Nicholas Nixon: photographing the fragility of the human condition

The world is infinitely more interesting than any of my opinions about it.” (published statement by Nixon, 1975)

The first work by Nixon that I came across was his photographic series The Brown Sisters. This project in itself is a microcosmic study of the bodily process of ageing, and to my mind serves as an introduction to Nixon’s other work. It has been noted that as the sisters age, so Nixon moves in with his camera, getting closer to the sisters as they become older.

He is very concerned with the physical, with the tactile, with textures of skin, hair, nail and bone. The papery skin of old age and approaching death. Once again, the old people are photographed in close up as they near death, and this serves to fragment the body, so we are left to contemplate the symptoms of ageing rather than the person. This depersonalisation is Nixon’s way of remaining detached and unsentimental towards the subjects. His focus changes from the people themselves to the signs of their demise; in such a way he switches from the personal to the general, essential, the fate which awaits us all. Through his photography Nixon is coming to terms with his own ultimate demise.

In an article for the NYT, Andy Grundberg wrote of Nixon’s photographs of old people: “…the subjects seem to mirror the conditions of their lives. …they depict their subjects without prejudice. They neither flatter them nor disdain them; they indulge in neither sentiment or irony.”

Although Nixon has done some work with blind people, at the Perkins School for the Blind, they seem to be quite tame and reassuring – almost cliché and sentimental.

The horrific ‘enfreaked’ images that were referred to by Hevey I assume is the series which deals with patients suffering from AIDS, which puts a spotlight on their physical deterioration. As Grundberg observes, these images “…are the most searing, sobering and unforgettable photographs of Nixon’s career. They may also be the most powerful images yet taken of the tragedy that is AIDS” (1999, p 208).

What is the point Nixon is making? The fragility of the human condition? From the NYU School of Medicine website: “Nicholas and Bebe Nixon set out to describe honestly and compassionately what it is to have AIDS; what it does to families and friends; why it is the most devastating social and medical issue of our time.” Apparently the photographs of 15 volunteers were published along with testimony from them about their suffering. One of the quotes I found from the book: “I’m learning so much about how little experience any of us has with compassion for the suffering of another person.” George Gannett

In an article published in Discourse magazine: “…it is the PWA project alone that has been subsequently, and widely, criticized for the way it represents its subjects: for what it says, and even more important, for what it doesn’t say about the person living with AIDS; for its lack of any social and/or political context; and as evidence of the self-involved and callous attitude of the photographer who produced it.”

Not all the reviews were bad. From Library journal: “The Nixons have given us a compassionate and life-affirming work that serves as a visual documentary of what it means to have AIDS.”

From Amazon: “This extraordinary book is about fifteen people with AIDS. It is about bravery and cowardice, style and weakness, honesty and self-deception, humor and bitterness. It is about the endless patience with the banality of this world, and about the rage that accrues as precious time slips away.”

It seems to be one of those books that people don’t quite know how to react to. It is as if the images somehow needed to be taken, a necessary document, but the horror of looking at them is an overwhelming experience. Part of the problem lies in the disease itself and how it is spread – as Sontag (1989, p 24-25) points out, in the Western hemisphere at least, AIDS is considered a disease of ‘certain risk groups’, and contraction unceremoniously reveals an identity that may otherwise have remained concealed from society. Of course, the critical problem with the work is that all the subjects ultimately die, and so we are left with the banal equation AIDS=death. Once more, as the individuals approach death, Nixon moves in closer with his camera. It has been noted that since Nixon uses a large 8×10 view camera, the closer he moves in, the more his subjects are actually looking at themselves reflected in the lens, contemplating their own demise.

Douglas Crimp said of the work: “…what we see first and foremost in Nixon’s photographs is their reiteration of what we have already been told or shown about people with AIDS: that they are ravaged, disfigured, and debilitated by the syndrome; they are generally alone, desperate, but resigned to their ‘inevitable’ deaths” (Cultural Studies, 1992, p 118). In a sense, Nixon is accused of depersonalising the people, and using them as generic examples that illustrate or repeat what we already knew all along. Crimp goes on to say that the privacy of the people involved has been brutally invaded and brutally maintained – invaded in the sense that their suffering has been put on display and turned into a public spectacle, and maintained in the sense that by portraying AIDS as personal or private tragedies marginalises the subjects and avoids discussion of the broader social conditions that made AIDS into a crisis and propagate it as such (ibid, p 120).

Another critic, Bethany Ogdon observes: “In Nixon’s photographs of PWAs, human bodies seem to function merely as screens on which the “truth” of AIDS (death) is made to materialize.” (Through the Image: Nicholas Nixon’s “People with AIDS” Discourse 23:3, p 76) This is the pitfall that I want to avoid – by taking pictures of people with certain conditions, it is all too easy to reinforce stereotypes or generalisations rather than to challenge them. After all, this is the main reason I began this project in the first place, since I felt that the pictures I had taken earlier did not do enough justice to the subjects and were open to interpretation on multiple levels.

On the other hand, since Nixon covers the people he photographs over an extended period of time and gives them names, and photographs them in a very intimate way, the opposite could be argued: “Nixon never treats the AIDS patients he photographs as cases or specimens to be examined dispassionately, at a distance… [Tom Moran] is a human being, not a statistic, not a convenient object for moral judgment. In these photographs, Nixon insists on the individuality of the people he depicts.” (Charles Hagen, Artforum 27)

Grundberg says of the series: “The photographs, taken over a period of months, chronicle both the visible signs of the progress of the disease and the inner torment it creates. The result is overwhelming, since one sees not only the wasting away of the flesh (in photographs, emaciation has become emblematic of AIDS) but also the gradual dimming of the subjects’ ability to compose themselves for the camera. What each series begins as a conventional effort to pose for a picture ends in a kind of abandon; as the subjects’ self-consciousness disappears, the camera seems to become invisible, and consequently there is almost no boundary between the image and ourselves.” In this respect, the pictures are seen both as collaborative and also as an invasion of privacy; if the subjects were able to compose themselves and have some control over the way they looked at the beginning of the series, this empowerment is seen to dissolve as the project progresses.

Exploring Nixon’s body of work further, I find his series Bebe and I to be among the best. He has captured the relationship as wispy, ethereal, and in soft focus; but also in all its wrinkled, hairy, porous reality – there is no pretence, no false colours and no smoothing of the flesh to remove the blemishes or wrinkles. He discusses the work as well as his working process in an interview here. A truly remarkable piece of work and somehow following on from his other work, using himself and his own body as subject matter, exploring his own ageing and mortality after looking for it in others for so many years.

Actually, Nixon himself says of the work: “I was really sick a year ago and was in the hospital for 10 days. But during that time, the only thing that mattered was my wife and children. When push came to shove. It was like practice for death. These pictures came within a month of that.” So there you have it, my feeling was right about his realisation of his own mortality.

Another critic who shares my opinion that Nixon’s work seems to be more of an autobiographical exploration, Bethany Ogdon: “Whether selfless (“he is there even when they are on their deathbeds”) or selfish (“I had to drive forty minutes to his house”), the subject of this modernist artist’s practice appears to be his own experience rather than that of those he photographs.” (Discourse 23:3, p78) Ogdon is exploring the seemingly irreconcilable positions that Nixon appears to take – that of sympathetic humanist and trusted confidant to his subjects, or that of hardened anti-sentimentalist, a prototype of American modernism’s bad-boy artist. The dichotomy is compounded when Nixon, exasperated by the caprices of one of the subjects, is quoted as saying “Life’s too short” – whose life?

One of the project’s main critics is a group calling themselves ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), and during the exhibition show at the MOMA, they handed out flyers that had the following words written on them:

We demand the visibility of PWAs who are vibrant, angry, loving, sexy, beautiful, acting up and fighting back.


This is a battle cry that could just as easily be applies to any disabled group, and I think it has a power and poignancy that cannot be ignored.

Ultimately, Crimp has the last word on the subject, advocating a reassessment of the images of PWAs, recognising that each image is a representation, and to formulate activist demands not in relation to any perceived ‘truth’ of the images, but in relation to the social conditions of their construction and subsequent effects (p 126). As such, since images of pity are not conducive to solidarity, he recommends creating a set of counter-images, images of self-empowerment. This is where his argument concurs with the larger disability discourse.

It seems that a lot of the flak stems from the fact that Nixon was an outsider, belonging neither to the minority groups who tend to be associated with AIDS, nor having the condition himself. There was not the same criticism of Wojnarowicz when he photographed the death of his lover and mentor Peter Hujar. In fact, this was considered a landmark in public recognition of personal loss within the gay community: “Wojnarowicz’s use of the moment of Hujar’s death from AIDS through various mediums creates an affective space for representing queer intimacies through a melancholic struggle with loss” (Colucci 2010, unpaged).

Image result for david wojnarowicz hujar

His work is seen as politically activist by talking about things that are generally not broached in society “Wojnarowicz, who made a career out of depicting moments that were silenced by hegemonic and heteronormative society, such as his queer sexuality and childhood abuse, asserts a public statement of his private loss of Peter Hujar” (ibid). In this way, his work can be understood in a similar way to that of Matuschka.

The AIDS body… crumbles and disintegrates with the disease, but as Wojnarowicz shows, it also produces fear in those who do not have AIDS; it not only disintegrates, in other words, it produces disintegration at large” (Halberstam & Livingston 1995, p 15).

I had not really considered AIDS as disability until I began researching the topic. Although PWAs are often referred to as the AIDS community, I try not to refer to disabled people as a community, since the term includes such a wide range of different impairments that I think it would be wrong to refer to them as a homogenous community. Nevertheless, there are groups, particularly activists, who consider themselves to be united in their social marginalisation.

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