Influenced by the photographs of Edward Weston and Walker Evans, Nixon began working with large-format cameras. Whereas most professional photographers had abandoned these cameras in favor of shooting on 35 mm film with more portable cameras, Nixon preferred the format because it allowed prints to be made directly from the large format negatives, retaining the clarity and integrity of the image. Nixon has said "When photography went to the small camera and quick takes, it showed thinner and thinner slices of time, [unlike] early photography where time seemed non-changing. I like greater chunks, myself. Between 30 seconds and a thousandth of a second the difference is very large."
His first solo exhibition was at the Museum of Modern Art curated by John Szarkowski in 1976. Nixon’s early city views taken of Boston and New York in the mid-seventies were exhibited at one of the most influential exhibitions of the decade, New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape at the George Eastman House in 1975. In the late nineties, Nixon returned to this subject matter to document Boston’s changing urban landscape during the Big Dig highway development project. In 1976, 1980, and 1987, Nixon was awarded National Endowment for the Arts Photography Fellowships. In 1977 and 1986, he was awarded Guggenheim Fellowships.
Nixon's subjects include schoolchildren and schools in and around Boston, people living along the Charles River near Boston and Cambridge as well as cities in the South, his family and himself, people in nursing homes, the blind, sick and dying people, and the intimacy of couples. Nixon is also well known for his work People With AIDS, begun in 1987. Nixon recorded his subjects with meticulous detail in order to facilitate a connection between the viewer and the subject.
In 1975, Nixon began his project, The Brown Sisters consisting of a single portrait of his wife, Bebe, and her three sisters each year, consistently posed in the same left to right order. As of 2014, there are forty portraits altogether. The series has been shown at the St. Louis Art Museum, Museum of Modern Art, Harvard University's Fogg Art Museum, the Cincinnati Art Museum, the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth and the National Gallery of Art. In 2010, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston organized the exhibition "Nicholas Nixon: Family Album" which included "The Brown Sisters" series among other portraits of his wife Bebe, himself and his children Sam and Clementine.
Nixon gained a B.A. from the University of Michigan in 1969 and an M.F.A from the University of New Mexico in 1975. He has worked as a part-time professor at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design since 1975.
- Photographs From One Year (1983)
- Pictures of People (1988)
- People With AIDS (with Bebe Nixon) (1991)
- School (1998)
- The Brown Sisters (2002)
- Nicholas Nixon Photographs (2003)
- Home (2005)
- Live Love Look Last (2009)
- Close Far (2013)
- Forty Portraits in Forty Years (2014)
- Durrell, Jane (2005-04-06). "Photographer Nicholas Nixon pays attention to form". Retrieved 2007-07-11.
- Minot, Susan (October 3, 2014). "Forty Portraits in Forty Years". The New York Times. Retrieved October 4, 2014.
- Nixon video interview about The Brown Sisters The Museum of Modern Art
- Nixon in the Collection of The Museum of Modern Art
- Nixon Faculty Bio at MassArt
- Interview with Nixon from 2013
- Interview with Nixon from Ahorn Magazine
- Forty Portraits in Forty Years—Nicholas Nixon portrait series (The Brown Sisters)