New York

Nicholas Nixon

Nicholas Nixon’s views appear to have so purified and regularized the Boston landscape that his pictures bear little relation to such conceptions of our cities as Jane Jacobs or Garry Wino-grand have set forth in recent years. A bland, silvery light carpets most of Nixon’s city vistas, inviting the aluminum and glass towers to present their best cheek to the camera. Seldom does Nixon’s frame allow the viewer to descend to the lobby floor and shuffle out through the revolving doors to the living flux that thrives or subsists outside.

If the esthetic of Nixon’s pictures is “pugnaciously anti-modern,” as John Szarkowski writes, it is only partly because they offer detail in a volume most 20th century photographers would have sought to reduce from the start. It is also because they belatedly espouse a species of constructivism in the broad sense—the celebration of building out of a need for re-construction, cleanliness and order—that many younger viewers may regard with mixed suspicion and envy. Of the general public, few would enjoy these pictures more than the promoters, architects and tenants of such buildings as the Olympic Tower and the World Trade Center. This in itself is hardly a fault so far as the quality of the photographs is concerned but it may help explain the initial unfamiliarity of Nixon’s work; moreover it raises the question of how forcefully and consistently they deliver their celebration.

I am sure that there have been private debates about whether Nixon’s pictures are celebrative at all, since they position themselves toward their precedents in photography so as to plead neutrality and disinterested observation. They fall somewhere between Stieglitz’s New York views, where gleaming walls are interspersed with impenetrable shadows, and Walker Evans’ hillside pictures of the clapboard towns of Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Nixon’s work actually leans toward Evans’, for it shares only raw material with Stieglitz: only occasionally do the buildings soar above Nixon’s vantage, while Stieglitz’s camera gapes at them from below—in Nixon’s pictures every chasm between buildings is readable, while Stieglitz’s are nourished by chiaroscuro.

The qualities of straightforwardness, geometrical simplicity and vivid legibility that characterize Evans’ work, and its supposed anonymity of style, composed a certain rhetorical manner that one suspects evolved in specific relation to the material he addressed, and always stood in an ironic counterpoint toward that material. Here intrudes the contradiction in Nixon’s purpose, for the straightforwardness, legibility and geometry that Evans opposes to his subjects empathize with Nixon’s towers. Rigorously squaring off perfect squares, they are empty of the irony from which Evans’ metaphorical scheme begins. In this way they are shallow in meaning even as they are rich in nuance and often visually beautiful.

Indeed, they offer nuance in carload lots and this can be the impediment, as well as the glory, of the 8 x 10“ camera; in the case of Nixon’s work, it is both. His photograph of Copley Square arrays Trinity Church and the old and new John Hancock buildings with great harmony and clarity. At the same time, Nixon’s camera is so scrupulous with the structure’s details that each building maintains its autonomy among the others and again seems so exactly rendered that the contrived harmony of the group must likewise be real—the picture’s minute detailing thus helps put over the illusion of order. Yet a disruptive detail protrudes into the frame’s lower left-hand corner, a cheap electric sign with interchangeable plastic letters advertising ”Free N.O.W. Accounts." Such bits of tawdriness repeatedly work to deflate the pristine arrangements the pictures have otherwise striven so hard for. This is not a technical quibble, for no one can say that Nixon would have had a better picture, or any picture at all had he cropped these objects out. It could be argued that they are there to qualify the illusion of orderliness through irony, but they are neither prominent nor frequent enough to promote that difficult point.

Not all his pictures suffer this way, however; three of his four New York views are evenly grand and loquacious. In about one-third of the show’s pictures Nixon has removed himself from high-floor offices to their tenants’ sanctuaries and playgrounds. There is one extraordinary picture among these, in which Nixon’s wife and sisters-in-law pose for him in a row. Each woman’s stare and posture reveals her own brand of discomfort, dependency, timidity, pride or strength as it pertains to her age. These qualities are exactly discerned and beautifully and sadly transient in the momentary light of Nixon’s flash.

Leo Rubinfien