The American photographer Nicholas Nixon has been photographing his wife Bebe and her three sisters every year since 1975. A story of family ties, the passing of time, and mortality.
Whether there was a masterplan or if it was just a bit of fun to liven up a boring family party, we don’t know. The fact is that in 1975, Nicholas Nixon (71) asked the Brown sisters to pose for his 8x10 inch view camera on a tripod. The result was a black and white photograph of four young women wearing summer outfits and looking into the lens provocatively and a touch blasé. Their pale shirts lit up against the black background of trees and grass.
In the first portrait, Mimi was 15, Laurie was 21, Heather was 23, and Bebe was 25. Laurie graduated a year later and Nixon took another photo. The jeans and T-shirts had been swapped for summer dresses. Nixon kept the same order that would define the entire series: from left to right, Heather, Mimi, Bebe, and Laurie. It is then that they decided to make it an annual event.
Fit in the frame
It was only after 25 photos and the MoMA expressing interest in exhibiting them and bringing them together in a book that Nicholas Nixon realized that there was something in the series. Until then, they were photos that everybody looked at but which were overshadowed by his other work.
The camera is merciless and the daylight reveals every wrinkle and sag. Each new photo is evidence that time goes by. It is not the ageing that makes the series emotionally charged, but the fact that it is finite. When Nixon or one of the sisters dies, the project will cease irrevocably.
We can only guess whether the sisters see it that way. Apart from their names, we know nothing about them. They consistently decline interviews on The Today Show, and this contributes to the impact of the series. Ultimately, it isn’t about them. It is Nixon’s story about four women.
From four young individuals ready to fly away and conquer the world, we see the women evolve into a sisterly unity. The rapprochement is literally visible. Nixon cuts away all the superfluous context and zooms in close on the sisters. They literally have to put their heads together to fit in the frame. The naturalness with which they do so and touch each other lovingly betrays that taking these photos is not a chore. Their expressions have also changed over the years, from provocative to slightly angry, to mild and acquiescent.
Nicholas Nixon has created an iconic series: four sisters who pose year in year out because of who they are. Not as the cliché of a woman but as strong individuals with intimate family ties. The fact that Nixon found himself in the #MeToo storm last year – although it has not been proved that he crossed any lines with his students as a professor at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design (MassArt) in Boston – has cast a dark shadow over the series. It says a lot about the times we live in, but also that this series transcends its everyday context and touches a deep, universally human nerve. Our time is precious. Make the most of it.