As a child, I ran barefooted in this field and lied about my first kiss in this house.
My sweet grandmother was ironing this hankerchief on the day she died. I’m so glad I have it to hold in her memory.
When Sommayeh Mehri asked for a divorce, her husband responded with a brutal acid attack. Iranian photographer Abolfazl Nesaei documents how Mehri and her daughters live with the scars. See the photos here on LightBox.
Short days and cold air makes winter a bit of a downer for me, so I bought my husband a home brew kit for our 10 year anniversary with the hope of it brightening up the lull of days that stretch out between January and April here in the district. Unctuous hops steamed up our tiny kitchen creating a cozy, meaty air. Bottles are capped and now we wait a long dark month. Maybe we should’ve started sooner?
Skateboarding, LIFE opined in 1965, is “the most exhilarating and dangerous joyriding device this side of the hot rod. A two-foot piece of wood or plastic mounted on wheels, it yields to the skillful user the excitements of of skiing or surfing. To the unskilled it gives the effect of having stepped on a banana peel while dashing down the back stairs. It is also a menace to limb and even to life.”
Nicholas Nixon, Here and Now
Surveying the most recent work of Nicholas Nixon is a journey through the cycle of life. Opening today, at Pace MacGill Gallery, Here and Now features a range of large format photography, from young mothers with infant children, to centenarians and their aged relatives. Nixon and his wife Bebe exist amidst the continuum, in closely cropped portraits displaying the organic beauty of their intimacy, simply as “two timeworn mammals”.
Nicholas Nixon reflects on his process, on building trust, the merits of nudity, and the importance of the here and now, in an interview with Picture Dept.
PD: The present seems like the central location for this show, Here and Now. I can’t help but think of the refrigerator magnet aphorism about “the present [being] a gift” in relation to a story you told during your lecture at Columbia College a couple years ago. During your time working and photographing in a nursing home, you were approached by an elderly man who knew you and your images, who said, “Hey Nick, bet you would like this—” and proceeded to forcefully press his brow into these amazing creases, which you photographed, a moment you said you received as a gift from the man.
I’m curious to know how you relate this kind of gift to the notion of a photographic moment as a cherished “present.”
NN: That’s a nice thought. As I get older, it feels like ‘right now’ slips away easily, and that I need to live more fully in the moment, instead of being partway somewhere else. I try to bring a greater intensity and awareness in my work, to try to honor the present a little more.
How did that change happen?
I got older, and a little bit wiser. But also, Photoshop happened. Photoshop is a little bit like someone driving while talking on the phone, allowing you to do something you once had been unable to do. That distraction clouds over the witness function of photography, and makes me more aware of the role of analog photography to just be there and to be trusted, since the beginning. It’s easy for people to say, “Yeah, but everyone has always lied and you can’t really trust an image anyways—” all of this is true, but there are many exceptions. At least with my process, there is something essential to the witness/evidence part of it that I believe in and seems to matter to me more than ever.
Maybe it’s also that I see my days as numbered in a way that I didn’t consider 25 years ago. I can see them coming to an end, though I’m 65 and in perfectly good health, I’m still aware of time passing. It makes the present a little more precious, and a little more intense. It’s making working a little more fun.
More than a photograph being a souvenir, your large format contact prints have such a direct connection to the negative exposed in a photographic moment. Is this part of you working as a witness? Can photography be evidence without this physical process?
Oh yeah, just think of Weegee, just think of Arbus. I think a lot of people, Cartier-Bresson, have it. I think my particular take on it is to love the description of it as much as I do. It’s interesting that you describe the directness of the contact prints, as I tend to think more of the affect of a big camera. Physically, looking through a giant ground glass and seeing how the world looks is amazing. When composing a shot, I see a combination of the real facts of my subject and the camera’s transformation of their image at the same time.
The translation process, where the shapes are, where the space is, what the total balance of the picture is, what’s in focus, all of that is completely surprising, every time I take a picture. A good photograph starts with an agreed upon subject. Let’s say I’m photographing you and your partner, we would set ground rules; shirt off, clothes off, whatever we could agree upon together. It’s a little bit like seduction… I’ll get back to this process later.
Anyways, the ground glass shows if there is any magic happening – it’s shows the moment intensified. Can I do it with a little camera? Hmm no, I’ve tried, I have a brand new little Sony that I’m fooling around with, but for me, the real thing that matters happens when staring into the ground glass of a larger camera.
Going back to clothes off, the thing I tell my students is that you need to get your subjects to take their clothes off. Once in a while I mean it literally, but I mostly mean it metaphorically.
At the Columbia lecture, you presented a closely cropped portrait of a couple. Though you could only see their faces, you mentioned that they were naked, and that the nudity was crucial more so as an opening of trust than about photographing naked bodies.
That moment wouldn’t have happened if they had their shirts on, or at least, the symbolic-ness of taking their shirts off made everything not only more open, but also made them more playful with each other. They remembered the feel of each other’s skin.
Horrible generalization here, but men are usually a little more inhibited about being open, at least to a heterosexual male like me. Often times, as it was with this guy, I needed to get him to relax with his sweetheart. That’s the way to do it.
Try taking a picture of a nervous stick of a man… I’ll tell a quick story. I knew a woman a few years ago, wonderful 35 year old woman, who was married to an MIT professor who was a complete stick. You know? Little mustache, always at the computer, no expression in his face at all. She was trying to take his portrait, but just couldn’t figure out what to do. I suggested that she take her shirt off, and then take his picture. Sure enough, the new pictures of him had this little sly smile, which is how he expresses desire, as it turns out. It didn’t look like he was all over her or anything, but he had a little thing in his face that was not there before.
What role does love and commitment play in your work? Is this part of why you’ve worked so consistently on photographing your wife and her sisters over the past 40 years?
That project [The Brown Sisters] is different from everything else not only because it is long term, but because my role is collaborative. We articulate what it is about together. I’ve always felt the need to be fair; to put a hold on the more self-interested, persuasive artist part, and focus on my role as a family member. In honoring something larger than photography, in time, it will make a larger kind of sense.
It’s about time. Most of the time, most of the fact of time in a picture is quite clearly a short moment. If the image is blurry, it’s a slightly longer short moment. Sometimes this measure is a significant part of a picture. I’m thinking of a wonderful photo by Josef Koudelka, of a man, a gypsy, staring at a ball he threw into the air. The ball is about the size of the moon in the sky—it looks like he is looking at the world. Since this all happened before the advent of digital photography, the sharpness and clarity of the ball reveals that the photo came from a very thin sliver of time. This image describes a larger, eminent, permanent, symbolic space than most slivers of time—that’s the power of it, and the power of a lot of good pictures. You need to honor a specific moment in order to even remotely speak to a greater general idea. I’m not saying that this work lasts forever, but it will engage many more ‘heres’ and ‘nows’, and will hopefully have value in the future.
In the need for that specificity, how can a photographer relate to a greater humanistic interest outside of his or her immediate experience?
I think of it in the same way that I tend to my own little garden. I’ve lived in Boston for a while, and love in a way that a lot of Bostonians can’t—I love the city as a Midwesterner who came here and chose to stay. I can’t be everywhere, but if I do a good enough job photographing the people here, and the people I know, they might stand for all the others. I never get tired of photographing people, because they are all very different. They smell different, they look different, I engage with them differently. My interest is intense and changing, one slice of the life cycle at a time.