New York

Nicholas Nixon

Zabriskie Gallery; Museum of Modern Art

Nicholas Nixon’s pictures from the late ’70s and early ’80s display an astonishing command of composition. In a typical shot, as many as half a dozen people, most often seen on porches or in backyards, are arranged in taut, subtly balanced groupings full of dramatic and formal meanings; the images bear the seeming inevitability of well-told tales. These pictures share the supple grace of the best street photography, as represented by the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank, and Garry Winogrand. But because Nixon used a cumbersome 8-by-10 inch apparatus rather than a compact 35-mm. camera, the images have a solidity and timelessness that encourages us to examine them with a degree of attention rarely possible.

In the years since then, Nixon has continued to extend the terms of his work to encompass an ever broader and more emotionally charged range of subjects. At MoMA, his photographs were presented in a partial retrospective covering his work since the early ’70s. (The architectural views he made early in his career were omitted, as were a few other unpopulated pictures he has made since.) Many examples of his work with people were shown, including the well-known series of photographs of his wife and her sisters he has made every year since 1975, as well as pictures of his family and selections from the photographs of old people that he made in 1983–85. But the culmination of the show at MoMA, and the sole focus of the work at Zabriskie Gallery, was the presentation of Nixon’s most recent project, his photographs of people with AIDS.

In these pictures Nixon has photographed various AIDS patients over time, at approximately monthly intervals. Compared to the dazzling formal complexity of his earlier work, the resulting photos are deceptively simple. In this work Nixon has transcended technique and placed it at the service of subject matter, adopting an immediacy in his presentation to match the urgency of his topic. (Each show included photographs that had been made barely a month before.) The people in these photographs become familiar to us as individuals; sadly, the series are like time-lapse films, in which we watch the people slowly wither away from the effects of disease. In some of the groups of photographs the physical debilitation the people suffer is shocking to see: Tom Moran, for example, in a series that began in August 1987, grows ever more emaciated from picture to picture until, in a final photograph made shortly before his death in February 1988, he is seen in a hospital bed, eyes dull, lips caked with dried spittle, skull protruding horribly beneath his sunken flesh.

Nixon’s photographs of people with AIDS are a logical extension of his earlier photographs of old people. In both cases the power of the photographs stems in part from our inherent horror and fascination with the decay of the flesh, whether caused by age or disease. It may seem paradoxical that Nixon treats such an emotionally charged subject with the mechanical medium of photography, but the camera excels at precisely this—recording the appearance of the physical world; by providing a wealth of detail a photograph can offer the illusion of knowledge, even of understanding. It allows us intimacy, even allows us to stare cruelly, in our effort to comprehend the nature of physical existence and, by extension, of death.

One of the functions of art is to embody feeling, to clarify inchoate or conflicting emotions. Nixon’s photographs sum up the aching sense of loss caused by the devastation that accompanies this syndrome. At the same time the photographs let us experience its effects vicariously. Not that we haven’t heard about or seen those effects before—the strawberry splotches of Karposi’s sarcoma, the gradual wasting away, the intermittent stays in the hospital are by now familiar to us. (Indeed, in a development that seems both hateful and potentially helpful, the depiction of AIDS threatens to become a minor industry.) What is usually lacking in all of the media uproar about AIDS, and even in most “concerned” or activist presentations of the subject, though, is a sense of the victims as something more than cases, anonymous components of statistics. It is precisely their identity as individuals that the society denies them, because many of them are outsiders—gay people or drug users. This quality of otherness, which is imposed on them whether or not they are sick, allows the culture to treat the destruction the disease causes as just another moral fiction, not a human event.

But Nixon never treats the AIDS patients he photographs as cases or specimens to be examined dispassionately, at a distance. His final photograph of Tom Moran is a close-up (so that in the print he appears life-size); Moran looks at the camera, and through it at us. This is a human being, not a statistic, not a convenient object for moral judgment. In these photographs, Nixon insists on the individuality of the people he depicts. He follows them through time, gives them names; he is there even when they are on their deathbeds. Because of this intimacy—which he had the courage to seek and accept, and they had the courage to grant—we can recognize the terrible truth of their suffering. And when they die we feel the loss as if it were the death of a friend: for many people these days it too often is. This is a remarkable, momentous use of photography, or any visual medium. We live in an age in which the really important news is not public but private; Nixon’s photographs bring us sad news, but do so with an honesty and passion that force us to recognize the pain as, at least in part, our own.

Charles Hagen