Renowned photographer abruptly retires as MassArt investigates alleged misconduct

Nicholas Nixon at the Museum of Fine Arts in 2010.
Globe Staff/File
Nicholas Nixon at the Museum of Fine Arts in 2010.

Renowned photographer Nicholas Nixon retired abruptly from the Massachusetts College of Art and Design this month, departing mid-semester amid allegations of inappropriate behavior, the school has announced.

In an e-mail addressed to students and faculty, MassArt president David Nelson said Thursday the school had received allegations about Nixon, prompting officials to launch an investigation into whether his conduct violated Title IX, the federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender.

“We take reports of any form of sexual harassment, inappropriate behavior, or misconduct seriously,” said Nelson, who noted the investigation is being carried out by an independent consultant. “[H]e is no longer in the classroom or on campus.”


Nixon, 70, is among the most influential photographers of his generation. Known for his work in portraiture and documentary photography, Nixon is most famous for a series of annual photos of his wife and her sisters that dates back to the 1970s. He has received three National Endowment for the Arts fellowships as well as two Guggenheim fellowships. His photographs have been collected by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the National Gallery of Art, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, among many others.

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Nixon, who has taught at MassArt for more than 40 years, referred questions about his departure and the investigation to his attorney, Bruce A. Singal.

“He has received notice that the college will conduct an investigation into reports that he allegedly made inappropriate comments in the presence of students and staff members,” Singal said in a prepared statement.

MassArt officials have not detailed the nature of the allegations against Nixon. But Singal suggested the investigation will focus on Nixon’s classroom behavior.

“Nick has been widely known for a provocative teaching style in a creative art school environment that he believed was inspiring to his students,” he said. “This investigation — which has not even begun yet — is to determine whether or not Nick made inappropriate comments in the classroom. In fairness, we hope the investigation can be completed before any conclusions are drawn.”


Nixon, whose work has included images of children, people near the end of life, and intimate portraits of nude couples, gained fame from “The Brown Sisters,” an annual series of black and white group portraits of his wife, Bebe, and her three sisters that he began taking in 1975.

The series is currently on display, along with other Nixon photographs, at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston. In a statement, the ICA said it learned Thursday that Nixon had retired and that MassArt was investigating allegations of inappropriate behavior.

“We are truly disheartened by this news and take it very seriously,” the ICA said in a statement. “We do not currently have adequate information to fully understand the scope of these allegations. The ICA is committed to a culture of inquiry, respect and democracy, and once we have more information we will move to act responsibly and responsively.”

In his e-mail to the college community, Nelson urged people to report any instance of sexually inappropriate behavior to the school.

“There are several MassArt staff members who are here to help,” Nelson said in the note, which contained a link to report complaints. “We will listen, we will take you seriously, we will investigate, and we will take appropriate action to address concerns and to maintain a healthy living and learning environment at MassArt.”


Neal Rantoul, a professor emeritus and former head of the photography program at Northeastern University, said the allegations, coupled with Nixon’s abrupt retirement, were “extremely disturbing.”

“[T]his opens a wound in the photographic community in the region,” said Rantoul. “I do hope that, through the fact of people going public, there can begin to be a healing of this wound and an easing of the pain. I commend the president of the college for his open letter and understand this too is difficult for the school.”

In a recent video posted by the ICA on its website, Nixon is seen sitting with his wife, speaking affectionately about their life together and his pride in her work as a social worker.

He described the unique challenge of his work, especially people who are posing nude for him.

“Photographing people is hard psychologically. I have to be a kind of Don Juan,” Nixon said, explaining how he coaxes people to relax in front of the camera. “But I have to be polite and kind, and completely honest and transparent.”

Malcolm Gay can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @malcolmgay. Kay Lazar can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKayLazar.