August 26, 2007

Seeing what’s true in words and pictures

Nicholas Nixon arrived a little late for our meeting.  Seems he had stopped to photograph a dog fight that had broken out just as he cycled past a park in Brookline.  He wasn't sure what he was going to do with the pictures, but no matter.  They would become part of the bank of images he draws on that say, "Look at this.  Pay attention to this one moment in time." 

Actually, when I asked Nixon to talk with me for this column—which usually concerns itself with words rather than images--I was thinking of that exact challenge that both poetry and photography lay out for us: to look, to look again, to try to see a little more or a little differently.  

Nixon, who lives in Brookline, is a photographer whose work is the the collections of the Museum of Fine Arts as well as the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum  of Art, in New York, and the Modern Art Museum in Fort Worth.  In 2005 he had a solo exhibition at the National Gallery of Art, in Washington, and he has been the recipient of three fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and two from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation.  

Nixon has done several series of photographs, of cities, of people in family groups, of patients.  And every year since 1975 he has taken a photograph of his wife and her three sisters,  a series known as "The Brown Sisters." They stand, each year, in the same order, fascinating us as they change over time.

"It's all of us," says Nixon. "Everyone can see themselves in those pictures."

Part of the reason we can see ourselves more clearly in a photograph than in a mirror is that whole notion of the moment in time.  In contrast to those early 19th century photographs whose subjects had to sit unblinking for long minutes in front of the camera, the changes in technology let us see ourselves in the off-moments.  

"A photograph usually deals with short ends of time, fractions of seconds," Nixon says.  "If you were sitting there you might not have seen it." 

The result is an image startlingly more "real" than what we see with our eyes.  And, even if it's a picture of someone else, we get the kind of look at ourselves  we often find in literature.  Truth, after all, does not lie only in facts.

"For you to believe a picture depends on your trusting that it really happened," Nixon says, explaining that, as in literature, the particular opens out to become universal. When that happens, he tells me, "you can see a woman so clearly that she becomes not ‘Ellen' but ‘woman'."

Nixon says he is "waiting for the Alice Munro of photography--someone who can fool around with reality but still leave you feeling you've getting something authentic."

Now, Nixon notes, digital technology has added a new possibility, photography as fiction.  Skies can be cleared of dust motes and people can be burnished to the kind of impossible perfection that, not incidentally, helps keep our trainers and plastic surgeons busy and our self-images eternally in catch-up mode.  What kind of truth that shows us about ourselves remains to be seen.

Nick Nixon's photographs can be seen at

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©2007 Ellen Steinbaum

My photo on the home page is by Peter Urban.
The cover of my book, Afterwords, was designed by Kate Misail.
The painting on the cover of the book, which is also pictured on this page, is by Eric Sealine.

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