Photographer Nicolas Nixon was born in Detroit in 1947. He is known for his black and white portraits. He’s photographed porch life in the rural South, cityscapes, and schools in and around Boston.
He’s also photographed the sick and dying, as well as intimacy between couples. Nixon is able to capture the connection between his subjects and their surroundings. One of his most famous collections is a series of photos of his wife and her sisters.
The idea for this photo exhibition, which was featured in the Museum of Modern Art, was conceived on a whim. It was the summer of 1975 in New Canaan, Connecticut. He was visiting with his wife family when he asked if he could take a picture of his wife and her three sisters.
It wasn’t your typical smiley family photo with arms around one another and giant wide grins saying “cheese.” The black and white photo showed the sisters as cool and composed… stern even. Nixon found the opportunity to photograph the girls again a year later when one of the sisters graduated.
He suggested that the girls line up in the same order as they did in the last photo. “They seemed O.K. with it,” he told the New York Times. That’s when he saw something truly special amongst the Brown sisters.
He saw a beautiful project that would span his entire career. He also saw the special bond which was the source of inspiration for his project. From then on, Nixon has made it a yearly tradition to take a photo of the Brown sisters.
The project would be a very intimate look at sisterhood and how time affected their lives and relationships. Although time may change our appearance and our bodies, it never changes the love shared amongst sisters who have a 10-year difference between the eldest and youngest. The earliest portraits show some of the girls entering adulthood, while others were already in the midst of it.
Nixon would go on to photograph the sisters for 40 plus years. With each portrait, the sisters look older and more mature. Their fashion style has also changed.
The collection has been shown all around the world over the past four decades. It was even on view at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) to coincide with the museum’s publication of the book “The Brown Sisters: Forty Years.” All of the photos are dated with their year and location.
However, the sisters’ individual names are never revealed. Their names from the left are Heather, Mimi, Bebe, who is Nixon’s wife, and Laurie. Just about all of the photos are taken in the New England states of Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Vermont, and New Hampshire.
All except two photos, which were taken in Cincinnati, Ohio and Dallas, Texas. This photo highlights the similarities among the sisters. You can see how they all resemble one another! Yet, the sisters all look much older than they did in the first photos.
They’re no longer girls; they’re beautiful women! Not much planning goes into these family photo shoots. “We just wear what we feel like wearing that day,” Bebe Nixon says.
In the photo below, a decade has passed since the first photo they took. Watching these women go through the transformation that time brings is quite “humbling,” as described by the New York Times’ Susan Minot. “Throughout this series, we watch these women age, undergoing life’s most humbling experience,” Minot writes.
“While many of us can, when pressed, name things we are grateful to Time for bestowing upon us, the lines bracketing our mouths and the loosening of our skin are not among them. So while a part of the spirit sinks at the slow appearance of these women’s jowls, another part is lifted: They are not undone by it. We detect more sorrow, perhaps, in the eyes, more weight in the once-fresh brows. But the more we study the images, the more we see that aging does not define these women.”
“Even as the images tell us, in no uncertain terms, that this is what it looks like to grow old, this is the irrefutable truth, we also learn: This is what endurance looks like.” Each sister is now her own woman. They lead separate lives but the sisterhood they share ties them together.
The photos show them to be closer than ever. Nixon grew up as a single child. So, he has always been intrigued by the bond these women share.
This is evident in his photos. In a way, the sisters seem to get closer which each passing year. This photo is the first photo where it seems they are all smiling. It’s also where we start to see a change in fashion as a result of the times.
In the earlier photos, the women seem to be expressing their independence. Some have their arms folded, or hands in their pockets. But as the years go on you can see how they become closer.
And quite literally as they stand closer and even hug and hold one another. It’s a very powerful statement about the love of family. People were weeping when they saw 36 of the photos on display in Granada, Spain.
It was a beautiful showing of the work. The photo below is the first photo where they are not all looking at the camera. Nixon has always allowed the sisters to have their input on the annual selection of the photo.
But they usually just left it up to Nixon. However, they’ve decided to have more of a say in the last 10 years. There was one time where they unanimously vetoed one of Nixon’s suggestions.
Nixon graciously went along with it. “I have to be fair here,” he said. His shadow can be seen in the photos in 1981, 1983, and 1984.
You can also catch a glimpse of his shadowed 8-by-10 camera. It seems as if he wants to be apart of the group. The later photos seem to show the women’s acceptance of him with trust and affection in their eyes.
“We’ve gotten close,” Nixon says. Nixon says that in addition to family bonds, the photos also highlight privacy as a subject of the photos. This may seem strange as people are meant to stare at the photos and study its subjects.
“The sisters’ privacy has remained of utmost concern to the artist, and it shows in the work. Year after year, up to the last stunning shot with its triumphant shadowy mood, their faces and stances say, ‘Yes, we will give you our image, but nothing else.,” Minot writes. “The sisters allow us to observe them, but we are not allowed in.”
“The reluctance shows particularly in the early pictures: the wary lowered brow, the pressed line of a mouth. Sometimes a body’s stance or the angle of the jaw is downright grudging. These subjects are not after attention, a rare quality in this age when everyone is not only a photographer but often his own favorite subject.”
It’s here in the photos that women have reached middle age. They are completely transformed. They look completely different than that first photo in 1975.
A new millennium has arrived, and the sisters brace it and each other tightly in the photo below. Their love is evident in this photo. It’s a true celebration of sisterhood.
Here are the sisters in Brewster, Massachusettes in 2001. This is another photo of the Brown sisters on the beach. The New Yorker says Nixon’s work offers a refreshing look at aging women.
“Today, we are bombarded by images of women every day—in entertainment, in advertising, in art, on social media. But depictions of women who are visibly aging remain too rare. Stranger still, women whom we know to have aged are often made to appear as if they have not suspended in a state of quixotic youthfulness, verging on the bionic,” Isabel Flower writes for the New Yorker.
Nixon is interested in the women as subjects rather than as images. He dedicates his portraits to the passage of time. This is a stark contrast from most photographers who attempt to defy the passage of time.
“Year by year, his portraits of the Brown sisters have come to mark the progress of all of our lives,” said Flower. Bebe was 25 in the first photo. The other sisters were 23, 15, and 21. In Nixon’s 2017 photo, the women were 68, 66, 58, and 64.
Nixon really hasn’t commented much about this body of work. One of his first comments was: “The world is infinitely more interesting than any of my opinions about it.” Nixon, who was born in Detroit, first showed his work at the Museum of Modern Art on July 22, 1976, just two years into the project.
Two photos of the Brown sisters were shown among photos of Nixon’s landscapes. “The series grew out of boredom,” Nixon told The Guardian. “We’d go down to visit Bebe’s parents on weekends.”
“It was kind of boring, a lot of socializing. We were expected to show up for dinner every day. Out of a friendly desperation, I said: ‘Let’s take a picture.’”
Nixon met his wife Bebe in 1970 when he was 21 and she was 20. The two were married the year after. He actually took a photo of the sisters in 1974.
But that photo was discarded. So the series’ first official photo was taken in 1975. There was “some degree of negotiation” the following year as to what the order of the sisters would be.
He also made the decision to shoot with an 8-by-10 in-view camera. The photos would be in black and white film. The camera would always sit on a tripod.
We can see how time has affected their appearance, but you can see how their love has never changed. But as the final photos approach, one thing is evident. “Everyone won’t be here forever,” Nixon says.
You can see this fact come through in the photos. The women huddle close to each other as if to try and hold tight to one another. Like they never want to let go.
“We are all aware of time passing. And us not being aware of it while it’s passing,” he has said. “So seeing the sisters, for a lot of people, gives them a reliable marker that a year has passed.”
And they have discussed what would happen to the series if one of the sisters passes on. Will Nixon still carry on with it? “We joke about it,” he said
“But everybody knows that certainly, my intention would be that we would go on forever, no matter what. To just take three, and then two, and then one. The joke question is: what happens if I go in the middle. I think we’ll figure that out when the time comes.”