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April 8, 2005

The lives of all of us

Nicholas Nixon’s photographs are a celebration of humanity

Cincinnati--An amazing exhibit called “The Human Experience: Photographs by Nicholas Nixon” is on view at the Cincinnati Art Museum through May 1. This show features 58 beautiful black-and-white photographs.

“Everyone can relate to Nixon’s photographs, which capture everyday life in eloquent fashion,” says assistant curator of photography Dennis Kiel in a press release. “From photos of kids at school to folks sitting on their porch to people suffering from AIDS, Nixon reveals the humanity in all of us.”

That is the ultimate truth about Nixon’s images.

He is drawn to the downtrodden, the less privileged, and the marginalized among us. Yet his works never seem exploitative.

The exhibition is organized into varying themes: the Brown Sisters, Old Age, Youth, Education, Family and Community and Couples, all of which relate directly to human experiences. They derive from several series of photographs, including Front Porch Pictures, Old People, People with AIDS, School and the Brown Sisters.

Some of the works have regional and local appeal. In addition to photos of his Cincinnati-born wife, others were shot in the Cincinnati areas of Covington and Price Hill, and another photo in the exhibition was captured on Chestnut St. in Louisville, Kentucky.

Nixon photographs gay men, people dying of AIDS, interracial couples and others on the fringes of society with the same dignity and normality that he lends to his other subjects. For him, there is no judgment of his characters in his works. On the contrary, he celebrates these individuals and their lives with an astute perception and a prescient lens.

Several of his works celebrate life in its beginnings, in it infancy, in its youth, Then there are those that document the other end of life.

An amazing family portrait at the other end of life is “Giny, Bob, and Robert Sappenfield, Dorchester, Massachusetts.” In this gorgeous image, Bob, who is at the end stages of full-blown AIDS, stands as his parents cuddle up to him. Giny and Robert, according to the notes with the image, wanted to spend the last two months of Bob’s life with him at the hospice where he was living. This is an extremely moving image at both the artistic and human levels.

The poignancy of the image floods every nook and cranny of the frame as these loving parents support their son in the waning moments of his all too brief life.

Another AIDS-related portrait, “Tom and Mary Moran, East Braintree, Massachusetts,” is equally poignant. A mother gently holds her dying son’s face, and he in turn wraps his arms around her heavily burdened shoulders. Nixon captures their love for posterity.

What is amazing in both his AIDS series and his series of very old people is the struggle between the present and eternity. Clearly, these moments that Nixon captures are going to be around for a long time. And yet, his subjects--those trapped in the mortal human form--will only inhabit the earth for a limited span of time.

It is a pity that more of the series People with AIDS is not featured in this exhibit. I your curiosity is piqued then take a look at a book of Nixon’s photos called People with AIDS. It is an amazing, albeit sad, collection of images, a reminder that the true battle against this disease is only just beginning.

This show also features his series of the Brown Sisters, the first in the nation to exhibit all 30 years of these photos of Nixon’s wife Bebe and her three sisters, who are originally from Cincinnati.

This unique series documents these related yet unique women in a family portrait every year between 1975 and 2004. The sisters are always featured in the same order from left to right--Heather, Mimi, Bebe, and Laurie.

Nixon’s work is ultimately about documenting the humanity within us all. These works are black and white time capsules rendered on paper. This is a show not to be missed.

You can see “The Human Experience: Photographs by Nicholas Nixon” through May 1 at the Cincinnati Art Museum, 953 Eden Park Drive in Cincinnati. Hours are from 11 am to 5 pm Tuesday through Sunday, with extended hours until 9 pm on Wednesdays. Call 513-721-2787 or see for more information.

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