As an exhibition title, “Nicholas Nixon: Persistence of Vision” is almost self-explanatory. The show runs at the Institute of Contemporary Art through April 22.
Nixon needs no introduction around here. For many years, he’s been one of the starriest names in what has long been a very starry photography faculty at Massachusetts College of Art and Design. And since his inclusion in the ground-breaking 1975 exhibition “New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape,” Nixon has had a national, and eventually international, reputation for decades.
So the Nicholas Nixon part of the title is clear enough. Ditto “persistence.” Nixon turned 70 in October, and the show’s 112 black-and-white images start in 1974 and extend to this year. In fact, there are two or three photographs for each year. The sole exception is 2017, which has just one image: the latest iteration of Nixon’s most famous body of work, “The Brown Sisters.” The series consists of an annual group portrait of Nixon’s wife and three sisters-in-law.
“The Brown Sisters” provides a literal spine for the show. Eva Respini, the ICA’s chief curator, and curatorial associate Jessica Hong have arranged the show chronologically around the four walls of the Fotene Demoulas Gallery. All the “Brown Sisters” portraits are here, moving along in horizontal order, with one or two other photographs from that year hanging above and/or below. The design is so simple and smart as to be elegant. All the photographs have white mattes and white frames, underscoring the sense of simplicity. That simplicity has the very happy consequence of making a large show feel compact — even companionable.
Companionability is appropriate, what with so many of the photographs being family pictures — not just of the sisters, but also individual pictures of Nixon’s wife, of the couple together, of their children.
In “The Brown Sisters” the women always remain in the same order: left to right, Heather, Mimi, Bebe (Nixon’s wife), and Laurie. They’re always shot in the same season, at an annual family gathering. They get final approval. Those are the three rules. The portraits are also almost always shot outdoors, which adds to the sense of naturalness and relaxation. Most were taken in Cheeverish places — New Canaan, Conn.; Wellesley; Woodstock, Vt.; the North Shore; various locations on the Cape — and, yes, part of the fascination of the series is sociological. It’s a bit of a shock to see that one portrait was taken in Cincinnati and another in Dallas.
So the series is a journey through space as well as time. That’s true of the show as a whole. Among other things, it’s a visual gazeteer of Greater Boston: Downtown and Back Bay, Somerville, Watertown, Cambridge, Brookline, Lexington, Braintree, Westwood. Not that there aren’t farther-flung places, too: New Mexico, Mississippi, Kentucky, France. Scale, which is a version of space, also has drawn Nixon. The same man who can show the sweep of Boston Common from up high presents up close (and quite hilariously) the black circle of his wide-open mouth.
The ultimate scale isn’t spatial but temporal: the instant (here — and now) vs. eternity (there — and forever). Every photograph records the collision between time arrested, seen within the frame, and time passing, which we know all too well is happening outside that frame. The compare-and-contrast allure of “The Brown Sisters” lies in how the series makes visible both sides of the collision. What might be the nicest touch in the show’s hanging is that the most recent picture in the series is separated from the first only by a doorway. Or should it be called a portal? A bit of Eliot’s “Four Quartets” finds a place on the fourth floor of the ICA: In my end is my beginning — and in my beginning is my end.
So what about “vision,” the indeterminate element in the show’s title? One of the chief pleasures of the retrospective is being reminded of just how varied Nixon’s career has been. His earliest photographs were cityscapes, a genre he’s frequently returned to. He’s devoted series to people on their front porch, AIDS patients, the elderly and sick, couples, schools (those his children attended, as well as Boston Latin and the Perkins School for the Blind).
Whether photographing Kenmore Square in the ’70s, a dying man in the ’80s, the Hancock Tower in the ’90s, a premature baby in the ’00s, Nixon practices an unprying scrutiny. He is both forthright and scrupulous. Walker Evans described his own photographs as lyric documentary. What Nixon practices is objective subjectivity. In his “New Topographics” artist’s statement Nixon wrote, “The world is infinitely more interesting than any of my opinions concerning it.” That is a declaration worthy of all honor, but those opinions do exist. The wonder of this work is Nixon’s ability to maintain a consistent balance between detachment and assessment, on the one hand, and emotion and modesty, on the other: objective subjectivity.
Museumgoers should note that instead of wall labels, the ICA provides sheafs of laminated pages for viewers to pick up and carry with them for information about the photographs. The limited signage enhances the simplicity of the layout and adds to the sense of an organic development in Nixon’s work. The one drawback? Last week, there were only eight sets of pages. Considering the popular appeal of this show, they’re going to need a lot more.
NICHOLAS NIXON: Persistence of Vision
At Institute of Contemporary Art, 25 Harbor Shore Drive, through April 22. 617-478-3100, www.icaboston.org
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.