Celebrating the publication and exhibition on the 40th anniversary of Nicholas Nixon’s The Brown Sisters, the Department of Photography wanted to share from its collection a selection of “postcards” by Nixon that the photographer sent to the department’s former director, John Szarkowski. On the back of each of these photographs, one finds letters written by Nixon to Szarkowski. Nixon first contacted Szarkowski in 1972, after he attended Szarkowski’s lecture on the British photographer Bill Brandt. Nixon, unsure of what graduate program to pursue, sought the advice of the respected curator. Much to Nixon’s delight, Szarkowski responded with an encouraging letter. (Nixon admits “I would be a college English teacher if it weren’t for John.”) They reconnected the following year in New Mexico, where Nixon chose to do his graduate studies (as Szarkowski had recommended). Their correspondence became more regular, and their friendship deepened.
Between 1972 and 1991 (when Szakowski retired from the Museum), Nixon sent more than 60 letters. Nixon’s correspondence is part diary/part sounding board for his projects. According to Nixon, if Szakowski thought a photograph was successful or the content of the letter particularly novel, provocative, or noteworthy, he would write back. Even from their first exchange, Nixon writes without a filter, openly sharing his thoughts on photography and life; Nixon informs Szarkowski on his successes and failures, weighing camera choices and professional opportunities. Over the years, the postcards became more and more personal (by 1975 the formal “Dear Mr. Szarkowski” had changed to the more familiar “Dear John”). While the subject is predominantly related to photography there are also frequent family updates, sports observations (the plight of the Boston Red Sox), and book recommendations (Nixon received his BA in English). Reading through Nixon’s postcards offers a window into his personal and artistic development, and his relationship with Szarkowski. Flip them over and savor an idiosyncratic cross-section of Nixon’s career.
The photographs featured here are eight-by-ten-inch gelatin silver contact prints. If you look closely, you will notice creases and dents in their surface— traces of their postage through the U.S Postal Services.
Each caption includes an excerpt from Nixon’s letter, except where the verso is reproduced in full. All works by Nicholas Nixon. © Nicholas Nixon
Nicholas Nixon: Forty Years of The Brown Sisters is on view in the main Museum lobby from November 22, 2014, through January 4, 2015. Nixon will join us on December 8, to sign copies of his new publication, Nicholas Nixon: The Brown Sisters, Forty Years, at the MoMA Design and Book Store. More information will be posted on MoMA.org soon.