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updated 11/07/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/07/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

NICHOLAS NIXON: PICTURES OF PEOPLE

In basic design, view cameras have not changed much since Mathew Brady used one to photograph President Lincoln. The photographer ducks his head under a black cloth to focus the image, which appears upside down on a ground-glass screen. For every exposure a separate sheet of film—commonly 8 by 10 inches—must be inserted, after which the image can no longer be seen. For the Brady portrait, Lincoln had to hold himself steady as a statue, something fast film and lenses have made unnecessary. But this is still not a camera that encourages spontaneity in front of the lens or behind it.

For that, the hand-held 35mm camera has been the instrument of choice since World War II. Peter Galassi, curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, writes in his cogent introduction to this traveling exhibit that, thanks to the virtuosity of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank, Garry Winogrand and Lee Friedlander, "by 1970 the hegemony of the small camera was so firmly entrenched that to begin to photograph virtually always meant to buy a Leica and start prowling the streets. Nixon, like so many others, began just this way."

But after earning a Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of New Mexico in 1974, Nixon moved to Cambridge, Mass., and began lugging around a view camera. Like such predecessors as Edward Weston and Walker Evans, Nixon profited from the wealth of detail, the breadth of tone and the heightened illusion of reality that the view camera's generous negative provided. But as his interests evolved from Boston cityscapes to quiet residential street scenes, people began to figure more prominently in his work until their sense of home and their emotional connection to each other became his true subject. It was at that point, in the late 70s, that the Nixon whom Galassi lauds came into being. Using a wide-angle lens, he moved right up on the front porches, the stoops, the jetties—almost onto the beach blankets. And partly through craft, partly through some personal magnetism, he overcame the inhibiting mien of his camera and entered his subjects' world, producing pictures as intimate and spontaneous as they were sharp and sensuously rendered. "In effect," Galassi writes, "he had annexed the agility of advanced hand-camera style to the venerable view-camera tradition."

In the series of group pictures he completed in 1982—one of this show's highlights—Nixon's subjects were often poor, young or both. He seems to have released his shutter not at moments of stereotypical hope or despair, but at moments when they and he had reached a peculiar state of communication—a mutual recognition, maybe of the rapture and mystery of being alive as individuals and of not being alone with one's aloneness.

The power of such bonds as they evolve is evident in the series of annual portraits of his wife and her three sisters that Nixon began in 1975. Year by year, always shown in the same left-to-right order, the women change individually and in relation to each other. But their solidarity as a group seems only to intensify. The bond of flesh and blood, of youth and age, also animates the series of close-up portraits Nixon began in 1984 of his wife and their two young children. These are nude studies, comparable in the black-and-white creaminess of their skin tones to Weston's famous pictures of his son and lovers. But the bodies are not abstract and sculptural. The physical contrast between the flesh of babies and of mature adults seems a source of strength and comfort for both.

What happens when the flesh fails? Nixon explores this question in the other two series in the show. (It continues at the Modern until Nov. 13, then travels to Boston, Detroit and San Francisco next year, Europe in 1990 and St. Louis and San Diego in 1991. The Modern is selling a book based on the exhibit for $40; $18.95 paperbound.) In a series on people in old-age homes, begun in 1983, and one on AIDS victims, begun last year, there are no groups, just individuals with sad or frightened eyes and withered, wizened bodies. Nixon is looking at what we don't want to acknowledge. In the drawn, heavy-lidded face of AIDS patient Tom Moran, who died in February, or in the waxy skeletal fingers of elderly "A.B.," a shock of recognition awaits the viewer. This face was once handsome, these long fingers were once smooth and supple. Nixon and his slow, ungainly camera have again entered a private realm to show us that while these people are painfully isolated, if we fail to recognize ourselves in them, we may be no less alone.

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