Discussing his approach to picture making a few years back, Nicholas Nixon said, “I seize things when they seem wonderful.” This simple, modest response seems typical of the photographer, who has been turning out soulful portraits and thoughtful social studies since the late ’70s. Almost from the beginning, he became a star within the photo world, but, like so many of his talented contemporaries, he’s hardly registered as more than a flickering blip on the mainstream fame radar. The Museum of Modern Art has been Nixon’s champion from the start, showing an early project of Boston cityscapes in 1976 and giving him sustained support ever since, including a retrospective survey in 1988. But it’s been some time since MOMA had the power to define or influence the course of contemporary photography, and Nixon’s close identification with the museum’s old school program hasn’t exactly boosted his rep in recent years.
Nixon, inspired by Walker Evans and Edward Weston, is one of the purest examples of MOMA’s taste in the contemporary humanist document; he observes people and their environments without sentimentality but with genuine emotion-a passion that’s all the more eloquent for its restraint. Though the idea of the concerned photographer-the heroic humanist in the Robert Capa mold-seems quaint after the savage irony and distancing mechanics of postmodernism, Nixon brings a warmth and depth to his work that puts the concerned tradition in a new light. This is not the sort of undertaking that gets your name on everyone’s lips, but there are other rewards for a man in search of the wonderful. Like, more often than not, finding it.
The care and quiet intensity Nixon brings to his work is nowhere more evident than in his yearly group portrait of the Brown sisters-his wife, Bebe, and her three younger siblings, Heather, Laurie, and Mimi. Twenty-five of those portraits (one for each year since 1975) have just been published as a book by the Museum of Modern Art, which has included them all as a large grid on the “People” floor of its museum-wide “ModernStarts” exhibition. Another set of these prints, individually framed, is on view at Zabriskie, along with a terrific group of recent images of people in parks and at the beach. Though they’re Nixon’s most well-known pictures, the Brown sisters photos are unlike his other work, which has tended to center around projects both ongoing and finite that involve a rather less familiar sort of portraiture. He has photographed very old people in a nursing home, AIDS patients in their final months, and Boston schoolchildren; he continues to photograph his immediate family and, after a period in the early ’90s when he told an interviewer that he was “just not interested in strangers at the moment,” he’s returned to working outdoors with people he happens upon.
“Part of my artistic ambition,” he told ace photo-book editor Connie Sullivan, “is to keep the lively part of snapshots and get rid of the dull, studied part of portraits, but maintain the best juice of both.” Achieving this juicy amalgam is complicated in Nixon’s case by his use of the old-fashioned 8 x 10 view camera, a big, cumbersome box he mounts on a tripod and must load separately for each exposure. (He then turns his negatives into 8 x 10 contact prints, giving the resulting image maximum clarity and impact.) The seconds that elapse between loading the film and exposing it make snapshot-style spontaneity almost impossible, but Nixon knows how to subvert formality with intimacy. In recent years, beginning with his family pictures and moving out into the world, he has edged closer and closer to people, filling the frame with their faces, their flesh. Partly this is a result of what he describes as his “real hunger for physical stuff”; partly it’s a desire to absorb, understand, and truly know his subjects. There’s a longing in Nixon’s work, an almost promiscuous urge to connect; pictures that record one person touching another feel like wishful projections, impulses made visible. He enumerated for Sullivan what he loved about people-“their bodies, and gestures, their separateness, and their eyes”-but his pictures are evidence that the list only begins there.
People are vividly, solidly present in Nixon’s photos both because he wills them to be and because the nature of his work demands their collaboration. They have to stop before his camera lens and participate, if only for a moment, in the process of picture making. Some people will naturally withdraw from the situation and close down; others will open up-who knows why?-and give, allowing the photographer
into some sweet, private space. All of Nixon’s pictures provide glimpses into this space, but the Brown sisters series is a study in how a photographer accesses and enlarges it over time. The format of the pictures was set with the first one and has not varied substantially in the 24 years since. The sisters are lined up in the same order from left to right: Heather, Mimi, Bebe, Laurie. With four exceptions, the setting is outdoors on a lawn or a beach, and in natural light. More often than not, the landscape is obscured or pushed to the edge of the frame by the figures, but the sense of expansive, well-ordered space pervades the shots. Nixon stands before the group with his camera, several times appearing as a linked pair of bulky shadows cast across the women. He takes perhaps a dozen pictures and, with their participation, chooses only one.
Though the sisters are now scattered-one in Dallas, one in Vermont, one in Massachusetts not far from Brookline, where the Nixons live-the photo has become a tradition, something that happens whether there’s a wedding, a funeral, or a holiday to bring them together or not. Over the years, one or another of the sisters has suggested that the order of the group be changed, and Nixon says he has tried it their way, “but it’s been my strong instinct that it stay the same,” and in the end it has. “They all see the pictures and they all vote,” he says. “Unlike photos of other people, where I make the rules, I mean for these to be more fair to what I think they would feel. They do have the power to say no, as long as it’s not just about vanity. I also ask not only them but all my other friends for opinions, because I really don’t have any distance from this, but after a week or so, I just want to get it over with and move on.”
In The Model Wife, Arthur Ollman’s book about photographers whose wives are a frequent subject, Nixon says, “I’d like to go deeper, get closer, know more, be more intense and more intimate.” Those impulses are all at work in his pictures of the sisters, but they’re tempered by a respectful distance, a reserve on both sides of the camera that allows for the subtlest sorts of emotional spill. The women regard the photographer and us with the same tender gravity I suspect Nixon brings to the project. What started as a family ritual has become an art project, an investigation of family and individuality, an occasion of some seriousness. (Virginia Zabriskie says there are collectors who buy the sisters’ photo-which was printed in an edition of 50 before 1992 and in an edition of 25 since then-every year.) They rarely smile. There are flashes of resentment and sudden rushes of affection, smothered rage, anxiety, suspicion, boredom, exhaustion. No matter their individual feelings, they huddle close to one another, sometimes hugging, sometimes aloof, and surrender to Nixon’s loving, probing gaze. Four strong women growing old together: Even after 25 years, we can’t pretend to know or understand them, but it’s hard not to love them, too.