My friends and I have been following this story for several weeks. The news is that renowned American photographer Nicholas Nixon has been removed from his teaching position at MassArt for inappropriate and unacceptable conduct. All parties are tight-lipped as the lawyers presumably circle in the skies above.
Although not exactly the Terry Richardson of art photography, The Boston Globe reported yesterday that Nick Nixon had long been accustomed to "going too far" as the headline of yesterday's article suggests. "It felt like the conversation always led back to sex," one student said. After Nixon asked students to analyze pictures of his own penis, Robin Myers, a 2012 graduate of MassArt, told the Globe, "Artists are always pushing boundaries between provocative and inappropriate, and then that line gets crossed and it becomes very clear. The penis photo incident was where that line became very clear for me."
I met Nick Nixon only once, when I was a student and he was at the beginning of his fame; he's ten years or so older than I am. He came to the Corcoran to give a talk. I was impressed with the matchless virtuosity of his then-new style of close, candid photography using an 8x10 view camera and a wide-angle lens, and the idea that was impressed on me most strongly at the time was that he had initially determined to change his technical style every year...until, that is, he alighted on the right one, which he has stayed with ever since. I even owned a few of his prints for a while, thanks to cameramaker Keith Canham, although I was too poor to be able to keep them. (My Sally Mann prints I could keep, because she wrote letters on the back of them and folded them up to put them in the envelope!)
In fairness to Nick, no students brought complaints against him. The investigation was pursued by the newspaper. At the same time, it seems undeniable that his behavior was inexcusable. As the Globe article reports, "...some of Nixon’s alleged behavior astounded Lorie Novak, a professor of photography & imaging [sic] at New York University. 'To ask undergraduate students in your class to pose nude for you is unacceptable, and from my point of view one of the very definitions of sexual harassment,' Novak said. 'The student is powerless.'"
Agreed, full stop. Still, a sad story and a precipitous fall from grace for someone who had been one of the leading lights of American art photography over most of my adult lifetime.
The article is entitled "Sex, power, and photography. At MassArt, how far is too far?" and it was written by Kay Lazar and Malcolm Gay.
(Thanks to Oren Grad and others)
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Kenneth Tanaka: "Sad? Sure. I met Nixon briefly about ten years ago at a small talk/dinner. He seemed rather quiet, modest but secure. Seemed like a rather nerdy academic-type. I never connected well with much of his work with the exception of his Brown Sisters project (which I keep running into) and some of his Boston cityscapes. (His horror stories of making those from windy rooftops with a huge view camera were more memorable than the images.) Honestly, if the BG report is true, and it certainly seems to be well-checked, what the hell was Nixon thinking? I have never taught an academic class but his excuse about helping to get students out of their boundaries is just plain bull. I'm confident I could conjure at least a dozen better strategies for accomplishing that goal with students. I guess we just never really know what's in someone's mind or, worse, what some people will do when they have power over others.
"Just this morning I was reading the most recent recap of architect Richard Meier's antics which also went on for decades. A lifetime of some remarkable work largely becomes anonymous because this guy, like Nixon, couldn't control his urges. Frankly I have no sympathy for these men and their creepy peers; they can live in hell for the rest of their lives. I had to keep it in check when I was in control of many people in a bigger business. Hopefully we're turning a corner on people not tolerating various sexual and emotional abuses in their work places, although human nature never changes."
John Camp: "I have a hard time getting too upset about this level of 'transgression.' You gotta grow up sometime, might as well be in college. You don't like what the professor suggests, tell him to stick it. In the current climate, he'll get the idea, especially since tenure, or the prospect of tenure, is the Holy Grail in 21st Century academia.
"I'm not sure, exactly, why colleges hire serious artists to teach. There seems to be to be an essential conflict there—transgression has been a byword for artistic endeavor at least since the Renaissance, and sex was usually the major vehicle for that transgression. In a major reversal from the later 20th century, colleges now seem to be taking a much more protective attitude toward students and their delicate psyches. If you wish to protect them, why would you hire somebody whose stock-in-trade is transgression? I mean, Robert Mapplethorpe, Sally Mann, Jock Sturges, Helmut Newton, Jan Saudek, Ruth Bernhard, Man Ray, Edward Weston...you wouldn't want any of those perverts influencing your snowflake."