ahorn.
   

 

Nicholas Nixon, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco and Pace/ MacGill Gallery, New York
View of the River Street Bridge and Storrow Drive, Boston 1975

 
 

1. In one of your lectures (at the Columbia College Photo Department in 2008), you described your beginnings as a photographer like a way to discover the world that surrounded you in that particular moment. Having just moved to Boston from the Midwest, your very first pictures are mostly architectural views of the city taken from rooftops and part of them were included in the “New Topographics” exhibition in 1975. What moved you to shoot those cityscapes and which elements, in structure or concept, characterized and differentiated your images from previous architectural series?

In a way the views, as I call them, are no different from any view: an omniscient point of view encompassing a wide and meaningful look at an area deemed significant. Maybe the name view camera began with the urge to do this. Niepce's view of a man shining his shoes for example.

My idea at the time was to put my feelings in service to clear description. When I moved to Boston in 1974, I was enthralled with it and was trying to figure it out. Getting on rooftops was a great way to learn...not unlike the way one climbs to the top of a bluff or a mountain: to see more.

 
 

Nicholas Nixon, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco and Pace/ MacGill Gallery, New York
Riverside St., Watertown, Mass. 1977

 
 

2. How did you decide to become a photographer? What were your inspirations when you began, and how did they change throughout your career? Do you have particular sources of inspiration? If yes, are they more photography based or do you have more benefits when you feel delighted by something else?

I decided to become a photographer the first day of a photography class I took at The University of Michigan the summer before my senior year. I was an English major, and my influences came and still come from that: Faulkner, Willa Cather, Henry Green, Proust, Trollope, Eliot, Dickens, Hemingway, but now I add painters: Giotto, Chardin, Bonnard, and Lucien Freud. In photography Marville, Atget, Weston, Hine, Lange, Arbus, and Friedlander.

 
 

Nicholas Nixon, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco and Pace/ MacGill Gallery, New York
Cincinnati 1980

 
 

3. Has the role of the “so called” fine art photographer changed from when you began to photograph? What kind of compromises has a photographer to accept in order to make a living only through photography today?

The role has changed tremendously as the culture has valued photography more. When I began one was alone as an artist. A few hundred people knew who Walker Evans was in 1970, but there was no real support for him as an artist. Ansel Adams' popularity and timely death were huge in the acceleration of art photography's blooming in the late 1970's.

No compromises at all. I do what I believe in, and am ever so grateful, every day, to be able sell my pictures to support it.

 
 

Nicholas Nixon, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco and Pace/ MacGill Gallery, New York
Along the Charles, Natick, Mass. 1980

 
 

4. You have been working as a teacher since 1975 and you currently have a class at the Massachusetts College of Art. How important is your experience as a teacher? What are, in your opinion, the pros and cons of being a photography teacher, and what kind of challenge is it to teach how to photograph? Is it really possible to learn how to photograph, not technically of course, but creatively?

Being half time with no tenure has been my position at the same school since the beginning in 1975.  I like teaching; I do it on my own terms as a working photographer. I make my students work very hard in order to pass and in turn they make a lot of interesting pictures which spur them on and keep away my boredom. Everything important comes from what one does, much more than from what one knows. I think that photography teachers in general tend to tame the wild impulsive side of people and that this is terrible. Reading contemporary criticism seems suspicious to me; better to read some Yeats or Dante or Eudora Welty. Most MFA final shows are devoid of surprise to my eyes, and the works looks too much the same.

 
 

Nicholas Nixon, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco and Pace/ MacGill Gallery, New York
Tom Moran E. Braintree, Massachusetts, 1987

 
 

5. Knowing the technique in such a precise way gives you the freedom to create an artistic work based on very delicate and private experiences and themes. Without this capacity to control your tool (ed. an 8x10 inch camera) so perfectly, the work wouldn’t be possible at all. Would you like to talk about your technical experience with your camera? Had you, or do you now have, a specific routine for working with your camera? Do you think that it is still possible (or necessary) to use this method? Other than curiosity, what must persuade a photographer to choose a large format camera today?

For me the print is what matters most. Generally the biggest possible negative has the most clarity, presence and believability. Because this seemed evident to me I taught myself to use the 8x10 as easily as something smaller. Even today the witness power and sensuality of Atget, Charles Marville, Stieglitz, Lewis Hine, Frederick Sommer, early Harry Callahan and early Emmet Gowin, their voluptuous, beautiful, and optical rendition of the world surpasses any other photographic description.

It took a while of doing it every day with subjects I loved. I have tried a score of different cameras, both bigger and smaller, and they all bring me back to the 8x10, but with more freedom and freshness than before. The last big camera I tried was an 11x14, and after two previous times, failures mostly , it has stuck and is what I have been using most for 3 or 4 years. The technique is not hard: make everything as light and agreeable to the touch as possible, and work every day with things that matter a lot to you.

 
 

Nicholas Nixon, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco and Pace/ MacGill Gallery, New York
Bebe and Clementine, Cambridge, 1995

Nicholas Nixon, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco and Pace/ MacGill Gallery, New York
Clementine and Bebe, Lexington, 1996

 
 
6. How do people react to such a big camera and equipment? Have you noticed any differences between the reaction of your family members and the reaction of strangers or other subjects?

People seem to trust it more. Part of this is my embarrassing and impulsive sincerity. I and my camera are not going to take away anything not freely given.

7. Your series are usually not conceived as a definite project with a strict beginning and end. They are always emotionally related, and they follow your natural disposition, interest, and necessity to photograph everything that catches your attention. There is a personal and specific feeling that, in my modest opinion, goes trough all of your pictures. Nowadays we hardly see photographers working with this attitude. The current tendency is to work on “projects”, and there is less interest in working over a long period of time on the same subject matter. What are your thoughts about this shift, if there is any?

My thoughts about this shift is that you are right, but it makes good pictures harder to come by and less authentic. Most of us see and intuit better than we think. I sure do.

 
 

Nicholas Nixon, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco and Pace/ MacGill Gallery, New York
Y.A., J.S., Vevey, Switzerland, 2000

 
  8. What is your experience with making photographic books? How important is it for you to produce a book? In what kind of way do you prefer to share your work?

I like prints better than books, and haven't spent much time making my books happen. I have had the good luck to have the publisher or museum come to me. People With A.I.D.S. and Live Love Look Last are the two books I felt impelled to try to publish, the former because I the subject was urgent and I, with my wife Bebe, hoped that the championing of individuals might add to the conversation in the late 1980's, LLLL because I thought a book with four vertical projects over ten years was somehow something.

 
 

Nicholas Nixon, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco and Pace/ MacGill Gallery, New York
View of Mission Hill, Boston, 2003

 
 
9. As we said earlier, you have a long-term experience teaching photography. Would you tell us a little about your teaching methods? Is it possible to let the students free to produce their work without restrictions in terms of a project? I mean, in art schools, students often need to define their project even before they start shooting, they have to write a statement, be able to talk about the work and defend their intent. They are in some way "forced" to restrict their energy in a project that has to be perfectly defined. The wondering experience is not as promoted as before. It is sure that a teacher, in order to maintain a certain control, has to give students certain restrictions. But is it just a teaching disposition that creates this tendency or is it something else that is happening in photography right now?

I like to have fun in teaching. I give them assignments like "photograph five men you would like to sleep with without them knowing", or "flesh", or "details", or "people with animals"...sometimes they are individual ones, sometimes they are for the whole class. Another favorite is to make twice as many pictures as your highest amount so far, print them all and put them up". Another is to make two prints I can't find a thing wrong with. Another is structure. Anyway, keeping in mind that is is all with a view camera you can get the idea. Long term projects are not my cup of tea as they are like unimaginative boxes with too much talk surrounding.

 
 

Nicholas Nixon, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco and Pace/ MacGill Gallery, New York
Bebe and I, Brookline, 2010

 
 
10. Looking at your body of work as a whole, two main key terms come to my mind: time and proximity. In the first series of group portraits (1977-1982) the time has an important role in testing the limits of a large format camera and trying to be as fast as possible to catch the right moment and the perfect composition. After that period of time in which you collected and searched for those kind of images, many of your series are concerned with the question of “what is our time? How can we live with this limited time that we have? How can we look at things and people in this amount of time?”

It seems to me that the actual response to the question of how we can look at things and people in our finished and determined amount of time, is trying to get closer and closer, being “kind and fair” with the subject of our gaze. Sometimes our gaze is too intrusive, but in your specific position the gaze reveals an honest curiosity that reflects our natural uncertainty about our life as human beings. What drives you towards your subjects? Do you think that it is possible to compensate our egocentric need to observe things, with the respect of the others and their conditions?

How is it possible to balance the necessity to produce a work that is artistic and creative but at the same time respectful and socially concerned?

Instinct is what chooses my subjects. Usually it is how something specifically photographic can articulate and create a subject with meaning, something tied to but different from the actual subject.  I think it is kind of arrogant of me to think it is possible. How doing it all is possible is desire. To want to do it badly enough to do better than your best. Love and desire answer everything.

 

 

Interview by Daniel Augschöll and Anya Jasbar