Old People & Patients and People with AIDS: Photographs by Nicholas Nixon

elderly woman

C.C., Boston, 1983 | © Nicholas Nixon, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco

Nicholas Nixon has devoted a significant amount of his long career — which stretches back to the 1970s — to taking portraits of people who are sick and dying. The images in the slideshow below are from two projects he did in the 1980s: Photographs of Old People and People with AIDS. He continues to work with people coming to the end of their lives, including those in palliative care and hospice.

He tells Anne Strainchamps that this is something he’s been interested in for a long time, even before he explicitly made it his subject matter. “I think I was interested in mortality before I even knew it,” he said. “Something drew me to life being short, and sweet, and sad early on.”

One of Nixon’s most celebrated projects is a series of portraits of his wife and her sisters, with one photo taken annually starting in 1975. Though none of those pictures appear in this series, Nixon says that they would not be out of place. “They state their ambition right up close: to keep going to the end.”

Interview Highlights

On “shadow detail” in photography and life

As a photography teacher, I call it ‘shadow detail.’ If you take — especially a black and white picture — and in the deepest shadows there’s no detail, there’s no information, then to me that’s kind of a shabby thing. I think pictures should have detail in the highlights and the shadows, and in fact it’s the shadows that make the highlights have meaning. Because if you only look at the good part, then you’re just around with blinders. If you look clearly and honestly at everything, then the good things have more meaning and the bad things are part of everything…I think life’s better if you accept you’re going to die, and if you accept things are going to be hard then you are happier then when they’re good.

On his technical process and its collaborative nature

The film is 8“x10” — it’s a big wooden view camera on a tripod — and it’s very cumbersome, it’s very slow, the image on the ground glass is upside down, the pictures are expensive, and I don’t take a whole lot. There are two virtues to it: the main virtue is clarity. There’s nothing clearer. If you see an original print you can count every hair on her head, in a way that’s not even possible with digital. It’s just the utmost, ultimate kind of description in photography.

But b), the style of it suits me because it's kind of collaborative, in that I have it sitting next to me and people, once they get trusting, feel like it’s collaborative—like we’re going to do it together. There is something kind of slow and very old fashioned to it…and people know I’m not trying to trick them. I don’t take anything that they don’t want to give.

On his photographs of people with AIDS

At the time, all the people with AIDS — that I saw at least — were people toward the end and they were kind of emaciated and they were mostly gay men and they mostly looked the same. It’s as though the illness took away their personalities and shrunk them. And that, it seemed to me, made it easier for people who weren’t gay or in any kind of trouble to hold their arm out straight and say, ‘Well that’s not me…’

So I had the audacity to hope that a book of individuals might make at least a few people see. Because once you know an individual your stereotype always goes away…"

On “giving the brightness depth”

I hope that making some meaning out of [death] will make some sense of it, and will balance off the good that we have. It seems — have you ever heard of Galway Kinnel, the poet? He just died, and I heard an interview with him…They [asked him], “Why do you deal with such hard things?” And he said, ‘To give the brightness meaning. To give the brightness depth.’

These slideshow galleries are a collaboration with FlakPhoto, an independent photo/arts collaborative that promotes the discovery of photographic image-makers from around the world. Since 2006, creator Andy Adams has staged exhibitions, publications and public conversations that foster photography culture on- and offline. FlakPhoto is based in Madison, Wisconsin, USA.