Nicholas Nixon is a man that works according to his heart. In an interview included in the book Family Pictures (Photographers at Work), he stated that his projects have to do with what he is interested in emotionally and artistically. Therefore, he does not need a lot of time to make his pictures, as he acts on emotion.
A picture typically takes him ten to fifteen seconds to capture. The equipment that he uses is light as possible, and he is as fast as can be with it. He has never stopped using a 8 x 10 view camera, for he is always after “the specific description of detail and space.” He does not talk to his subjects until after that photo, though he always aims for collaboration, for they cannot be heard anyway, at least not verbally. I first thought that his lack of color in his photos made them very quiet, serious, and dull. But after the first glance, I saw something new each time, as does Nixon.
These black and white photographs that he takes thrill him. He has no specific reason for making all of them black and white except for his love of the final product. Therefore, he works exclusively in black and white even though he sees a lack of life in black and white photography. Color pictures look more realistic to him, but less interesting. He works based on emotions, though, so interesting beats real.
Nixon works on series of one subject until he gets tired of it. There is a lot of physical contact between his subjects, particularly between his wife and children in this Family Series. He says, “It seems inexhaustible, and connected to other aspects of culture and history that matter to me.” Aging, too, is a major theme in his work. He is interested in things that are ephemeral – the feeling that everybody is mortal. Nixon’s love for this theme is probably best depicted by the ongoing portrait that he has been taking of the Brown sisters, his wife and her sisters, every year since 1975.
This particular series that I focused on consists only of photographs of his family. When his daughter Clementine was born, he began taking photos of her, his wife, and his son Sam. Clementine was most interesting to him because he does not have any sisters, so he saw wonder in her. There is a lot of nudity in his photographs due to the beauty that he found in his children’s “fresh and wonderful” skin.
Two photographs in the book Family Pictures (Photographers at Work) held my eye for just about the same amount of time. I looked at both of them for quite a while on a few different occasions. The very first photograph in the book is my favorite. Eighty percent of the photo is the bare chest of Nixon’s wife, Bebe. Her skin in not in color, rather black in white like all of his images, but her imperfections are clearly depicted. She has freckles and wrinkles on her skin, birthmarks and moles. Behind her is a wall with a few imperfections, too. It is not smooth. Her hair is not perfect, either. Some is over her shoulder and some is behind it, but it is frizzy and wavy. The only smooth part of the picture is their baby’s hand. It is little and new, compared to her large scale body and age. In the second photograph that I greatly admire, there is only a corner of the picture that does not consist of skin. There is so much purity in the image. A new mother with new responsibilities (she is feeding the baby in the photo) and a baby, a new one, with a new look onto the world and new, clear, smooth, pure skin.
Space is the most important element that Nixon uses. Space is the area between and surrounding the objects in an image. It can be used to draw attention to the subject, and it most definitely does in Nixon’s photographs. The space is filled with human flesh. How does one think of anything except the two humans, mother and child, in the image? The space isolates detail and establishes meaning.
Color, too, is vital to Nixon’s work. The lack of color makes you focus on the dominant color between the black and white. Bebe’s skin in the first photograph is not pure white, but it is much lighter compared to her hair, for example. With so little colors to choose from, the dominant color stresses the focus of the photograph.
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
Nicholas Nixon decided that he wanted to become a photographer in his senior year of college. He received his BA in American Literature from the University of Michigan and a MFA from the University of New Mexico. Besides this family series, he has a “front-porch” series (groups of people photographed outdoors), portraits of people in nursing homes, and a series of people dying from AIDS virus.
His photos are contact prints, which means that he exposes a negative after placing it in direct contact with a sheet of positive paper, rather than by enlarging it. He processes his film himself and does all of his own printing, meaning that he has earned all the awards and prizes on his very own.
He was awarded the National Endowment for the Arts Photographer’s Fellowship a couple of times, as well as one National Endowment for the Arts Visual Artist’s Fellowship in 1987, and a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship in 1977 and 1986.
This genius teaches at Massachusetts College of Art in Boston.