Nicholas Nixon, About Forty Years

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2015 by Fraenkel Gallery (here). Hardcover, 180 pages, with 98 black-and-white reproductions. Includes a foreword by Jeffrey Fraenkel. The catalog accompanies an exhibition of prints on view from September 10 to October 24, 2015 (here). $55. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Nicholas Nixon is among the last prominent photographers whose oeuvre openly emulates Paul Strand’s. It’s not simply the 67 year-old’s use of an 8×10 view camera and his smooth black-and-white palette that consciously looks back toward the heyday of American Modernism; lots of photographers since the 1970s have adopted Old School tools. Nor is the committed realism of Nixon so unusual; a stark objectivity has been the goal of so-called straight photography since the 1920s.

It’s the intensity of his scrutiny, the ardent faith in the close-up, the simultaneous abstracting and unveiling of details, and the soft burnish of his silver-gelatin prints that is so reminiscent of Strand. A Nixon photograph is a deliberate act, not the product of experiment or happenstance. The polish of both men’s work disguises a strong, fastidious will, a characteristic that might be unforgivably overbearing were it not also in service to such a humane cause: clear-eyed tracery of the world, some of it painful to inspect—notably the erosion of aging and disease upon the body—but all of it near-at-hand and enriching for those caring to look.

Nixon hasn’t attempted to reinvent photography (if such a venture were possible). Instead, he pays his debts without apology to giants of the medium and their canonical images. His series on his infant son Sam’s naked torso is an homage to Weston’s of his son Neil; and Nixon’s portraits of his wife Bebe have an erotic temperature that anyone could sense borrow the heat given off by Strand’s smoldering close-ups of Rebecca and Stieglitz’s of Georgia (and Rebecca.)

Nixon invites the competition, knowing he couldn’t replicate their achievement even if he wanted to. Tradition nourishes him. Every new picture is in some way related to ones taken before, while also being in part, de facto, unique. The historic circumstances surrounding a new picture, not least the photographer’s own role in being there to make it, ensure that the past can never be repeated, only partially recalled.

About Forty Years is an update of the 1988 MoMA catalog, Nicholas Nixon: Pictures of People, with an overlap of perhaps 20 photographs. There is a larger portion of 1970s work here, as well as more than 50 images made after 1988. The new book excludes anything from his best-known series, gathered together for last year’s MoMA publication, The Brown Sisters. Forty Years.

The cover photo, a self-portrait from 1973, was not in the earlier book. Against a black background, his youthful head appears, cropped at the collar bone, his blonde hair sharply parted and a little off center, his longish face undergirded by a neatly trimmed beard. He is shirtless.

The back cover, a self-portrait from 2015, is an even tighter shot of what is recognizably the same face, only older. The hair is gray, the brow ridge creased. The pores on the nose are enlarged and the skin on the neck bunched.

Nixon’s gaze in both photos is unsettling. But he seems more curious about the impression he is making than aggressively confrontational. He isn’t ingratiated himself by smiling but he isn’t holding us away either.

Both photos are also recognizably by the same artist. The variations in his style are minimal and less important than the statement left by their continuity: for 42 years he has tried to be as honest in assessing himself and those around him as he can be with his dearly chosen photographic instruments.

I had forgotten until leafing through the pages what a homebody Nixon has been. Most of the places where these photographs were taken could be flagged on a map within a 100-mile radius, and a majority of those in an even tighter circle. At its center would be Boston and its suburbs where he has lived since 1974 and where he taught photography at Massachusetts College of Art for more than four decades.

A 1975 photo of his desk at the time has a Walker Evans print and a Thomas Eakins postcard hanging above it. The surface is anchored by books (several borrowed from a library, along with his own copy of the recently published American Heritage dictionary), a box of Kodak Paper, a cactus in a pot, and a KLH radio. (KLH was a Cambridge, Mass. company whose stereo products could be found in dwellings of East Coast audiophiles in the 1960s and ‘70s.) Nixon’s photographs usually exclude many narrative details; this one doesn’t and gives him away as a member of Boston’s young and underpaid intellectual class.

Nixon’s first landscapes here survey downtown Boston from a tall vantage point during the 1970s, a time when the city was building the John Hancock Tower near Copley Square and had just finished the new City Hall and the Government Center near the North End. There is nothing nostalgic or touching about these pictures; he is simply documenting the changes to the city, with detachment, not affection.

In the early ‘80s he ventured South and a selection from this period marks his most extended period away from Boston. The composition for a 1982 portrait of a poor family in Halo, Kentucky lets us know how highly Nixon regards Walker Evans’s portraits of poor families in Depression-era Alabama. This isn’t the Burroughs family, of course. But the distressed condition of the house and the children is a reminder that economic conditions for many people didn’t change much over 50 years.

In many of these photographs, it’s the skin tones (richly dark or milky pale or smudged with dirt), the texture of a head of hair (wet, flat, greasy, or teased out in a dandelion Afro), and the relaxed posture of bodies (tautly muscular or grossly imperfect) that fascinates Nixon’s camera. It sees affinities between arm and back fuzz, the lace of a curtain, the follicles or wrinkles on the skin, the leaves on a row of trees, and a field of grass. They can all be read photographically as distinct things that at the same time are also bound together by being an abstract collection of fine gray lines.

When photographing his own family, he seldom includes autobiographic material. His portraits of the very aged and of AIDS patients and their families similarly dispense with anything but the figure, often just the head and arms.

As with Strand, I sometimes could do with less control, and more air in Nixon’s pictures. It is a relief when bits of information leak out from the background: the low suburban stone wall in a 1980 portrait of a man in Connecticut hugging his collie; or the taller wooden fence behind the man looking into his briefcase along Brattle Street in Cambridge, from 1977. The tar-shingles of the house behind the two boys in East Cambridge provide an architecture for understanding the incomes of their parents in a 1982 portrait. (What would Nixon’s photographs do without the clapboarding of houses to add structure? He is more enamored of their overlapping rhythms than anyone since Evans.)

Strand lived into the age of color and dismissed its advantages; Nixon began to photograph after color became respectable and, nonetheless, wasn’t seduced into changing teams. There is a militancy to his photography, as there was in Eakins’s painting. Their realism eliminates everything but what have deemed essential, as if anecdotes would be vitiating, a distraction.

And, as with Eakins, who lived until 1916, old enough to be considered out of step by two generations of avant-garde critics and contemporaries, Nixon’s allegiance to Modernist realism qualifies him as a proud radical. In the case of both artists, their work stands as a challenge: if all we can see in their highly crafted and deep felt pictures is a staunch defense of out-moded principles, we’re blinding ourselves. It’s our loss.

Collector’s POV: Nicholas Nixon is represented by Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco (here) and Pace/MacGill Gallery in New York (here). Nixon’s work is intermittently available in the secondary markets, with single image prices generally ranging from $1000 to $7000, with the top prices reserved for his images from The Brown Sisters series; a complete-to-date set of the series (a total of 40 prints) sold at Sotheby’s earlier this year for $370000.

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One comment

  1. William Abranowicz /

    I got the book after seeing the show at Fraenkel. I knew so little of Nixon’s 40 years work beyond the 40 years of The Brown sisters. The range was amazing. I agree that the work is radical by contemporary photography standards. I remember a curator’s line about Stephen Shore from the late 80s and his MOMA exhibition, ‘Those who embrace photography’s more descriptive talents practice a more recondite art’. That holds to be more truthful for Nixon and most work produced today.

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