Saturday, May 19, 2007

Nicholas Nixon and Judith Joy Ross take us to school

Photographers choose the cameras they use based on a number of decisions. From the ratio of the frame and the descriptive power of different negative sizes to the ease of operation and amount of control one has in making the image. Great photographers take all of those possibilities into consideration leaving none unpremeditated.

Henri Cartier-Bresson chose the small 35mm camera as his tool. Its unobtrusive size and ease of operation allowed him the spontaneity to master the camera’s 1:1.5 frame ratio while on the move. Atget chose an 8X10 view camera one might assume because of its descriptive power from such a large negative.

Photographers like Weegee (Arthur Fellig) were able to wield 4X5 press cameras and operate them much like 35mm cameras especially when using a flash as a light source. The number of photographers that handhold such tools are few and far between and almost no one is in favor of attempting to handhold an 8X10. The artist Dag Alvang did for a series of multiple exposure photographs made in the streets. He’s the only one I can think of, and truthfully, I think I’ve only seen one picture from that work.

This brings me to Nicholas Nixon’s book School which was published in 1998 by Bulfinch Press in cooperation with the Center for Documentary Studies and Doubletake Books.

Nicholas Nixon has been known to predominantly, if not exclusively, use 8X10 large format cameras in the production of his work. His pictures offer a mix of formal portraiture combined with the spontaneity of a small camera craftsman. Although often he positions or directs his subjects, the pictures do not seem contrived but contain a grace and sense of the natural rhythms of human movement. This is something that does not come easily when employing such a tool as slow and unwieldy as an 8X10.

The photographs in this book were made in three different locations in the Boston area: a Cambridge elementary school, the Perkins School for the Blind and the Boston Latin School. Robert Coles, the Pulitzer Prize winning child psychiatrist contributes three essays on his experiences and observations while working with Nixon in each locale. Nixon’s wife Bebe conducted interviews with students and teachers and quotes from these appear throughout the book.

What is remarkable with the photographs is Nixon’s ability to seemingly use such a difficult tool in a fluid environment such as a school’s classroom and repeatedly make images that are formally precise and technically flawless. For those of us that have used such a tool, focusing and dealing with the limited depth of field is one main difficulty especially when moving in close to your subject. In these photographs, the focus falls where it should and is never arbitrary.

Nixon is by now very quick in operating this camera through years of experience and in these photographs, his prowess as a photographer is apparent. The camera seems to be moving freely around sans tripod. He is somehow able to juggle the camera, the subject and the lighting (he’s often using strobes) and orchestrate them all together into a single complete photograph.

Beyond the technical, he is able to disappear in the crowd of the class and freely record moments that are completely lacking a sense of self consciousness from the subject. Only on rare occasion do we find people in the frame paying more attention to the photographer at work than to the studies they are pursuing.

At an opening a couple years back, I asked Nicholas Nixon about a picture that he had made which I still find to be a minor miracle of photographic accomplishment. It is a picture of one of his children being held in his wife’s arms and a delicate, unbroken string of drool stretches from his child’s lip and attaches to the wife’s arm, inches from a perfectly described set of stitches.

If you get to see this image in an actual print, where the focus falls is so precisely perfect that it seems impossible to have been controlled to such a degree when you think of the possible movements of the subjects.

When I mentioned that photograph he responded simply that to make that photo, “I had to become a professional photographer.” He mentioned having to learn to use strobes to assist in achieving precise sharpness in certain situations. This work in School is from a photographer who knows his tools so well that they have become natural extensions of his person.

The book itself is straight forward in design, but unfortunately teeters towards the dull. The reproductions are better than one might expect from a book that is equal parts photography and text. This isn’t a great book, but Nixon’s contribution could serve as an education in itself for many photographers.

Another artist that has explored children and teenagers in school is Judith Joy Ross. This past year saw the publication of her book Portraits of the Hazelton Public Schools published by Yale University Press.

Like Nixon, Judith Joy Ross entered the public school system with her 8X10 view camera, some lighting equipment and was given the freedom to work as she saw fit. Unlike Nixon, Ross chose to have her subjects pose for her and her camera and the results are more straight-forward than the invisible approach of Nixon. The subjects are very aware of her presence and with that awareness they reveal perhaps more than they may be comfortable with. In many, the subjects smile directly into the camera which to me is interesting only to the degree that we become aware of people’s response to cameras and photography. In those few images, I don’t find much at risk for the viewer. Unless the thing that may wound us is our recognition of their innocence and idealism at that moment and how that may be affected in their future.

In the best of these portraits there is something behind the smile that reminds us of the workings of the inner self. Often there is a slight awkwardness of a piece of clothing, pair of eyeglasses or posture that also pushes the images into deeper waters.

For the first half of the book we are in elementary school classes and as we read along, we seem to see them grow into young adults passing from grade to grade. By the time we get into pictures that were made in high schools, the students are forming their identities and self image as they choose to show it to the world. The images in turn become more about the inner dialog we have with ourselves. Vulnerability is there but more importantly the future and awareness of unforeseen possibility is apparent in their expressions.

The book is really well designed and printed. The reproductions mimic lush tonalities of the gold toned printing-out-paper Ross utilizes in her printmaking process. Jock Reynolds lends an interesting and well written essay about the project and Ross’s life in photography.

Judith Joy Ross embarked on this three year project wanting the viewer to “reconnect with what it is to be a kid.” I think that both of these photographers accomplished that through two distinct voices that are very aware of their inner child.

Book Available Here