Steven R. Nickerson: May I Bring Light

Steven R. Nickerson in 2006 in a photograph by his wife, photographer Karen McClean.
Steven R. Nickerson in 2006 in a photograph by his wife, photographer Karen McClean.

ROME (June 10, 2013) – News of Steve's death just reached me here in Rome, and I am so sad. It depresses me greatly to think about never getting another really crazy eMail from him. Or the phone call that makes me question sanity – both mine and his. Or his funny photographs. Or the inspiration that comes from watching him suffer so long, usually quiet in his hardship and with a sense of humor beyond imagination. After all these years of seeing him be so very, very sick, it's hard to believe the day finally arrived when Death got around to finding his door. He'd dodged Death for so long, so many times. It was like Steve was playing tag with him, and he always seemed to slip away. Laughing sometimes, but always with flair. But not this time.

When I think of Steve I think of two (actually, three) words: Absolutely Insane, and Graceful. Steve's journey was painful and yet graceful. I'm sure his dear wife Karen saw so much more than we did, but no matter how bad - or good - it was going Steve showed us his grace. How could he have done that for so long? God, it was February 2006 when we thought he was going to die, when the fundraiser and print auction was organized in Denver, when I wrote "Steven R. Nickerson: As Rare As Hen's Teeth." And then he lived seven more years. Laughing at us? Or in love with us just for being there? I think both. 

How many photographers did he inspire during his lifetime? Across Michigan, across Colorado, photographers who then spread out across the country and the world. Sometimes he signed prints with his motto: "If You Learn To Shoot With Your Heart You'll Move People's Souls." Sitting side by side in my office back in Austin are two framed photographs, one by Steve and one by Karen. I love them both. He sent them one day out of the blue, a matched set, when he came back to Denver after one of his trips to doctors at Johns Hopkins. He and Karen were a team, he said, and they were going through this together. She even put up with his crazy idea of side trips to some whacky museum that, clearly, only he found amusing. 

But in the face of that suffering, he was brave. And he was also a brave artist. I asked him for a picture to go with the story. He said Karen had recently shot the best one, he'd send it right along. And he did. And we used it. And here it is, on this page. And I knew right then: this is a special person, a rare person, someone whose radio is receiving many more channels than the rest of us. 

How very odd: a few hours ago at lunch here at the school in Rome, before I knew he was dead, we were talking about angels and whether they are real or not, and whether they drift into and out of our lives without us even knowing it. We were talking about a particularly sweet shaft of light that appeared for me only momentarily this weekend, on the death spot of Saint Francis in Assisi, illuminating the scene in a very special way and then disappearing just as quickly as it came. One of the Jesuits here commented that it was because I have a guardian angel, one who is interested in photography. Not any talent on my part, mind you; the photograph was clearly the result of an attentive and interested angel, he said.

Now I'm not saying Steve was an angel. Oh, far from it. But angels often come along with a special message and once it's delivered, they seem to go on their merry way. Mission accomplished. I don't know if Steve's mission was done, but he certainly delivered one hell of a message. By comparison our suffering is put into perspective, and for the past few years we've been given a living example of grace in the face of extreme suffering in the person of our friend Steve. 

God bless you, Steve. When I first saw this picture that Karen shot of you back in 2006 I thought, "Now there's an angel and a devil all in the same body." Just look at the expression on his face. The picture said to me, "Yeah, this hurts. Yeah, this sucks. Systemic Sclerosis is a bitch, but I can take it. Bring it on." 

When I found out Steve was gone, I did the reverse math to figure out where I was and what I was doing when he passed. As best I can figure I was in Assisi, lurking around the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli and the spot on the Basilica's floor where Saint Francis left this earth, photographing some very sweet light. How fitting. Since Saint Francis left directions for all photographers, you know, in his prayer: "Where there is darkness, may I bring light." 

In the end, Steve, I believe you were one of the better angels. We're certainly better people for having known you. I'm sorry you're gone, but I'm so happy that your years of suffering have finally ended. Please drop by again if you can come for a visit. I'd love to hear what the light is really like out there. 

– Donald R. Winslow, News Photographer magazine


Please join Karen and their family and friends in a celebration of Steve’s life on Saturday June 15, 6 – 9 p.m., at the The Anchor Center for Blind Children, 2550 Roslyn St., Denver, CO, 80238. And if you're already missing Nickerson's voice, you might watch this video that Eric Seals shot of Steve in 2006.