When Lightning Strikes
Renowned photographer and educator Nicholas Nixon shoots straight when it comes to making intimate pictures of people With AIDS
by Sean Black

Tony Mastrorilli, Mansfield, Massachusetts, 1988, gelatin-silver print © Nicholas Nixon, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco
Tony Mastrorilli, Mansfield, Massachusetts, 1988, gelatin-silver print © Nicholas Nixon, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco

[dropcap]I[/dropcap]n the 1980s, when feelings and fears surrounding AIDS were excruciatingly raw and visceral, Nicholas Nixon set out to tell a catastrophic and epidemic truth. Not gratuitously, not exploitatively, and certainly not without careful communication with his sitters through the help of AIDS Action Committee, a Boston-based ASO. Nixon’s work was and still is deliberate, bold and predicated on his hopes of stirring a catharsis in the viewer whereby he or she would be able to assimilate shared humanity with that of the subject sufferer, an aim not always in the forefront of photojournalistic minds.

Born in 1947, Nixon is a lifelong educator and photographic traditionalist known for working in the style of Edward Weston and Walker Evans. Nixon uses a large-format, “view” camera to impart impeccable detail in his decidedly, strict black and white imagery (color imagery was thought to exaggerate realism and dilute visual potency and according to Evans was entirely “vulgar”).

Tom and Catherine Moran, East Braintree, Massachusetts, 1987 © Nicholas Nixon, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco
Tom and Catherine Moran, East Braintree, Massachusetts, 1987 © Nicholas Nixon, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco

In the Spring 1989 Aperture (Volume 114) article, “In Grief and Anger: Photographing People With AIDS,” writer and critic Robert Atkins opens with the question “How do you photograph AIDS?” He then immediately elaborates with a subset of questions and issues, including a central one: How do you represent a “condition that prompts social stigmatization as frequently as it elicits sympathy”? Atkins arrives at an answer: “The urge to create sympathetic portraits of PWAs is an understandable response to the racist and homophobic media construction of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ AIDS ‘victims’—the former being children and hemophiliacs, the latter gays and drug users.” The critical delineation in media reporting at this time between infection with HIV and the clinical diagnosis of AIDS was less rigorous and in many cases the confirmed positive test result for HIV along with the AIDS diagnosis defined by not only the positive result but also severely depleted CD4 cells or one or more AIDS-defining illnesses such as Kaposi’s sarcoma and toxoplasmosis. Many times both diagnoses were delivered together to patients of the mid to late 1980s.

Atkins leads the reader through this meditation in order to discuss the “documentary/modernist mode” photographs of Nicholas Nixon along with those of Rosalind Solomon —two of the first photographers to be exhibited in a solo show about AIDS in galleries and museums around New York City in 1988.

Tom Moran, East Braintree, Massachusetts, 1987 © Nicholas Nixon, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco
Tom Moran, East Braintree, Massachusetts, 1987 © Nicholas Nixon, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco

Just prior, in 1987, Nicholas Nixon began to photograph PWAs. The Museum of Modern Art published his first images of Tom Moran in his monograph Nicholas Nixon: Pictures of People in 1988, coinciding with an exhibition of his work. The work was prefaced by subtext: “People with AIDS: Excerpt from Work in Progress.” Peter Galassi introduces Nixon’s work thusly: “Nixon’s mastery of craft and his surprising pictorial innovations brought new vitality to a venerable tradition. But most remarkable is the psychological depth of Nixon’s work and its freedom from the familiar burdens of irony and sentimental cliché.

In this candid interview, nearly thirty years later, Nicholas Nixon talks openly with A&U, about his picture-making as he shares intimate stories of heroic proportion.

Sean Black: What brought you to photography?
Nicholas Nixon: I was a student at the University of Michigan, an English major, and I figured to pay the rent, I would get a doctorate and teach English. That was the best I could think of, but I wasn’t crazy about it. The summer between my junior and senior years, on a whim, I took a photography course. I was [also] working in a bookstore and had looked at photography books. I decided to take a course, and it only took about two hours for me to sort of love it; lightning struck and I’ve loved it ever since.

Can you describe your take on the medium as evidence (photography as truth or historical record) or that of artistic expression, or both?
I think it [the medium] is changing now. There’s a lot of interesting questions that digital photography raises about evidence, and I think, there’s a lot to be said by a lot of people who have different opinions. But there are changes that are possible now in an image [Photoshop] that weren’t really possible when I started. I sort of looked at every picture as a kind of evidence, you know, because it hadn’t been manipulated to the extent of what you can do now. Digital manipulation pretty much showed up and [I thought] it was silly-looking. I look at making photographs as a straight kind of thing….You know, photography started in 1839 with this sort of central mission of bearing witness, and I still think, for me, that’s still the central thing and I haven’t veered from that….

Tom Moran, Boston, Massachusetts, 1988, gelatin-silver print © Nicholas Nixon, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco
Tom Moran, Boston, Massachusetts, 1988, gelatin-silver print © Nicholas Nixon, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco

In regards to this “bearing witness,” using it as a lens to talk about the work that you did in the early days of AIDS, what brought you to that work at the time?
One night, I was having dinner with my wife Bebe’s friend and her husband, who had testicular cancer. He was tall and thin and Nordic, and she was curvy and Italian and short, and they were this amazing couple. And at dinner, I got the idea that I’d like to photograph them, if they were willing, every month for the rest of their lives together as he was dying. So probably after a glass of wine, I proposed this to them, and he liked the idea and she was a little bit more reserved about it. And then when he called me the next day, he said, “You know, she can’t do it, because every time you come over, it’s just going to remind her that my end is real. She doesn’t want to have that sort of interface, whereas I would relish it; I would love to make something of my illness and give it some form.”

So, after they turned me down, the same day I called up AIDS Action Committee…and started trying to find volunteers, and learn about [the disease]. It was kind of like a landslide….[M]ost of the people with AIDS that you saw in the newspapers and on television looked pretty bad, that sort of look that people get when they’re near the end, that I think it makes it easy for people who aren’t sick to sort of shun, almost the way you shun somebody who has soiled themselves. That just seemed not fair to me, and so I sort of figured, well, maybe my process of [photographing] individuals might make one-tenth of one-hundredth of a percent of difference, and [that perhaps my book could] change people’s minds. From the start, I wanted it to be a book. I promised everybody it would be a book.

Robert Sappenfield and His Parents, Dorchester, Massachusetts, 1988, gelatin-silver print © Nicholas Nixon, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco
Robert Sappenfield and His Parents, Dorchester, Massachusetts, 1988, gelatin-silver print © Nicholas Nixon, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco

To reiterate Atkins’ Aperture question, which I think is still pertinent today: How do you photograph AIDS?
A lot of people nowadays think that you can photograph an abstraction, and I just don’t. You know, I think the way you photograph AIDS is to photograph Tom Moran who has AIDS, and then you see where it is. You have to deal with what’s specifically in front of you and get the big concepts out of the way. [Thinking in terms of big concepts] makes you have an agenda; it tends to close you up to different things than you might think in the process. And so it’s easy to sort of stay stuck with an original idea, [your “big idea,” even when] the evidence proves otherwise. So I stay very loose….I start with the individuals.

So, the answer to your question is—the same way I’d photograph somebody who had tuberculosis or the same way I’d photograph somebody who was schizophrenic. I wouldn’t be pretentious enough or braggart enough to think that I was photographing schizophrenia. That would be for somebody else to decide later on, but I would just start it by photographing one schizophrenic patient, and that’s what I did.

Do you think that now, by looking back with such clarity, these images perhaps could speak to young people to catch their attention about what the early epidemic was like, and to maybe mitigate some of this desensitized view of HIV, that today it’s, oh, you can just take a pill?
I would love it if they could be used for that. You know, whenever anybody calls up and wants to use an image, once I find out that they’re legit, I let them do it. I showed the whole body of work and read excerpts to my class at Massachusetts College of Art last week because some of my students had been asking me about it. And only one person in the class was born when I was making the work, so it was really quite shocking and quite eye-opening to them to see what [living with AIDS] looked like, and how little hope there was for a long life, and how cruel [AIDS] could be.

The other thing that struck me is that a lot of the people, a lot of the patients still had parents who had rejected them for being gay, and so the way that our culture has embraced gayness in the last thirty years is really amazing. I mean, it’s probably not fast enough for you [as a member of the LGBT community], but it’s pretty fast as far as a cultural shift goes, if you step back. And all of these kids—and, I mean, half the people [who couldn’t be “out” to family]—Tom Moran could not tell his mother he was gay. Tony Mastrorilli could not tell his mother he was gay; he was Catholic and ashamed. So the degree to which men were in the closet, and either a little bit ashamed themselves or that their parents were ashamed, and hiding it, was huge compared to now. Huge. The guy Donald Perham, the guy with the beard and his son, he was a hemophiliac and his house—people threw stones in his window up in a small town in New Hampshire that said “faggot” on them. So this poor guy, I don’t even know if he knew what a gay man was, he was a hick. I’m sure he did, but I mean, he was just this guy who had a family and was a schoolteacher, and he was treated like a leper, and so that’s why he volunteered, because he was angry. You know, the degree to which it was—I mean, there were deathbed scenes where guys didn’t want their parents to be there, because their parents had rejected them for so long. And so, I can think of three scenes where it’s late in the day, the patient is really sick, he’s not going to live too long, his friends, his lover, the people who’ve supported him are there with him, I’m there with him—sometimes the friends don’t want me to be there, but the patient does, because I haven’t really known the friends that well, but they say, “Who’s this guy?” And then the parents come in and they say, “Who’s this guy?” and the patient doesn’t want the parents to be there, because they’ve let him down. You know, he loves them, but he feels awkward and he’s ashamed of them. And it’s just awful—I just felt so bad for these guys, because that’s not what they needed at the end of their life, to have all this nonsense in the air, all this bitterness, and all this dissension. It was just terrible; it was just terrible. I did my best to come up to them afterwards, as did their supporters, but you’d be surprised how many—of my thirteen people, I would say five had been stiff-armed by their parents.

Laverne Colebut, Providence, Rhode Island, June 1989, gelatin-silver print, © Nicholas Nixon, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco
Laverne Colebut, Providence, Rhode Island, June 1989, gelatin-silver print, © Nicholas Nixon, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco

Wow, no, I remember those days, and I still see young gay, lesbian, trans members of our community who have a really hard time or that are rejected, and leave home, and have to try to find ways to survive. And, you know, changing our societal consciousness on gender and sexuality is still perplexing, but I think, as you said, the times are moving forward. Now, in closing—and I really appreciate the bravery, you know, in taking on this, because, I think, your work acts as a record, which aligns with part of A&U Magazine’s mission, to record the good and the bad in this journey. Were there any messages or any other relationships with the subjects that you photographed that might help us to understand perhaps some of the compassion that was given to them at the end, that you were there with them, or is there a story or an anecdote you might share with us?
Well, there’s a general one. Several of the people, in wanting to participate and wanting to be part of a book, wanted their survivors to understand that, the more they could accept that life has an end and death is part of it, the happier they will be, and the happier their survivors will be. The more you can accept it, the more you can own it, the better and the happier you’ll be. I heard that a number of times, and so I sort of felt it’s my mission to pass that along, because they asked me to.

Sure, sure. And thank you.
There were incidents, oh yeah, there were a lot of incidents. Here’s a funny one. Tom Moran—you have a picture of him with his mother—he was living at home, he was alcoholic, couldn’t tell his mom he was gay. She was a great mom; she probably knew. You know, they were very close anyway, and he—I went out with him on New Year’s Eve—and he was feeling good, the AZT seemed to be working, he was spiffy, we stopped in at a couple of his friends’ houses. And about two days later, he called me up and he said, “It’s time,” by which I knew he meant that he was going to have to go to the hospital. And the hospital in Boston at the time was called Shattuck Hospital, and that was the place typically where people with cirrhosis of the liver and alcoholic problems were treated, and his father died there. But at the time, Shattuck Hospital was also the place in Boston that had the best AIDS care. They had a whole floor of AIDS patients and volunteers and docs and nurses, and it was terrific, or as terrific as it could be. It was a cheerful, supportive floor for the AIDS patients, full of light, music, volunteers, while at the same time it remained a dreary one for the liver and cirrosis patients. And so Tom felt a mixture of—he was glad to be able to go to this place where he could get cared for, but he also felt ashamed, because it was, like, you know, this failure place where drunks go. And so he calls me over, he says, “Okay, you better take a picture. They’re coming for me this afternoon.” So I come—and you can see the picture in the series, it’s pretty clear, it’s like four pictures from the end. He’s sitting on a couch, and he’s really shrunken, and he feels awful, and I have the camera there, and talked to his mother a little bit. And then I start to cry, and he looks at me with that funny Irish look of his, and he says, “Fuckin’ liberal. Take the goddamn picture, would you? What good is it going to do me if you get tears on the film?” And he was joking with me, but he was also—like, he was being nice to me, because I was hurting. That was one really good story. I’ll never forget that.


Nicholas Nixon is represented by Fraenkel Gallery. For more information, click here.


Sean Black is a Senior Editor of A&U.