30 May – 27 Jul 2013
At a time when western beauty standards are at their most rigid, and collective fears of aging are aggravated by media messaging, veteran photographer Nicholas Nixon beautifully illustrates the quiet joy that comes with accepting our bodies as they age, and the centrality of human connection, in a new series on view at Fraenkel Gallery inside 49 Geary until July 27th.
Nixon came to prominence through his participation in New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape, the landmark exhibition that opened at the George Eastman House in 1975. Since then, Nixon has permanently shifted our perception of both the American landscape and contemporary photographic practice. His photos of Boston and New York document both the ingenuity of urban development, and the price in our humanity at which those achievements are made.
Nixon is perhaps best known for The Brown Sisters, a series initiated on a whim in 1975 that became a yearly tradition. For the last 38 years, he has photographed his wife, Bebe, and her three sisters from the same frontal position and in the same left to right sequence. In this process, he captured deepening familial affection over time. Nixon treats photography as a humanistic endeavor, a conviction that has informed his choice to include children, the elderly, the sick and dying as his subjects over a nearly forty year career.
The photographer’s current work portrays intimacy and identity as nearly inextricable. The subjects are Bebe, who has aged gracefully before her husband’s lens, and the artist himself. The images capture the couple close up, almost uncomfortably so, and balance emphasis between the familiar yet somehow foreign territory of the aging body, and the bond the couple shares. In the dual portraits, such as Bebe and I, Brookline, the pair is so close as to seem like one person, their respective right and left eyes staring into an unknown future. A similarly titled piece features Nixon nearly enmeshed in Bebe’s tresses, his coarse whiskers blending with her graying brown hair, evoking that all-encompassing comfort that only a partner’s unique scent can deliver. Working in color for the first time, Nixon captures the dimensionality of flesh – which here appears as layers of pink and cream built up over pale blue blood vessels nestled just under the surface– in a manner similar to the layering of pigment on canvas.
Complimenting with these portraits are black and white photographs of tall grass and fields of grain stirred to movement by passing winds. The singular shoots of grass or wheat echo the undulating movement of Bebe’s hair in the companion portraits, suggesting multiple associations including the relationship of humans to nature and universality of change. While not a revelation, Nixon’s subtle visual commentary captures the universal ambivalence that is inherent in living and aging.
Looking at the portraits, I could imagine the exchange Nixon shared with his wife during the sessions: the inside jokes that arouse a smile, the banter that has been refined over decades spent in each others company, even the little disagreements that do not threaten the fabric of marriage but do remind that healthy relationships cannot exist without clear communication. The experience left me not only with an appreciation of the work that goes into maintaining a long term relationship, but also the ongoing work of a seasoned photographer whose deft presentation of the human condition continues to inform.