In 1974, Nicholas Nixon photographed his wife together with her three sisters, their ages ranging from 15 to 25. He published the photo the following year, took a second that year, and then another photo every year after that. In front of Nixon’s 8 x 10 view camera (see the shadow in 1996), usually in New England, the Brown sisters stand outdoors always in the same order. The photographs capture, in the words of a Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth commentary, “the sisters’ growing familiarity with the camera, as well as the effects of a lifetime of events on their relationships with each other.”
Looking through the portraits, it’s difficult not to become curious about the lives of the women and their relationships to each other. Who seems to be feeling close to whom? Why does one seem to need, or want to give, a hug (1980)? Who seems affectionate, who a bit separate? Is one pregnant (1992)? Why is one sister looking away from the camera (1992, 2004, 2005, 2006)? What did they think of the portraits? Did they look forward to the day each year when the next one would be taken?
In a few of the pictures Nixon closes in on the faces (1986, 1994). To me the women looked shoved together in these portraits. I prefer those where we can see their body language and clothes.
If you look through the whole sequence of photos, the camera captures, in addition to their interactions with each other, a second kind of animation . We see the sisters age. Youth gives way to maturity as smiles soften and postures relax. Then the first wrinkles under eyes appear, and looser skin around the mouths. Thinner lips. And a new serenity.
As with any great art, we are both pulled in to the work and enticed to look beyond it. We see so much while at the same time imagining much more that we are not seeing. We may think that the moods of the sisters are available to us, yet in reality we are as distant from their consciousnesses as we are from that of the Mona Lisa. No wonder the prevailing emotions of looking at the pictures are, to me, the contradictory ones of empathy and isolation.
I suggest that this duality of engagement and distance is any person’s situation in trying to understand not only other people but any living thing. We see a little, we may think we can see more, but we cannot enter into other heads.
Be that as it may, for now sit back and enjoy these beautiful portraits of four beautiful women. Or scroll steadily through all 35 years and watch life flowing by.