Photographer Jeff Nixon, 63, started his artistic journey with a few unassuming first steps as a high schooler in Danville. He came across a photograph by Ansel Adams that hit a note. He considered taking pictures for his high school’s yearbook – in the end, he didn’t – but he did photograph his father racing cars.
A 15-day Yosemite workshop with Ansel Adams finally hooked him. After that, Nixon didn’t just get to meet his photography heroes, he got to work for them: Morley Baer, John Sexton, Rod Dresser and, most significantly, Adams.
“I got technical advice and hints,” Nixon says. “It was neat to see how they worked. [Photography] was their life. I got to assist Ansel and Morley in the field and darkroom.”
He applied their lessons to his own photography: lustrous black and whites of hallowed landscapes in the American West fine art photography tradition. And he didn’t just work for them; he befriended them, became their colleague, earning commissions, teaching, making fine art prints to show and sell.
Then it started to go wrong.
He was drinking more. Alcoholism didn’t happen suddenly.
“It was an ongoing process,” Nixon says. “It sneaks up on people and becomes a problem. It cost me jobs, friends, reputation.”
It led to him being homeless in Monterey for a year and a half. Even then, he continued taking pictures – on a Canon digital camera – though he admits it wasn’t his most productive artistic period: “I didn’t have transportation. You’re trying to make a buck just to have food.”
He says that his older brother found him on the street, took him to a Modesto recovery center and saved his life. With recovery came this clarity: “The good Lord went, ‘Maybe it’s time for you to start using your talents, which I’ve been saving you for.’”
That was about a year ago. Now he’s got a show opening Saturday at Carmel Visual Arts (alongside the women of FotoSaga). The work covers all formats, digital and film, small prints, big landscapes, the kind of photos Adams took, the kind that Nixon roamed Yosemite, Big Sur, Death Valley to capture.
Photos from his time being homeless will not be represented. They just don’t fit, he says. They’re an aberration. But that experience taught him gratitude.
“Some people don’t make it back,” he says.