From September 7, 2017 through January 8, 2018 Fundación MAPFRE is hosting at its Bárbara de Braganza Hall in Madrid the largest retrospective exhibition to date of the work of American photographer Nicholas Nixon, who occupies a prominent, singular position in the history of photography of the last few decades.
TEXT: VICTORIA DEL VAL
IMAGES: © NICHOLAS NIXON. COURTESY FRAENKEL GALLERY, SAN FRANCISCO
Focused principally on portraiture, and with a clear interest in the descriptive possibilities of the camera, the work of Nicholas Nixon (Detroit, Michigan, 1947) reveals a tension between the visible – the content (of extraordinary clarity and compositional skill) – and the invisible, the thoughts and concerns prompted by his pictures.
His work on photo series explores singular worlds with notable social concern, revealing to us unnoticed aspects of reality pertaining to the artist’s private experiences. However, given their everyday nature, we can identify with them and they easily evoke in us the echo of memories and emotions. The slowness, lengthy periods and absence of dramatic elements all define an oeuvre that has unfurled over nearly five decades of consistent dedication. Nixon uses a simple technique that is practically obsolete, yet impeccable; the use of large-format cameras imposes a closeness and the cooperation of the subjects to reveal nearby worlds which grab his attention: the elderly, the sick, the intimacy of couples or the family.
This is the largest retrospective of his work exhibited to date, with over two hundred photographs.
The first camera Nicholas Nixon had was a Leica, following the example of Cartier-Bresson, whose work was one of the first to have an impact on him. But he would very soon start exploring the possibilities of larger format cameras, first of all 4×5 inches. This is the one he used to take the pictures that open this exhibition: views of the outskirts of the city of Albuquerque, new spaces on the frontier between the city and the desert, surprisingly mature work for a young student of photography.
Some elements that we will find in his first important series, the Views of cities, already appear in these photographs: clarity, definition, view from a high vantage point. Coinciding with his move to Boston, Nixon went one step further, as he had already decided on an even larger format, 8×10 inches, and this camera would be his main tool from then on. With this format, the negative was so large that it did not need enlarging and the result was incredibly sharp images.
The views of Boston and New York form part of the first series Nixon produced in 1974 and 1975. These photographs formed part of one of the most influential exhibitions in the history of photography, organized in 1975 by the George Eastman House, New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape.
From 1977 Nixon focused primarily on portraiture, a genre that fits well with his personal interests and values which are transferred over to his daily work. Sporting his camera, he traveled along the Charles River, near Boston, and, later, around other poor southern neighborhoods in Florida or Kentucky. The photographs are taken on riverbanks, on beaches and, above all, on the porches of houses, transitional areas between the public and private realms. He continued this project until 1982, while progressively refining his expertise in the use of a largeformat camera, as though it were a lightweight manual camera that can go unnoticed. The pictures never lose their spontaneity, despite the lengthy, complex process, and the compositions become more complicated as the series progresses.
Around 1984 Nixon’s work took a new turn. He started focusing on a theme that would end up becoming the new series he was to work on throughout the following year, and to which he has recently returned: the elderly living in residential homes which he visited as a volunteer.
This work was to occupy him for several years, though the topic became a recurring theme over several decades, given his work as a volunteer in elderly care facilities and hospitals. This led to a new relationship between the photographer and his subjects, as he knew them personally. This direct experience and his interest in these people at the end of their lives were present from that time on. There was also a remarkable change in the way of addressing the theme, a closer physical approach; he took close-ups, sometimes details of hands or gaunt faces betraying a lifetime of experiences.
The next project Nixon tackled was an obvious continuation from the previous series. This was People with AIDS (1988), which later took the form of a book. It contains the sequence of fifteen lives affected by AIDS, as well as letters and conversations transcribed by Bebe, his wife. Some artists and intellectuals, who saw how friends and acquaintances were dying, played an active role in achieving heightened visibility of the disease and treating it as such, above and beyond moral or social implications. Nixon is not an activist, but in this project he was very clearly engaged in the need to offer a real, honest chronicle of these lives, as he moved into their private sphere, striving to understand the suffering of the patients and their nearest and dearest.
Nixon has been photographing his wife since they met in the 1970s, his son Sam since his birth in 1983 and, two years later, his daughter Clementine. Nixon delighted in intimate moments, the proximity of his camera suggesting something tactile, as though he were caressing them with his camera. The photographs of his children continued into adulthood; Bebe, on the other hand, has been an ongoing theme, with the intensity of their relationship taking a visual form. His portraits convey passion, which is even more evident with the passing of the years. This collection of images became a diary of their life together, since Nixon worked continuously and Bebe was always there, lending herself to a collaboration thanks to which we have some of the most intense portraits of contemporary photography, on a par with those of Rebecca Strand or Georgia O’Keeffe a century earlier.
From the year 2000 Nixon no longer worked on limited series, but rather returned time and again to his main obsessions. In his Couples series he does not prepare the scenes, but rather participates in them. Once he has created a climate of trust, the picture emerges of its own accord – he simply has to shoot. Torsos, arms, mouths, almost abstract forms that speak of the intensity, both physical and emotional, that exists in a relationship. The nude has never been easy in photography, as it has been associated more with sex than with portraiture; hence the value of these photographs that convey intimacy, passion and joy, everyday images of how we share our lives. In the first decade of this century Nixon returned to the rooftops of Boston for a new version of the views taken in the 1970s. He is a lifelong photographer, whose career is already in its fifth decade, having never ceased to investigate and experiment.
The intense attraction he feels for his projects – to which he returns over the years – leads him to adopt a different view of the city, whose forms are a defining feature: the extraordinary visual confusion created by the beltways around the cities, the confrontation between the old city and the new, which are mixed together like an exotic garden where the native plants survive among the foreign varieties. Both far-off and close-up views serve as an excuse for him to continue experimenting with an even larger format camera, an 11×14 inch model, which enables much more to be perceived than what the naked eye can see.
Nixon’s work has progressively matured toward more intimate, more personal themes, exploring the contents of his earlier work, where the attraction for abstraction and synthesis become principal factors. Over the last decade Nixon has focused on portraiture: close-ups, sometimes just the face, principally nudes. In these the superfluous is eliminated so as to focus better on the character. His concentration on the face has to do with the confidence in the individual expression, in the power of the subjects and the role played in their own representation, including their complicated relationship with their bodies. Nixon facilitates the necessary interplay between the photographer and the model to break down that barrier. As a result, we are shown a wide variety of motifs: newborns, children, hospitalized patients, the elderly revealing their fragility, and the mysterious resilience of human beings.
The Brown Sisters is, without doubt, the most famous work by Nicholas Nixon; this is a series of portraits of his wife Beverly Brown (Bebe) and her three sisters, taken every year since 1975. From this simple starting point, Nixon has created one of the most convincing investigations into portraiture and the passing of time of contemporary photography.
These photographs have the air of a family album that takes us back to past moments and emotions. But what is disconcerting, yet fascinating about this series, midway between documentary objectivity and emotional intimacy, is the change, the rhythm within the reiteration. Each picture starts taking shape and meaning when joined with the others, and it is within the series that it acquires its full force.
This series was the first acquisition when Fundación MAPFRE started up its photography collection in 2009. It also forms part of such important collections as those of the MoMA in New York, the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, or Fondation A Stichting in Brussels. Closing the exhibition is a small group of photographs, from among the latest to be taken by Nicholas Nixon. They are less significant in terms of subject matter, but great in terms of their content.
Nixon’s gaze fixes on the steps up to his house, where there are a few leaves scattered like constellations of stars, on the curtains swaying in the breeze, on the character looking out from the painting that has always been there, on the last rays of dusk creating shadow play on the porch. The light, always present in his work, and the house, that interior, minimal, real paradise. These photographs have no relevant function, they simply seek pure pleasure, that renewed magic of photography which can evoke moments that will never be repeated.