It seemed at first to be nothing more than a casual, one-off snapshot of his wife, BeBe, and her three younger sisters, Heather, Laurie and Mimi. This was in August 1974. But Nicholas Nixon didn’t much care for the photograph, though as with most of his work, he used an 8x10 view camera, its large-format negative requiring a tripod to support its bulk. In the time-honored tradition of art photographers like Edward Weston, Nixon made contact prints directly from his negatives (this before mural-sized prints became the gallery norm). Such large-format photography was unusual for photojournalists and street photographers like Nixon, who typically gravitated to 35mm for convenience and speed; Garry Winogrand’s shoot-from-the-hip, auto-drive aesthetic was more commonplace. Nixon, a strong editor of his own work, decided to throw out this first negative of the four sisters.
However, nearly a year later, in July 1975, Nixon made another informal portrait of the sisters. This one he decided to keep.
The following June, when Laurie graduated from college, he made a second portrait that he also liked; this is the widest shot of the series, the sisters shown nearly full length and all in dresses.
The four young women then agreed to meet each year for a continuing portrait series, and, after negotiations as to the order of their appearance, they yielded to Nixon’s suggestion that they always pose left to right as Heather, Mimi, BeBe and Laurie — the order that has remained throughout the series. A recent lobby exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, as well as a new book, documents this four-decade record of the sisters, who are now ages 63 (Heather), 55 (Mimi), 65 (BeBe) and 61 (Laurie).
Two previous incarnations of The Brown Sisters, from 2000 and 2008, have been published as photobooks. From the beginning of the series, every year MoMA has acquired the most recent image as an 8x10 contact print. Then, from 2006, the museum has added a 20x24 print. The current exhibition is the first time the entire series has been shown in the larger size. This ongoing work has attracted a cult following, and the previous editions of the book are out of print. Just how long Nixon and the sisters will continue this annual rite is an open-ended question. In a video interview he gave via San Francisco’s Fraenkel Gallery, Nixon, now 67 years old, explains the genesis of the series, which began as a self-prescribed antidote to the boredom he felt on trips to visit BeBe’s family in Connecticut. (Nixon met BeBe in 1970. He was 21; she was 20. They were married the next year.)
In a Sept. 11, 1988, review of MoMA’s exhibition of Nixon’s social-documentary work, Pictures of People, New York Times critic Andy Greenberg placed Nixon squarely in the great tradition of Walker Evans and other photographers of the 1930s WPA/FSA era:
Like Evans, Nixon has perfected a style that seems to be no style at all, so that for a brief and magical moment what he shows us, and how he chooses to show it, appear synonymous.
This “no style” style is best displayed in his Brown Sisters series. From the very beginning, Nixon allows the sisters to choose their poses. Each year, the women and Nixon would agree on a single image, which must have been no mean feat. In the original photo (1975), even though Mimi casually places her right arm on Heather’s shoulder, the sisters’ need to individuate is evident, especially with Laurie’s stance and arms akimbo. Over the years, we see the sisters growing physically closer with tighter arrangements, as though their life experiences and the diminishing significance of their age differences erase their separateness.
In the photo from 1984, taken on the beach at Truro, Mass., Nixon allows the shadow of himself and his 8x10 camera to fall across the frame, creating a variant portrait — the classic “artist with model” image.
And 12 years later, in 1996, Nixon again allows this shadow to fall on the sisters. This time they are dressed warmly, grouped closely but not embracing, gazing directly (even severely) into the camera.
A review of the exhibition (as shown by the Fraenkel Gallery at Paris Photo) in The Guardian presents Nixon as both participant and documenter:
There are other intriguing subtexts to The Brown Sisters: namely that Nixon is an only child engaging with a closely bonded set of female siblings, an outsider not just because of his camera and the detachment it confers. Ultimately, though, The Brown Sisters fascinates us because it is a rigorously formal, beautifully executed version of the family photograph — albeit one that hangs on gallery walls rather than in a photo album. In these four strangers, we see some semblance of ourselves and our inexorably unfolding lives.
“Inexorably unfolding” is quite a polite way of saying “aging.” The unspoken question hovering above the series is, “How long?”
Nixon has discussed this with the sisters:
I can feel myself getting old with them. And I’m part of them; they’re part of my love…. We joke about [aging]. But everybody knows that 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.
Greenberg, in his review of Nixon’s Pictures of People, addresses the question of image aesthetics:
[The prints are] not beautiful in any conventional sense. Their unprepossessing black-and-white hues are without any seductive tint or tone. Their range of grays is less consistent and less dramatically crafted than can be found in the prints of Ansel Adams. But their relative roughness turns out to be an advantage. They have an immediacy and ingenuousness quite removed from the sense of calculation characteristic of Adams' images.
Adams, like many “art photographers,” altered his printing technique over the decades. His view of Yosemite from the 1930s, especially in the more muted tonal range of the platinum/ palladium process, is very different from his high-contrast silver prints of the 1970s. More than 15 years after Greenberg’s comment about his printing, it is safe to say that Nixon's early work looks much like his 2015 work.
Speaking of the singular detail of 8x10, Nixon has explained:
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.
Since 1992, Nixon has sometimes photographed BeBe and their children on an even larger format, 14x17. Clearly, he found a way of photographing and printing early on (while documenting mostly poor and disadvantaged subjects) that rendered the humanity of his subjects in a truthful, non-“arty” style, one that remains faithful to the tradition of social-documentary photography but also incorporates the very strong compositional qualities that make his images so easily recognizable.
Nicholas Nixon's portraits of The Brown Sisters through time has a venerable history in photography, but even more so in painting, notably in the self-portraits of Rembrandt that, like the Brown siblings, span 40 years. In 1628, when the painter was 22, he made this self-portrait:
In 1669, the year he died at age 63, here is how Rembrandt saw himself, close to a hundred self-portraits (paintings, drawings, engravings) later:
The question of aging has been on my mind recently. Like many of us, I have been mostly indifferent to the inexorable march of time, as if the image I see in the mirror each morning were unchanging. But two recent and brave documentary films have brought this subject for me into sharp focus: Steve James’ Life Itself, a warts-and-all portrait of film critic Roger Ebert, and Joaquim Pinto’s What Now? Remind Me, Portugal’s submission for the Academy Award for Foreign-Language Film.
Life Itself documents the final months of Ebert’s battle against cancer, and it is unsettling in its hospital scenes of a man whose lower face has been all but lost in multiple surgeries. While watching the film, I wondered whether it was exploitive of a dying man’s vulnerability. But what becomes clear as we watch family and friends visit Ebert is that he and his wife, Chaz, want us to understand the full cycle of the life of a man who lived a most public life. Never does Ebert enlist pity or cheap sympathy for his condition. Here is a trailer for the film:
It’s interesting that the trailer almost completely avoids those very shots of Ebert as a vulnerable, dying man; this is the material that gives the film such tensile strength.
What Now? Remind Me is a closely observed portrait of Pinto and his husband, Nuno Leonel, as Pinto undergoes a one-year experimental drug therapy to combat HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis C. It is especially noteworthy as a portrait seen from inside: Pinto and Leonel are not only the subjects of the film, but also the filmmakers; they also serve as the cinematographers. During the year of the drug trial (and over the course of nearly three hours), we see the day-by-day small events of a lived life, as well as archival material of Pinto’s 30-year career working with iconic Latin directors. This film is unlike any bio-documentary I have ever seen; its intimate view of a brave man facing his mortality haunts me.
I have never been much interested in documenting my own career through photographs. (This blog is the limit of my exposure to any kind of social media.) I’ve tried to avoid those photos of cinematographers seen at the camera, pointing at something off frame in a commanding gesture — the very images loved by the production's unit photographer.
So it came as a shock to me when ASC President Richard Crudo phoned to say that I was to receive the ASC Lifetime Achievement Award for 2014. Requests for on set photographs (especially of me at the camera) for a profile in American Cinematographer and for the ASC Award program followed; I found myself empty handed, having successfully avoided those very shots-- or so I thought. But Carol had been quietly archiving images over the years and friends sent her others. Scanning through them, I had to confront my own aging process. This is in part what spurred me to write about The Brown Sisters.
The photos chosen for the ASC tribute may be of uneven interest to me, and certainly to you, but several, particularly snapshot-like portraits with friends, have brought up strong emotions. The first one, taken by camera assistant Michael Gershman, shows Nestor Alméndros and me flanking a prop scarecrow. We are posed in a field below the house from Days of Heaven, the film for which Nestor won the Academy Award in 1979. Nestor was my friend and mentor; so characteristic of the man, he seems eager to engage our toothy pal in conversation. Nestor died way too young, at age 61, in March of 1992.
The second photo shows me with Phil Radin who was Vice-President of International Marketing at Panavision until he had a heart attack several years ago and had to retire. Phil is a close friend as well as a link to the more than 40 years I have spent using Panavision cameras and lenses. The photo, taken by unit photographer Darren Michaels, shows us with the venerable Panaflex, on the Anchorage set of Big Miracle in 2011.
Brazilian photographer Sebãstiao Salgado has spoken about how one of his decade-long photo ventures, documented in an exhibition of over 250 images (such as the recent Genesis), represents only about one second of captured time, each image exposed at 1/250th of a second. This is all we possess of any fleeting moment as it is swallowed up into the ever-receding present. But these image-totems are a record of who we are and who we were, whether they are professional portraits made with a large-format-view camera, or the casual holiday greeting you recently sent out to far-flung friends and family from your iPhone. They are all a record of our aging bodies, caught in the illusory net of an instant of stopped time.