visual Studies Workshop – In a Nutshell

Stepping back for a moment, the George Eastman Museum (GEM) is actually THREE museums in one: the vast photography and technology archives / the unparalleled motion picture collections / the historic gardens & mansion itself. 

Visual Studies Workshop

I mention this as Visual Studies Workshop (VSW) can also be considered to have THREE major components to its programming (along with cool and important other stuff too, read on!).

In contrast to GEM, which while offering significant educational programming is more of a “pure” museum, VSW is more closely focused on education itself, offering a unique Master of Fine Arts (MFA) program and intensive summer classes in the fields of


  Visual (or “Artist”) Books

  Moving Images (video, film, etc.)

These three interrelated but distinct areas of study – with a couple of other significantly important elements here and there to fill out the mix – offer MFA students the opportunity to learn about each different mode of artistic creativity and image making (it’s a requirement!), all the while exposing them to a deep range of contemporary and historic work in all three fields, especially through its vast(!!!) Research Center, which is the centerpiece of this blog (see below).

In short, Visual Studies Workshop doesn’t “compete” with the George Eastman Museum, rather it “complements” the GEM in quite unique ways.

It has been called, and justly so, the George Eastman Museum’s “quirky and eccentric cousin,” and nothing could be more apt or closer to the truth. 

Visual Studies Workshop – History

Nothing to see here, folks, move along.

Yeah, in all seriousness, the history of Visual Studies Workshop and its strategic importance in the development of SO MUCH of what has happened in photographic art and education is WAY beyond the scope of this blog (for a very brief history of VSW, please click here).

Some things, however, must be mentioned for the sake of background info.

Visual Studies Workshop
Nathan and Joan Lyons. The visionaries behind Visual Studies Workshop and the VSW Press. (Please click on the image for more information.)

VSW was founded by Nathan Lyons back in 1969, at a time when many college and university programs in photography were still in their infancy, or hadn’t even yet seen the light of day. Prior to this, Nathan – though I’ve known him for decades, everyone at VSW goes by their first name anyway – had been an associate director at the George Eastman House, as it was then known. During this time he was also involved with the early establishment of the Society for Photographic Education

Yet Nathan had a grander vision, and VSW was the result.

Two years later, in 1971, Joan Lyons – an accomplished artist and book maker (and Nathan’s wife) – founded the internationally renowned Visual Studies Workshop Press.

For more information on Nathan Lyons, please click here.

For more information on Joan Lyons, please click here.

For more information on the Visual Studies Workshop Press, please click here.

Seemingly everyone in photography / new media / and the book arts graced VSW with their presence during the following decades – and still do! – either in person or via correspondences (more on correspondences below) including students, instructors, visiting lecturers, artists, book makers, filmmakers, cultural critics, and historians & scholars of every stripe.

Visual Studies Workshop

From the Afterimage website: “For over 40 years, [VSW’s] Afterimage has been an important voice in the media arts. Afterimage features unique, high-quality coverage of the visual arts, photography, independent film and video, new media, and alternative publishing, covering important issues and debates within art history, visual and cultural studies, media studies, and related fields. Each issue is a mix of in-depth feature articles, conference and festival reports, book and exhibition reviews, and dozens of citations on new scholarly titles, artist’s books, and exhibition catalogs. Afterimage online offers even more content, featuring online-exclusive reports, reviews, artists’ portfolios and videos, and over three hundred free notices for jobs, calls-for-work, exhibitions, and screenings.”

  Visual Studies Workshop     Visual Studies Workshop     Visual Studies Workshop  
From left to right: screen projection during the 2016 VSW Photo-Bookworks Symposium / one of the symposium panel discussions /
Tate Shaw, the director of VSW since 2008, and the individual who coordinates the Photo-Bookworks gatherings held every two years.

The intervening 40+ years saw the Visual Studies Workshop MFA program blossom; the scholarly yet accessible magazine Afterimage: The Journal of Media Arts and Cultural Criticism started its continuous publication run in 1973 (see pix above of the current summer 2016 issue); the ongoing VSW Summer Institute of week-long intensive classes brought artists / students / instructors together from all over the country and the world; the Photo-Bookworks Symposiums were established and continue to be held every two years (including 2016, see pix above); and various iterations of the VSW gallery have hosted any number of cool exhibitions, as it still does today (see pix below).

Visual Studies Workshop
Installation pix of Keith Smith’s Ladies First exhibition of prints and bookworks at the Visual Studies Workshop Gallery in June of 2016. (Please click on the image for more information.)

And all the while the VSW Research Center grew and matured into the amazing archive it is now.

Visual Studies Workshop – The Research Center

Visual Studies Workshop
A tiny fraction of what the VSW Research Center houses. (Please click on the image for more information.)

Jeez, where to start???

There isn’t any one single word that I might use to describe the Visual Studies Workshop Research Center, so I’ll just have to string some together:

Eclectic / Uncommon / Richly Diverse / Accessible / Inspirational

And these words only scratch the surface.

The Visual Studies Workshop Research Center collections are vast, and consist of a wide variety of different artifacts, some of them quite “quirky” (remember when I said that VSW is the George Eastman Museum’s “quirky and eccentric cousin?”). I mean, just WHO ELSE has a massive collection of lantern slides from the late-1800s through mid-1900s, or some of the over 6,000 artists books that run the gamut from “rather conventional” to “downright crazy” (author’s quotes)?

What’s more, ANYONE can access these artifacts – they aren’t walled off in some inaccessible archive available only to staff and select visitors. In fact it’s just the opposite – access is ENCOURAGED! By following some simple guidelines in terms of care and security, anyone can go in and examine the grajillion treasures that reside in this one-of-a-kind archive. It’s just fantastic.

The vast holdings of the VSW Research Center (discussed in a bit more detail below) include:

  The Photographic Print Collection

  The Soibelman Syndicate News Agency Archive

  Lantern Slides

  The Joseph N. Selle / Fox Movie Flash Collection

  The IPA (Independent Press Archive of Artists’ Books)

  The Film and Video Archive

  Books and Periodicals

  Primary Resources including Documents / Correspondences / Audio Tapes

  The Artists and Researchers Archive

Each of these collections / focused study areas are active nodes in VSW’s dynamic network of education, research and artistic inspiration. They exist not as sterile / static assortments of artifacts based on numerical magnitude (see the extent of each collection below), rather they are a living, breathing resource for researchers, artists and especially students.

As part of their curricula, MFA students are constantly exposed to the varied treasures in the collections and use them as inspiration, for historical background, and as raw materials in the creation of new work through the appropriation and reconfiguring of scans and copies of the Research Center’s originals.

With all the different types of collections – and their sheer depth – the central mission for Jessica Johnston, the current curator of collections at the Research Center (who also came to VSW from a position of associate curator at the George Eastman Museum) is to:

 Take Care of It – using the SAME archival materials you can use to safely store YOUR artwork / archives

 Organize & Digitize It – in a long-term effort to make it accessible locally / regionally / world-wide

 Use It(!!!) – by encouraging students, artists and researchers to dig deeply into it for inspiration / information

So, with this brief description of “why” this collection exists, let’s look at the “what” of each of these archives.

(Please Note: Archival storage and presentation principles / procedures / products are of paramount importance in the administration and care of collections such as those administered by VSW’s Research Center. In an effort to share with you the same types of museum-quality materials and procedures that YOU can use to protect YOUR artwork and family archives, I have taken the liberty of including information and links to such products at the bottom of each of the following collection descriptions. This inclusion is meant as a way to further the conversation and the exchange of information, and is not intended to convey any sense of endorsement by Visual Studies Workshop, which is a non-profit organization. Just so ya know.)

Visual Studies Workshop – The Research Center Collections

  Photographic Print Collection

  Visual Studies Workshop             Visual Studies Workshop  
On the left: flat photographic prints in drop front boxes, portfolio boxes and Solander museum cases. On the right: cased images such as daguerrotypes,
as well as tintypes, ambrotypes, cartes-de-visite, postcards and other small 19th-century vernacular images in acid-free boxes.

Description from the VSW Research Center website (please click here for more information):

“The Photographic Print Collection contains 27,000 original photographic or photo-mechanical prints made by 2,200 known photographers and more than 600,000 examples of vernacular or anonymous images in the form of stereo cards, snapshots and postcards. These collections hold examples of every type of photographic practice, from the family snapshot to the fine art print, and include work of every era, from the daguerreotypes of the 1840s, to digital prints from the present day.”

(How to store YOUR stuff like the pros: Metal Edge Drop Front Boxes / Onyx Portfolio Boxes / Museum-Solander Cases / Document File Boxes / Polyethylene Bags / HD Poly Envelopes / also see our blogs on Matting and Mounting your photographs and artwork.)

  The Soibelman Syndicate News Agency Archive

Visual Studies Workshop
Photographic prints in archival polyethylene bags.

Description from the VSW Research Center website (please click here for more information):

“The Soibelman Syndicate News Agency Archive is an extensive and diverse collection of more than 40,000 news agency photographs from the interwar period. The collection spans topics ranging from the momentous to the seeming trivial, from aerial views of Yugoslavia, to the Spanish Civil War, Nazi Germany, aviation, the construction of roads, dams and bridges, mining disasters, pipe cleaner art, royalty, jai alai, as well as great many men and women nearly forgotten almost a century later. Most of the prints include typed labels providing valuable context and understanding of the scenes as presented.”

(How to store YOUR stuff like the pros: Enclosures such as Polyethylene Bags / Crystal Clear Bags / Acid-Free Flap Envelopes / Acid-Free File Folders / Metal Edge Boxes)

  Lantern Slides

Visual Studies Workshop
Shelf after shelf of antique lantern slides from the late-19th through the early-20th centuries are a treasure trove of visual and historic information for researchers and artists alike.

Description from the VSW Research Center website (please click here for more information):

“The VSW Lantern Slide Archive houses a collection of over 60,000 nineteenth and early twentieth century glass lantern slides and related equipment. The slides cover a wide range of subjects and were primarily used for educational purposes. The VSW holdings include slides from the Buffalo Society of Natural Sciences Department of Visual Education, The Pratt Institute, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Staten Island Institute of Arts and Sciences, the Museum of Modern Art, the New York State Education Department Visual Instruction Division and the Keystone View Company.”

(How to store YOUR stuff like the pros: Enclosures such as small Polyethylene Bags / HD Poly Envelopes / Metal Edge Boxes / Short Top Boxes / Acid-Free Index Cards)

  The Joseph N. Selle / Fox Movie Flash Collection

Visual Studies Workshop
Just look at that kid! Stylin’ all day long.

Description from the VSW Research Center website (please click here for more information):

“The Fox Movie Flash Collection, photographed by Joseph N. Selle and his crew of street photographers, consists of approximately one million images of people on the streets of San Francisco from the 1940s to the 1960s. The photographers stationed themselves in high pedestrian traffic areas to capture images of shoppers and tourists, hoping to sell them souvenir portraits. Selle and his crew used Acme Street Cameras, adapted from DeVry movie cameras. Each camera was equipped with a harness to be worn on the photographer’s chest, and oriented sideways to expose vertical frames.

The images are 35mm negatives on 100 ft rolls of film and there are over 900 rolls in the archive. Each 100 ft roll of film accommodated about 1000 frames. Selle only printed a small fraction of these negatives for those who sent in fifty cents for a souvenir postcard of themselves on Market Street or Union Square. Thus, many of these images have never been printed or viewed. The Joseph Selle Fox Movie Flash Archive was donated to VSW in 1975 by Joseph N. Selle.”

(How to store YOUR stuff like the pros: any number of archival storage products, depending on format, size and materials. Contact us here at Archival Methods and we’ll walk ya through it.)

  The IPA (Independent Press Archive of Artists’ Books)

Visual Studies Workshop

Description from the VSW Research Center website (please click here for more information):

“VSW’s Independent Press Archive was established from VSW’s Press publishing activity and Book Bus distribution program, both established in the 1970s. The collection holds over 6,000 artists’ books and many fine examples of independently published poetry from the 1960s through today. Nearly all of VSW Press’s approximately 500 titles are represented in the collection. As are other critically important publishers and artist space production houses such as Nexus Press; the Jargon Society; Weproductions; Dog Ear Press; BOA Editions; Women’s Studio Workshop; and Burning Deck, to name a few.”

(How to store YOUR stuff like the pros: Newspaper & Magazine Storage KitDocument Storage Boxes / Document Storage Kit / Acid-Free File Folders / Record Storage Boxes / Polyethylene Bags)

  Film and Video Archive

Visual Studies Workshop

Description from the VSW Research Center website (please click here for more information):

“The VSW Film Archive contains over two thousand 16mm films from the Rochester Public Library Reynolds Audio/Visual Department and the Audiovisual/Technical Services Division at SUNY Brockport. These films span several decades and a wide range of categories including educational, animation, feature length, documentary and experimental. VSW hosts several public screenings of films from the collection throughout the year.

The VSW Video Archive houses approximately 2500 videos from the early 1970s to the late 1990s. Video formats in this collection include standard videocassette, BETA, U-matic ¾ inch, and 1 and 2 inch reel tape. The majority of the content is public access programming from the greater Central and Western New York regions and early experimental artists’ video productions. The video collection includes programming by Synapse, Portable Channel, Homemade TV, Experimental TV Center, Ithaca Video Festival and Woodstock Community Video. It contains work by noted artists Bill Viola, Sanja Ivekovic and Dalibor Martinis, and The Vasulkas.”

(How to store YOUR stuff like the pros: please see our fully-illustrated blog entitled American Family Archives / Preserving 8mm Home Movies and Films.)

  Books and Periodicals

  Visual Studies Workshop       Visual Studies Workshop

Description from the VSW Research Center website (please click here for more information):

“The Research Center Library contains approximately 4,000 monographs of photographers’ work, 6,000 volumes on the history, theory and technology of photography, and 7,000 volumes related to fine art, film and media. The Research Center also houses over 3,000 rare books and photographic albums covering the history of image reproduction from 15th century woodcut, to 19th century photographic albums, to contemporary digital printing. The rare books are complemented by the Illustrated Book Collection containing illustrated books published from 1694 to the present day that display all aspects of engraving and photo-engraving practices and all forms of imaging technologies from wood engraving to xerography. These collections are supported by additional holdings concentrating on the areas of photography, filmmaking, video, bookmaking, media studies, and the cultural practices of image making. Our periodicals collection is an extensive resource of publications on photography, the arts, culture, and media.”

(How to store YOUR stuff like the pros: please see our fully-illustrated blog on Saving Wet and Water Damaged Books.)

  Primary Resources including Documents / Correspondences / Audio Tapes

Visual Studies Workshop
Thousands of one-of-a-kind letters, documents and correspondences are contained in this aisle of files. (Please click on the image to see our fully-illustrated blog on Preserving Old Letters in the Digital Age.)

Description from the VSW Research Center website (please click here for more information):

Information FilesComprehensive documents and correspondence related to photographic artists from the mid-1960s through the 1980s.

Audio Tapes: Over the first decade and a half of its existence, VSW made audio recordings of the artist talks, conversations, interviews, lectures, and symposia that took place at this pioneering educational facility. Oral documents were made through recordings on ¼ inch open reel and cassette audiotapes. These discussions and presentations are invaluable primary resources from the history of photography, photographic education, artists’ books, and independent publishing in this country and abroad.”

(How to store YOUR stuff like the pros: please see our fully-illustrated blog on Preserving Old Letters in the Digital Age)

  Artists and Researchers Archive

Visual Studies Workshop
Image by Richard Zakia, a well known photographic artist, writer, and the former chair of the prestigious Photography Department at Rochester Institute of Technology. (Yes folks, yet another Rochester, NY, connection! Come visit!)

VSW houses the art and research archives of a number of significant image makers, teachers and thinkers, including:

Barbara Blondeau Archives 
Syl Labrot Archive 
Esther Parada Archive 
William E. Parker Papers (the author studied with Billy Parker in grad school. Cool dude. RIP, Billy.)
Alice Wells Archive 
Richard Zakia Advertising Papers 
Lejaren á Hiller

(How to store YOUR stuff like the pros: got a genealogical archive full of letters / documents / images? Then please see our American Family Archives Series of fully-illustrated – and often humorous – blogs. Got a fine art archive? Then please see our Your Professional Portfolio Series of informative blogs.)

Visual Studies Workshop

In closing, do you want to know more about books as an art form? Want to see a whole mess of vernacular images of America as it “grew up” between 1840 and yesterday? Want to see letters that famed Japanese photographer Eikoh Hosoe sent to Nathan Lyons? Want to see Beaumont Newhall’s photo history tests from his classes back in the day (Beaumont Newhall was the founding curator of the George Eastman Museum). Want to see a poem by Ralph Eugene Meatyard (yeah, look him up). Want to appropriate old magazine / photo journal / lantern slide images to make new work? Want to do an internship at Afterimage? Want to get a killer education in a world-class MFA program?

Yeah, go to Visual Studies Workshop and check it out. It’s all there, with a rich history from the past – which they’re working hard to archivally preserve and to share with the rest of the world – and a mandate to shape the next generation(s) of important image makers / book artists / film and video makers / scholars, researchers and independent thinkers.

For more information, check ’em out here if ya haven’t already. Better yet, come visit VSW and the George Eastman Museum (and Archival Methods!) in and around Rochester, NY.

It’s a beautiful city with an active and dynamic photographic legacy, one that reinvents itself every single day.

Contact Us

If you have any additional questions on preserving your collections, or would you like more information on any of our museum-quality archival storage and presentation materials, please contact us here at Archival Methods. We’re always there to help with any archiving, storage, or presentation questions you may have.

We would also like to encourage you to follow us on Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, and our large selection of informative and crisply-illustrated (and often humorous!) blogs for up-to-the-minute information, Archival Solutions of the Week (take a look at this archive for more info!), and stories of interest.

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