The Model Wife

Excerpt from the book The Model Wife, by Arthur Ollman, Director of the Museum of Photographic Art


Nicholas Nixon (b. 1947)

Nicholas Nixon speaks of honor. "I'm honored to be using the same methods as Atget, as Walker Evans. I want to honor what is possible. I'd like to go deeper, get closer, know more, be more intense and more intimate. I'll fail, but I'm honored to be in the ring trying. I'd like to go deeper than Stieglitz did about his marriage. It's arrogant, but I'd like to try."

Nicholas Nixon speaks of trust. "I trust photography. I trust my ability to challenge it and it to challenge me." And he speaks of obligation. "I have the good fortune to be married to someone for twenty-seven years. I have an obligation to try to tell a story about it. I want to show more about her; about us."

The large view camera calls upon all its employers to exercise consideration. It is a tool of deliberation and attention. In return for these investments it delivers veracity, tactility, and miraculously trustworthy atmospheres. It is rarely spontaneous, never candid. It is famously cruel to those with low tolerance for accurate rendition. An attractive face can, on intimate consideration, translate to topographic fissures, cratered pores, and eroded passages, more akin to NASA reconnaissance. This photographic weapon can fill an 8 x 10 frame with a couple of inches of skin -- violating anyone's right to deteriorate privately.

Such technology, in the hands of an artist who wishes to render his loved ones with unflinching accuracy and evoke their tactile presence, is the perfect instrument. The apparent veracity of the large camera is such that it seems to make facts of one's observations and opinions.

Robert Adams writes in his introduction to Nicholas Nixon. Photographs from One Year: "It is the large scale of Nick Nixon's purpose, not his 8 x 10 camera, that distinguishes him. He has taken on the hardest job of all -- to convince us of the worth of our lives."

Bebe Nixon is a documentary filmmaker. For fifteen years she worked on and eventually produced Public Broadcasting's Nova series for WGBH in Boston; since 1985 she has worked on non broadcast documentary educational films. She too has a life lived through the lens. It would be hard to identify a couple more attuned to images on film. Far from being intrusive in their life, the camera provides a mode of understanding and of sharing insight. Beginning the portrayal of Bebe Brown Nixon in 1970, a year before they married, the Nixons are still actively working on it. (left: Nicholas Nixon, Untitled, 1996, gelatin silver print, collection Museum of Photographic Arts)

The early portraits seem enthralled and increasingly intimate. Bebe's gaze becomes more direct and the frame fills with smaller details and background information is dropped out. After the birth of their children, the images are very close indeed. The world of children is physically tactile, and these pictures are filled with the texture and context of raising infants: a tiny fist waved toward a huge chin; a freckled shoulder with an arm and elbow cradling part of a baby; a string of baby drool glazing an adult arm. There are enough images of the children to describe their growth and the occupations of childhood. We see Bebe tending to their needs, scolding them, and lying too wide awake next to them as they sleep. Nick projects his wife as a powerful, protective, and very involved mother.

These refreshing images of an evolving family mix humor, pathos, poignancy and sensuous poetry. The lustrous skin of a baby, the moist pools of their eyes, the voluptuous tuck and roll of their pudgy limbs are described with amazement. One senses that Nixon photographs to interrogate and preserve that which he can scarcely believe.

There seems no scrutiny that is too close, no rendition too honest. Bebe Nixon is monumental, even heroic. The photographs from 1997 and 1998 are so close that context is no longer an element m them. Half of a face now makes an entire image. Nixon himself is seen entering the frame with his wife. He looks back at the camera as though it was being operated by another. He has crossed over to her side to identify himself where his heart is. He has managed to find a relaxed and natural way to slip into the picture alongside his wife. It is appropriate to images which purport to record a relationship that both members are present. Bebe states, "To a degree, his pictures reflect what he thinks the world is made up of. Now he is in the frame. He seeks order and connection. And in our life that is partially how it looks." Perhaps he is illustrating what each of these portfolios identifies; that the bonds between such couples are, in the end, invisible, discernible only through metaphor and symbol. The two partners, in a single frame, collaboratively form their own image, in their own space and time. As Nixon's own self-portrait migrates through the camera to join his wife, he seems to be climbing inside his own process, to find from the inside out, an even closer and more intimate understanding of his wife.

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