Nick Nixon

Vision Gallery Of Photography

Those familiar with Nick Nixon’s career know that he has taken leviathan steps toward his subjects. In the mid ’70s, his tripod quavered in the wheezy sky of skyscrapers as he shot out and down at Boston’s landscape. Then he moved to river banks and beaches, and his spaces shrank to areas the size of tennis courts. In his recent portraits he has moved in even closer on his subjects.

Stormy and ambivalent matter lurks in the earlier work. As in the first portrait from the series of the four Brown sisters, recalcitrance, detachment and mistrust threaten to disrupt his pictures. One wonders who is displeased with whom. In many of Nixon’s 1978 portraits, the subjects seem uneasy and begrudging captives of a fastidious ground glass. However engaging, their abrasive qualities puzzle us and sometimes turn us flatly away.

The subjects of Nixon’s 1979–80 portraits are welcoming and friendly, or at least proud and cooperative, and seem absorbed in their private satisfactions and preoccupations. They are victims of no constructs but their own; free and accessible or withdrawn and saturnine, they seem prompted solely by their temperaments.

Nixon’s newest work is poignant and human. There is less direct eye contact now. His subjects are aware that they can assume their own poses, assert their own postures of being. They are free to yield him more of their uniqueness, whether they be tainted with despair or dementia, or elevated by joy. They are center stage; their environments are minimized. Although Nixon is liable to set up his tripod anywhere in the United States, he is not a documentarian of regions. His people in this show remain nameless; the titles of the pictures in which they appear—Kingston, NY; Sharon, PA; Cincinnati—bear the names of what seem anonymous locales. A slide, a chair, a car door—the props in these pictures are employed as intensifiers of the subject and not as evidence of ethnicity or regionalism.

The exhibit includes examples of at least three modes of portraiture. There are ceremonials, like the radiant picture of Bebe Nixon bathing, her head in profile, one leg thrust above the rim of the tub. Then there are portraits in a more traditional sense, like Yazoo City, Mississippi, in which a powerfully built black father glances down and away, while his daughter’s gaze stops the viewer dead in his or her tracks. And then there are the candids, which are among his most original work. The design of Cincinnati, a multiracial portrait of six people, is as tightly wrought and imaginative as a Persian carpet.

These portraits have the familiar trademarks of Nixon’s work—groups of two to seven people, one of whom may be politely dismembered here and there by the edges of the frame. Generally the subjects are not arrested in motion by the whisk of a shutter, but assumed their attitudes beforehand. The 8- by 10-inch contact prints are handsomely made, the contrast of the prints restrained. Details are rendered as they are in an Alain Robbe-Grillet novel, with abundance and exactitude. Only one member of each group may directly confront the camera.

A new sense of freedom and assurance breathes in this work. Someone, Nixon or his subjects, has severed the puppet strings. By moving in closer to his subjects, Nixon grants them more dignity while probing their diverse characters. One has the impression that he has truly learned how to speak to these people who are barely known to him. His skill at dealing with young people has grown even more sure. Gone are the traces of self-consciousness in his subjects. They perform for him with the spontaneity and loyalty of a dedicated cast. From them he draws emotions that exceed their years, as if he understands the adolescent urge to shuck those slick, taut skins.

In general, strong portraits in which the subjects look away or are turned in profile are difficult to achieve. Such pictures tend towards cliche and outsized sentiment, toward the stained reminiscences of photo albums. Nixon manages to make a number of portraits in which one or more of his subjects is convincingly disengaged from the camera. At his most daring, he will photograph a group of people that way. In Chelsea, MA, three children play around a doorway. One, a young girl, carries batteries thrust into the pockets of her jumper, with wires that twine upward to her ears. Her face breaks with interior amusement while her friends, two boys, peer off in separate ways, isolated from her joy. Each of these children appears genuinely unmindful of Nixon’s presence.

Nixon is carving out a separate niche for himself. He seeks no corner on the market of any minority, ethnic or elite group. Rather, he usually photographs people who are as remote from him as the stars. Call them photographs of people or call them portraits; whatever, they are refreshing and authentic.

Kelly Wise