New York

Nicholas Nixon

Pace/MacGill Gallery

Among other things, photographs offer a license to stare. Nicholas Nixon’s recent photographs of very old people in nursing homes, made with an 8-by-10-inch-format camera, invite a cruel scrutiny. The details of the physical deterioration caused by age are given up to us to examine at our leisure. In the aseptic presence of the photographs, we are free to speculate on visual correspondences suggested by the facts of the scenes, qualities drained of human meaning: to notice, for example, that the skin of very old people can resemble (in a photograph) the crispy, translucent skin of a roast turkey; that fine wisps of white hair can look like corn silk.

The photograph allows us to form these similes only while simultaneously repelling attempts to discover deeper meanings. As patterns of tones within photographs, these people are denatured, reduced to shadows. They don’t talk, move, smell, think. They are transformed into propositions about themselves—and, by extension, into generalized propositions about the nature of age. The evidence of the photographs is tantalizing in its promise of utter honesty and openness, but it can give us only information of a limited sort. It can’t answer the question it makes us want to ask: what are these people thinking, feeling? What is the subjective experience of being old? To answer questions of this sort requires an imaginative leap of another order. The information of the photographs can give substance to such wonderings, can furnish them with visual specificity, but whatever answers we give ourselves will come from somewhere else.

Occasionally Nixon will try to heighten the impact of the photographs by using this or that theatrical or graphic inflection—backlighting someone, say, or putting him in raking, chiaroscuro light, or framing a scene in a dramatic composition. But all such photographers’ tricks seem trivial, even annoying, in the face of the overwhelming, horrible fascination of Nixon’s subject.

Charles Hagen