Familiar on second sight
At its most basic, the appeal of photography is twofold. It records reality and suspends time. Few photographers have so memorably demonstrated the limits of that suspension as Nicholas Nixon.
His two best-known photographic projects have been "The Brown Sisters," an ongoing group portrait of his wife and her three sisters which he's taken annually for more than three decades, and "People With AIDS," which some 20 years ago portrayed the decline of victims of the disease. Even as each image in the two series seems to arrest time, the series as a whole underscores its inexorable passage.
A similar dialectic between stasis and change informs "Nicholas Nixon: 8x10 and 11x14," which runs at the Carroll and Sons gallery through May 9.
In the mid-1970s, Nixon used an 8x10 view camera to photograph views of Boston. It was an intersection of mutual newness. Nixon had recently arrived here, and the city was in the process of transforming itself. The Prudential Center was barely a decade old. The Hancock tower and I.M. Pei's Christian Science Center had just been built. A quarter century later, Nixon resumed photographing Boston's architecture - first with an 8x10 view camera again; then, last year, with an 11x14 view camera.
Nixon was documenting a city he had come to know; since 1975, he's taught at Massachusetts College of Art. The show offers a nicely understated way of indicating the acquisition of familiarity. Both the Hancock and Christian Science Center appear in then-and-now pairs. The earlier views are taken from a distance, the newer up close. It's as if, visually, Nixon has gone from introduction to intimacy.
The 24 pictures in the show present a giant's-eye view of the city. Nixon's Boston isn't an evacuated city. We can see cars and the occasional (tiny) pedestrian down below or office worker (also tiny) behind plate glass. But there's nothing human about the scale here and very little of the natural world. A 2003 view of Boston Harbor affords the barest glimpse of water, for example.
Often Nixon frames a building in such a way as to cut it off from its surroundings - or, in fact, from the rest of the building. There are lots of exterior walls. "View of State Street Bank, Boston," from 2002, is a striking instance. The expanse of curtain wall is a pattern of light and dark rectangles, an urban geometry made that much more arresting by the intimations of business being conducted behind each lighted window. This contrasts almost comically with a 2008 view of the Pru's exterior. That building's imperturbably baroque blandness is one thing, at least, that hasn't changed during these three decades.
Amid all the glass and steel, bits of Boston's architectural past peek out. A view of Arch Street neatly juxtaposes brick and metal. In "View of the Old State House, Boston," from 1975, the building diminutively defers to the office towers looming over it. "View of Tremont at Bromfield Street, Boston," from 2008, glories in the splendid solidity of masonry and the no-less-splendid artistry of ornament. The older, 19th-century city this building belongs to is just as much Boston as that of the Hancock and Pru. It's as if Nixon wants to remind us that, sometimes, anyway, architecture can freeze time just as much as photography can.
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.