Nicholas Nixon: The Brown Sisters has recently been acquired for the Modern's collection. This series of thirty-one black-and-white portraits of the artist's wife and her three sisters offers a compelling look at both portraiture and familial relationships.
Michael Auping, Chief Curator at the Modern, comments, "A factual description of The Brown Sisters sounds simple enough: black-and-white photographs of four sisters taken over a period of time. However, when you see these images together as a group, they have a remarkable impact. Over a period of thirty years, Nixon has transformed the idea of the dreaded family photo into something powerfully intimate, even epic. You don't need a lot of art jargon to explain what these works are about. They are about lives lived, and the two things that most of us obsess about: relationships and time."
Nixon's series, taken with an 8 x 10 inch view camera, involves a number of intentional constraints. The sisters always appear in the same order from left to right: Heather, Mimi, Bebe, and Laurie. The portrait is usually taken outside in natural light, in or around Boston. Although he shoots a number of 8 x 10 inch negatives, Nixon selects only one a year to work from, making a contact print to give the greatest amount of detail.
The systematic progression of images within these specified parameters exposes a visual record of not only the relationships between the sisters, but also the sisters' relationship with Nixon and his camera. From the first photograph in 1975 to the most recent portrait, dated 2005, the viewer witnesses the sisters' growing familiarity with the camera, as well as the effects of a lifetime of events on their relationships with each other. The embraces and expressions of the sisters convey the story of the thirty-one years of their lives. While some events in the sisters' lives are obvious, such as pregnancy, others are less apparent and are open to interpretation.
The yearly progression also illustrates the subtle affects of time on the body, yet despite the sisters' changing physical appearances, each woman's demeanor and expression remains remarkably constant in each photograph. Nixon captures an instant in which all four sisters reveal themselves honestly, exposing the same women found in that first portrait of 1975. The challenge of being a portrait photographer is to transcend the simple act of taking a picture to capture his or her subject's essence. It is a testament to Nixon's skill that he was able to do this with four sitters consistently for thirty-one years.
Born in 1947 in Detroit, Michigan, Nicholas Nixon studied American Literature at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. He received an MFA in photography at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque and is currently a professor of photography at Massachusetts College of Art in Boston. Much of Nixon's photography is taken in or around Boston, from portraits of schoolchildren to his first major photographic series of cityscapes from atop buildings. Nixon often spends more than a year investigating his subjects. His series have included portraits of people on porches, AIDS patients in their last months, and nursing home residents. In addition to the Modern's collection, Nixon is represented in public collections across the country, including the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.