The Brown Sisters

Keeping up a time based project is very exhausting mentally.  I started one this year only to stumble upon keeping up with the interval of creating the individual pieces due to the fact that I had so many other things pulling me in other directions.  Now, I’ve seen plenty of time-based projects successfully executed, but nothing prepared me for seeing the photographs of The Brown Sisters by Nicholas Nixon.  This book, which has been published in several editions, is a group portrait of Nixon’s wife and her 3 sisters, all in the same position but with different poses.  The series began in 1975 with the last known photograph taken in 2011.  The individual photographs are taken roughly 1 year apart from each other

The Brown Sisters in 1975

The Brown Sisters in 1975

We have the sisters 20 years later in 1995.  They have shed their teenage/post-teenage rebellious countenances for something friendlier.  They are still warmly engaging Nick and showing the presence of a strong bond amongst them.

The Brown Sisters in 1995

The Brown Sisters in 1995

Each photograph in the series is unique, even in their sameness in regards to the positioning of each individual sister. The facial expressions change every year as their relationship and bonds evolve over the years. What is missing here is contextual information. As far as we could tell, there is no information regarding the context under which each photograph was made. Were they at a family reunion? Was it Christmas time? Did they all live close together anyway and this was just an annual appointment that Nick kept up? We don’t know. But somehow, at least as far as I’m concerned, we don’t care. That is, until we come across this particular photo in the series:

nicholas-nixon-the-brown-sister-2004

The Brown Sisters in 2004

This is the first photo (taken in 2004, toward the end of the original series) where we see a shift in the way the sisters engage the camera.  Sisters 2 and 4 (I don’t know their names) are not even engaged with Nick, while sister 1 and his wife are.  2 and 4 seem to be looking off into the future as they begin to chart the course of their life’s journey.  Sister 1 and Nick’s wife both have sad expressions on their faces, as if they were grieving or mourning.  Did they lose a family member, perhaps their mother or father?  Has a member been stricken with a dread disease such as leukemia or another form of cancer?  Even their body language suggests something is wrong.   In many of the previous photographs, such as this one from 1995, we see the closeness they share through their physical contact with each other…  something we don’t see at all in 2004.

This drives home the point that we cannot know everything about a photograph.  We can and should try to communicate as much as possible through the lens, but there are instances where contextual information is necessary in order to understand the photograph.  Of course, this starts to get into conceptual art territory.  Here, however, we have a linear time-based series rather than something that is more laterally based in terms of series (such as a figure study).  The context of time, even though it does not fill all the holes, allows us to begin to understand the journey these sisters are currently taking with their lives. 

As an aside, I was able to find this photograph from 2011 as Nixon has continued the series.  The bonds shared by these sisters appears to be as strong as ever, even as they each realize that they must chart out their own paths through life (Nixon’s wife continues to engage him throughout, showing us that she is committed to walking the journey with him).

The Brown Sisters in 2011

The Brown Sisters in 2011

 

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