The Brown Sisters, Year In and Year Out

The Brown Sisters, Year In and Year Out May 23, 2013

One of the things I love most about photography is its ability to “freeze” things we humans usually experience fluidly — to capture and crystallize something (or someone) for future viewers and generations who will never be able to experience those moments “in person.”

On the other hand, that ability can sometimes be as much curse as gift, leaving shutterbugs struggling to find elegant ways past that very tendency towards crystallization — searching to present the passage of time photographically in spite of the frozen frames. Making sure that the stillness is alive, somehow.

Great photographers, though, often find a way to embrace both aspects. And this project — “Twenty-Five Years of the Brown Sisters”, by American photographer Nicholas Nixon — is a particularly spectacular example.

Begun in 1975, Nixon’s annual group portraits of the artist’s wife Bebe and her three sisters comprise his most well-known series. Collectively, they represent a distinct take on the tradition of portraiture for their rigorous simplicity in mode of conception and overall romantic beauty. Through this picture-history of the four Brown siblings, Nixon chronicles, almost methodically, slivers in time of the dramatic, ever-changing aging process by way of which familiarity and permanence may also be found.

The site where I first saw the collection — 22 Words, I think it was — had them arranged in order, which made the aging process really jump out at you. But Nixon’s folks asked that they be removed, so you need to click through to the collection page over at the Zabriskie Gallery see them. Do it, though; it’s definitely worth it.

Particularly interesting to me is the way Nixon avoids the “time-lapse” look. He doesn’t try to duplicate the poses and locations from shot to shot, though he does keep them in the same “reading order” (L. to R.) in each portrait.  As a result,  I think they’re simultaneously successful as unrepeatable portraits, and as examples of “coming alive in the stillness.” Perhaps that’s because the subjects are so very meaningful to Nixon himself:

Being an only child, it was really gratifying and lovely to be embraced by this family. There’s still a ground water of affection, and support. I look back at these thirty-some pictures and it’s like they’re of my sisters. I can feel myself getting old with them. And I’m part of them; they’re part of my love.

(The Museum of Modern Art has an even more comprehensive collection of the Brown portraits — all the way through 2008, if I understand correctly. And yes, he’s still taking them. But I can’t figure out how to sort the images chronologically. And that’s particularly frustrating in connection with the “passage of time” point. There is a fun little “MoMA Multimedia: Kids” audio clip, though.)

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