The Museum of Modern Art first exhibited Nicholas Nixon’s photographs of the Brown Sisters in 1976, as part of his first-ever solo exhibition titled Longer Views: 40 Photographs by Nick Nixon. The series was in its infancy at the time and only two portraits of the sisters existed, but John Szarkowski, then Director of the MoMA’s Department of Photography and an advocate of Nixon’s work, recognized the series’ early promise and included the sisters among Nixon’s other photographs. This year, we’re celebrating a different set of 40 photographs by Nixon but the title Longer Views could still apply. The mesmerizing series of 40 annual portraits of the Brown Sisters—currently on view in the Museum lobby and captured in special tri-tone reproductions in a new publication—appears to both suspend and accelerate time as viewers pore over the images of the sisters made between 1975 and 2014. As Sarah Hermanson Meister, Curator, Department of Photography, observes in her essay for the book,
We note the physical manifestations of the passage of time, we speculate on the significance of an expression, a gesture, an article of clothing, we remark on the variety of the pictorial solutions Nixon finds within strict technical and formal parameters, and we marvel at the trust among these participants. In the end, we grow older along with these women, yet we are confronted with four lives we will never know through the eyes of a fifth. And in the space created through that ignorance, we find the potential for understanding the series as a work of art, despite our familiarity with the ritual of standing before a camera with friends or relatives.
For more of Meister’s essay, read on below.
Nicholas Nixon will sign copies of his new book at the MoMA Design and Bookstore on Monday, December 8, from 4:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m.
Excerpt from “Nicholas Nixon: 40 Years of The Brown Sisters” by Sarah Hermanson Meister:
The facts about the series are clear but few in number. In August 1974, Nixon was twenty-six years old, and had been married to Beverly (Bebe) for three years. He made a photograph of Bebe and her three sisters, Laurie, Heather, and Mimi, at a family gathering, but wasn’t pleased with the result and discarded the negative. In July 1975 he made another, and this one seemed promising enough to keep. At the time, the sisters were fifteen (Mimi), twenty-one (Laurie), twenty-three (Heather), and twenty-five (Bebe). The following June, Laurie Brown graduated from college, and Nick made another picture of the four sisters. It was after this second successful picture that the group agreed to gather annually for a portrait and settled on the series’ two constants: the sisters would always appear in the same order—from left to right, Heather, Mimi, Bebe, and Laurie—and they would jointly select a single image to represent a given year. (If you have sisters, or even if you don’t, you’ll know this course might be difficult; add to it the emotional dynamic of a husband/brother-in-law for whom artistic coherence and psychological presence are paramount, and you can begin to appreciate the challenge these simple constants present.) Also significant, and unchanging, is the fact that each portrait is made with an eight-by-ten-inch view camera on a tripod and is captured on a black-and-white-film negative. For a quarter of a century, Nixon printed these negatives exclusively as contact prints, so that the results were always the same size and showed exquisite detail and continuity of tone. Nixon has observed of his signature process,
“It creates the illusion of being able to see more than the eye could see if you were there. It’s basically the clearest picture one can make in photography. Part of it has to do with faithfulness, but it’s also a matter of making a print whose quality of realism is so heightened that it’s sometimes surreal. Yet I can’t make it up: it’s absolutely there. I just love that. I’ve loved that for twenty years. I’ve tried everything from a half-frame camera to eleven by fourteen, but I stick to making contact prints. And eight by ten seems to be my size.”