New York Photo Review
Volume 4 Issue 8 February 19 to 26, 2013

The Genetic Wars by Barbara Confino

Nicholas and Bebe
Nicholas Nixon
Here and Now
Ed Barnas
Bebe and I by Nicholas Nixon. Source:
Nicholas Nixon, "Bebe and I" 2011

Nicholas Nixon is perhaps best known for his ongoing series of the Brown sisters, his wife Bebe and her three siblings, photographed annually since 1975. What began as a snapshot, albeit with an 8x10 view camera, has evolved into a major work documenting their relationship over the decades, and what would, in the research world, be called a longitudinal study.

In contrast, Nixon’s current show at Pace/McGill, entitled “Here and Now,” consists of photographs taken in Massachusetts and France from 2010 to 2011 and could be classified as a latitudinal study. The majority are double portraits: closely cropped images of Nicholas and Bebe, relaxed images of centenarians with a partner, child or caregiver, and babies with the mother in the background. Interspersed with these are some pastoral scenes. Most of the two dozen silver gelatin prints are contacts from 11x14 negatives, with a few enlarged to 15x 18 (two of Bebe solo and all four of the baby portraits).

The exhibit opens with the self-portraits, reminiscent of casual self-portraits taken with the camera held at arm’s length (but much more deliberately with a view camera). While Nixon can focus and compose with Bebe’s image on the ground glass, there is still the element of chance when he moves in front the of lens to join her for the exposure, especially since a number of these images are closely cropped on the lips, the eyes, the nose. These are not necessarily “pretty” pictures, but they are honest in their portrayal of the intimacy in a long-term relationship.

Oscar and Leon Cantor by Nicholas Nixon. Source:
Nicholas Nixon, "Oscar and Leon Cantor" 2011

A trio of woodland scenes serve as a break in the sequence before moving on to the more formal portraits, including another self-portrait with Bebe looking straight at the camera and Nicholas, eyes downcast, his arm around her. Taken a bit further back than the other self-portraits, it serves as a stylistic bridge to the quartet of double portraits of centenarians. Nixon’s expression is somber and reflective, a contrast to the smiles of his elders. Moving from the omega to the alpha, we come to four babies, pictured front and center, the mothers relegated to the background.

Four scenes from nature close the sequence – images of fruit and flowers photographed as if just seen in passing along a path, their short lifespan a counterpoint to the century depicted in the portraits. Perhaps they are a subtle reference to Ingmar Bergman’s film Wild Strawberries. In any event, the next to last image in particular struck me as a memento mori: three roses, with the one in fullest bloom already so heavy it had broken its stem and would soon die.

Nicholas Nixon
Here and Now

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