A Photographic Allegory

I absolutely love this Nicholas Nixon photograph from MOMA’s collection.  Entitled simply, “Covington, Kentucky,” it’s a picture you can look at for hours and still feel something new and different.  The composition is exquisite: those horizontal lines and shadows backing the smooth, light skin of innocent childhood in summertime; the young girl looking longingly at his repose; the others glaring at us behind the camera…

But when you look at it alongside the commentary in MOMA Highlights, the art of the photograph can take on a suggestive, almost allegorical vibe that resonates, I think, with the situation of the church in our postmodern age.  Consider this commentary and see if you don’t sense a kind of “ancient-future” sensibility that might illustrate postmodern retrievals of ancient, catholic practices.

The taut clapboards zip across the open middle of the picture as if to measure the outward stretch of the boy’s arms, while he blissfully tilts his head skyward. A photograph can only describe what the camera sees, but this one also shows how a body can feel. There is something else, which the reproduction cannot fully capture. The print was made from a negative as large as itself—eight by ten inches. To make the negative, Nixon used a big camera on a tripod and put his head under a black cloth to focus the image. All of that old-fashioned effort was worthwhile because the richness of detail in the negative yielded a print that is at once sharp as a pin and smooth as a child’s skin and the light that falls upon it.

By the 1970s the artistic traditions of photography were old enough for abandoned styles and techniques to serve as fresh points of departure. After photographers had been in love with the ease and quickness of hand-held cameras for two generations, the cumbersome cameras of the past presented a new challenge. For Nixon, the challenge was to make the old box responsive to unfolding experience: to marry the ancient precision of photography with its modern agility.