2022 Tribute to women in the history of the CRF | FIU News

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Peggy Levison Nolan was a single mother of seven in her 40s when she enrolled in a photography course at FIU. After dropping out of college, she lived for many adult years in low-income housing while savoring every minute with her children. So when her father handed her a used camera, Nolan knew exactly what she wanted to capture: her daughter bent over in a shabby chair as she was engrossed in a magazine, a teenage son reclining on a couch surrounded by crumpled laundry, a young boy getting his bangs trimmed, sisters dancing together in front of a Christmas tree. Such images of ordinary life would eventually garner widespread attention – and hundreds of dollars.

“Pictures are unforgiving in their depiction of our sprawling, neglected lives,” Nolan’s eldest son, as a parent himself, wrote for his 2018 book, “Real Pictures: Tales of a Badass Grandma.” A review by Chris Wiley for The New Yorker said, “There’s a tenderness and sensitivity to these family photos that can’t be faked.”

Finding his way to darkroom management at CRF, Nolan taught countless students not only how to develop photos, but inspired their creativity. To communicate the elusive nature of what distinguishes one photograph among millions, she built a personal library of hundreds of photography books that she kept on campus and referred to “to show a student, not to mention, that is what I mean”. And his encouragement made all the difference, says freelance photographer Manny Hernandez ’96, who remembers his kind words, terrific eye and freestyle from years ago, even though the two met more recently at local events. “I now see 25-year-olds in the art scene, and it blows their minds,” Hernandez says. “She’s hip and cool. She could go around these people.

Nolan earned both a BFA (1990) and an MFA (2001) from FIU and eventually served as a film photography instructor. Retired from teaching, the 77-year-old is represented by a local gallery, last year mounted the solo exhibition “Blueprint for a Good Life” at FIU’s Patricia and Phillip Frost Art Museum, and has a second book that should be out soon. Most notably, she’s always thrilled with her photos’ ability to invite viewers into something special. “Complete strangers that I will never meet,” she says, “are going to have this intimate experience with my family.”

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