A Photo Scandal

I am writing this at a time when the news recently broke about the photographer Nick Nixon's early retirement from his professorship at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design in early March, amid accusations of "inappropriate behavior". An investigation is underway.

I am going to weigh in here as my teaching career at the college level spans over 40 years teaching photography, just like Nixon's did.

Anyone with a long teaching career such as Nick's, whose time was spent teaching photography at undergraduate and graduate levels, has to ask  "was I ever inappropriate in the classroom, am I getting too close to my students, am I misinterpreting their praise for me, did I behave well, is my behavior beyond reproach?". Once I was a tenured professor (1988) this was really one of the only ways I could be fired, inappropriate activity with a student. I know I was acutely aware that anything at all off could put my career in jeopardy. For instance, I had a rule, that when students came to my office for advising, if my door had been closed, it stayed open while we met. I would tell new teachers this same rule when I hired them. Are there students who are manipulative and use sex as a way to get someplace in their studies? Yes. Negotiating this potential minefield is part of the responsibility inherent in teaching, I believe.

Of course, I am disturbed by accusations serving as a presumption of guilt in this "me too" time. And yet, imagine being the victim of inappropriate behavior from a professor? My heart goes out to those that were abused, either emotionally or physically.

So, we now have our own "photo scandal", the first in my knowledge in the New England community. (Update: there now seems to be another one, the case of Thomas Roma in NYC, with many accusations of teacher-student sexual contact.) So much pain and misery in so many ways. Was I still a professor teaching art in a college or university I would be on high alert, particularly if I was a man. Time to think over your curriculum, what you say and don't say in class, your behavior on campus and off, your attitude towards women. And remembering who the adult in the room is meant to be.

When being in a school and a longtime teacher, when a leader in the discipline in your university, where you are highly respected by peers and students alike it is somehow easy to see how this could migrate to a sense of power and autonomy that could promote an  "I can do anything I want" syndrome. 

Finally, what remains an issue is what will happen to Nixon's career as an artist. (Another update: the ICA in Boston announced first that it would keep Nixon's large somewhat retrospective show up through its run to April 22, then changed that and took it down four days early, at Nixon's request.) Will he still be showing, collected and held in high levels of esteem as a contemporary master of photography? Will the value of his work stay the same, dip lower or perhaps even go higher? Does this recent scandal condemn him? Remains to be seen. Time will tell.

Topics: Commentary

Permalink | Posted April 19, 2018