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PHOTOGRAPHY REVIEW

Focus on the family

Nicholas Nixon’s photos of his wife, their children, and her sisters offer a rare sense of intimacy at the MFA

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By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff / July 30, 2010

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Nicholas Nixon first came to public prominence 35 years ago. He was one of 10 photographers in what would come to be seen as a landmark exhibition. “New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape’’ looked at the interaction of settlement and environment. It was nature photography that encompassed both the man-made and natural.

The Boston cityscapes that Nixon had in that show seem very far, except geographically, from the 75 black-and-white images in “Nicholas Nixon: Family Album,’’ which runs through next May 1 at the Museum of Fine Arts. It’s a long overdue MFA recognition for Nixon, who has taught at Massachusetts College of Art and Design since 1975. The temptation to hail him as a local hero is great, except that Nixon stopped being local in reputation almost as soon as he moved here, in 1974. He had his first Museum of Modern Art show in 1976. He’s had subsequent solo exhibitions at the National Gallery of Art, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, MoMA again, and numerous other museums.

Yet if “New Topographics’’ has nothing in common visually with the MFA show, which consists of photographs of Nixon’s wife, their children, and her sisters, they share a fundamental thematic bond. Lives lived together and how they shape the emotional setting where they’re lived are at the heart of “Family Album.’’ Those issues no less apply to the much larger family album his work comprises: projects he has done over the years about people on their stoops, AIDS patients, the elderly, schoolchildren. Is it ungrateful to complain that this fine show couldn’t be larger, a career retrospective, and encompass them, too?

It’s telling that, with one exception, Nixon includes in each title the location where he took the photograph. “Who’’ may be the determining factor in his work, but “where’’ matters almost as much as “when’’ in the formation of each who. As MoMA’s Peter Galassi has written, “Nixon’s work is not a matter of shapes artfully arranged but of characters precisely described, as individuals and in relation to each other. The lively wholeness of each picture, the coherent grouping of independent characters, is a metaphor for personal and social connection.’’

The exception to Nixon’s including a place name in each title is a very big one. It is, in fact, the heart of the show — and his most famous work — “The Brown Sisters’’ series. Every summer since 1975, Nixon has taken pictures of his wife and three sisters-in-law, choosing one image to add to the series. The sisters always appear in the same order: Heather, Mimi, Bebe (Nixon’s wife), and Laurie. Otherwise each pose differs, as do, of course, what the sisters have on, how they wear their hair, and so on. However superficial, those shifting externalities contribute to the series’ vast appeal.

The pictures are hung here in a grid. For several reasons, this is an inspired idea (although the top row is too high for comfortable viewing and the bottom row too low). The grid format lets the viewer see the pictures as a unit, and the interaction among them is their foremost source of fascination. Also, setting them apart lends a greater coherence to the other 40 images, which show Bebe, Bebe and Nicholas, their children, and the children with their parents. (“Family Album’’ really is just that — though we should all be so lucky as to have someone of Nixon’s abilities take our family photos.) Finally, in strictly practical terms, putting all the “Brown Sisters’’ together on the same wall will insure considerably more breathing space in the gallery. These photographs are irresistible, and you can be sure that viewers will clump in front of them — and they’ll really clump when this year’s photograph is added to the wall later in the show’s run.

The series’ irresistibility has numerous sources: personal, artistic, even (for lack of a better term) philosophical. The images offer a study in the passage of time, the accretion and erosion of identity, the endless interplay of family dynamics. The wom en are all handsome, healthy, vigorous looking. Whether by nature, nurture, or both, they’re clearly comfortable in their skin. What penetrating gazes they have. They accept the camera without embracing it. That sense of faint reserve has so much to do with keeping the images interesting. Reticence entices so much more than avidity.

There’s a sense of WASPy ease and simplicity here. Maybe it’s just because the MFA owns the painting, but one thinks of the Brown portraits, in their very different way, as being akin to latter-day, more casual versions of Sargent’s celebrated rendering of the Boit sisters. Except that the painting is an interior, and almost all the Brown photographs were taken outdoors. Trees and open sky and fields are visible (in one, there’s a glimpse of what seems to be ocean). Even if they had been taken in another season, these still would be summer-place pictures. They’re like a slide show of chapters from a Cheever novel. Or, more accurately, an Updike novel — just as Updike came here from elsewhere, Pennsylvania, so Nixon came from Michigan.

Looking at the pictures is engrossing, in part because they’re cumulatively disquieting. Age can wither, even if custom (in this case ) cannot stale. Flesh wrinkles and pouches. Time strides on. One keeps studying the pictures, noting the continuities no less than the changes — continuities not just of order and identity but, far more important, of character and being.

Chronological progression is the point of “The Brown Sisters.’’ The other photographs are hung in an order that’s only loosely chronological. Which is as it should be. What defines these pictures of domestic life — child-rearing, eating together, simply being together — is time and love. Both of those qualities, at least as experienced emotionally, are fitful and wayward. Even if duration doesn’t shuttle back and forth, memory and feeling do.

Most of these photographs Nixon shoots close up spatially — and all of them are close up in emotion. There’s a rare sense of matter-of-fact intimacy. These pictures are deeply felt without being at all sentimental. Partly that’s owing to Nixon’s using a large-format view camera, which results in crisp, highly detailed images. And partly it’s because these are not prettified, picture-postcard views of domestic life. A string of drool hangs from the baby’s mouth in “Clementine and Bebe, Cambridge,’’ from 1986. In “Bebe, Lexington,’’ a drop of sweat sits at the end of her nose. What some other photographer might present as an occasion for clucking and cooing, the tininess of a baby’s hand juxtaposed with her mother’s bare upper body, Nixon presents as pure pow of little fist in front of maternal torso.

That photograph, “Clementine and Bebe, Cambridge,’’ from 1985, is one of several wow photos here. Another is the fabulous composition of “Sam and Clementine, Cambridge (Chocolate Milk)’’: a great eye, behind the camera, finding two other eyes, his children’s, in just the right alignment. But wow isn’t what Nicholas Nixon does. Life is.

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.

NICHOLAS NIXON: Family Album

At: Museum of Fine Arts, 465 Huntington Ave., through May 1.

617-267-9300, www.mfa.org.