When did you start making the pictures of your wife Bebe and your children?
We have two children. Sam was born 1983, when I’d just begun to photograph nursing-home people. And, off and on during that period I would also try to photograph him. None of the pictures were particularly interesting to me. Two years later, when our daughter, Clementine, was born, I was finishing up with the nursing-home pictures and looking for something different to do, although I didn’t know it consciously. There was something about her that moved me tremendously. I never had any sisters and don’t really know about little girls. And I had been hoping she would be a girl. So when she was born there was just something about her that seemed special and wonderful and I became fascinated, and I imposed myself. It didn’t take long. I just made a couple of pictures and they turned out well. I was hooked and I went around bothering everybody. I could have done it six or eight hours a day. A lot of thanks go to Bebe because she had to manage things and put up with me doing it, and sit there holding them.
How much time did you devote to photographing your children?
Probably a couple of hours most days. I’d split the time between the two of them. There were days when it was only twenty minutes but most days I did something. It was hard for them at times even though I tried to keep it fun. Sometimes I strained their patience and they would tell me.
This series fits in with your photographing a particular individual over a period of time, like the ongoing portrait of the Brown sisters that you begain in 1975.
Yes. I really hope to do it for as long as they will let me. Like the pictures of the Brown sisters- I hope they will add up to something terrific in twenty or thirty years.
Unlike the earlier work, these are people you know and love and live with. Did that change the way the pictures look?
I changed. I’m more interested in photographing people i know. Last summer I went out with a camera and photographed outdoors again. I wasn’t very happy with the pictures and I realized that I’m just not interested in strangers at the moment. And my family is the most intense version of this. I don’t have to explain myself and they can talk back to me. So in a way it’s more fun, and I see it was something that I can do along with other things. And that’s thrilling because I’ve never been particularly good at doing two things at once. It’s wonderful to have that as a possibility now. There really aren’t any limits. It’s just between me and them and our whims. As they get older they’re more participatory- they have more ideas themselves about what’s good. Sometimes I think they’re nuts, but most of the time I’m happy to be changed by it.
Many of your first family pictures were nudes. Why did you do that?
I just loved their skin. It was so fresh and wonderful and it just knocked me out. They seemed like beautiful, pliable, wonderful creatures with this covering that was changing daily. Maybe it was the challenge of making old fashioned pictures. In some ways these are the most conservative looking of my pictures, and they’re more physically beautiful. They look a little like sculpture pictures- maybe like Clarence Kennedy’s or Edward Weston’s. I’m sure I steal from everybody as much as most people do.
The sense of intimacy is heightened in these pictures. The separation between you and what you’re photographing seems to have disappeared.
That’s nice. It gives me pleasure to hear that.
Your pictures merge the spontaneity of snapshots with the deliberateness of the large format process. Did you decide you wanted to do that at some point?
No. It really just happened. The whole process has been pleasing myself, learning what the camera can do, and responding to fascinating subjects along the way. The quickness of making pictures that we talked about earlier hasn’t really changed. Maybe part of my artistic ambition is to keep the lively part of snapshots and get rid of the dull, studied part of portraits, but maintain the best juice of both. And mix the two together. But it’s nothing I’m trying to do consciously. I’m really just trying to satisfy myself day to day with something I make.
Sullivan, Constance & Weiley, Susan; 1991; Family pictures: Photographs by Nicholas Nixon; Italy; The Smithsonian Institution press.