Eli Nixon: Private Investigator

Originally written by Terin Talarico for Illiterate Media

Intrinsic to the value of photography since the 19th century is the belief in the realism of the medium and the camera as a truth-device.  Since the mid 20th century, it has been argued by critics such as Alan Trachtenberg, Roland Barthes and Susan Sontag that the photograph only records the surface appearance of people and events; the complex meanings and truths implied by a photo are created constructs associated with the viewer’s sensory and memory experiences. Photographs describe not “reality”, but an individual perspective seen and documented.

Susan Sontag explains in her classic book On Photography, “The photographer was thought to be an acute but non-interfering observer—a scribe, not a poet. But as people quickly discovered that nobody takes the same picture of the same thing, the supposition that cameras furnish an impersonal, objective image yielded to the fact that photographs are evidence not only of what’s there but of what an individual sees, not just a record, but an evaluation of the world.”  Sontag touches on the topic of photographic subjectivity and objectivity again in her essay Regarding the Pain of Others: “The dual powers of photography- to generate documents and to create works of visual art- have produced some remarkable exaggerations about what photographers ought or ought not to do.” For Sontag and other post-structuralist thinkers, the photo historian must excavate an archive to reveal not merely what is in it, but the very conditions that have made that archive possible.

A particularly curious collection put together by Longmont photographer, writer, teacher and reporter Eli Nixon is Case Files: an archive of forensic photography created during the 1980’s while traveling through the West on his private investigation job. Nixon’s Case Files lack a typically “arty” aesthetic; it is straightforward and documentary. This set is reminiscent of American photographer Walker Evans’ 1930’s documentary work with its simple compositions, flat and even exposures, long depth of field, a subdued color palette, and unemotional appeal. 

However, Nixon has a wonderful sense of how remarkable his everyday is.  This handpicked archive has a certain sensitivity and objective in terms of editing and moment. A morbid curiosity for everyday spectacle is explored by Nixon;  the private eye allows the viewer to see past places and events one would otherwise normally never see.  Nixon also contextualizes and places himself in the set with some self-portraits, gossamer glimpses through his car window, and the dated signage and buildings. In this way, Case Files echoes Stephen Shore’s distinct narrative style and perspective.

Nixon Pig Head

Nixon Autopsy

Nixon Wounds

Nixon Knife

Nixon Apt Scene

Nixon Graf Palms

Nixon Morgue

Invisible action and the architecture of authority is implied by Eli Nixon’s archive of Case Files.  The human subject or “criminal” can be understood by its non-human objects and relations; this anthology promotes the normalizing gaze of the camera or public surveillance that makes it possible to qualify, classify and systemize criminals.  Case Files asks just how justice and truth are constructed: a series of partial evidences and (photographic) perspectives. 

Nixon Hooker

Nixon Parking Lot

Nixon car window

Nixon Truck

Nixon Meth Lab

Also worth checking out are Nixon’s landscapes of Boulder County and Northern Colorado, where he now resides.  These photos make up 90% of his Flickr stream and are an exercise in routine and repetition.  These are typically shot while walking his dog or during a morning drive. Nixon makes his common view of uncommon surroundings something to behold.

Nixon Snow