They are direct, sometimes confrontational, occasionally aggressive—but also, at times, vulnerable, wounded, uncertain. In Nicholas Nixon’s series “The Brown Sisters,” the same four figures (the eponymous sisters) stand in the same order for 42 sequential photographs, taken over a period of 42 years.
Seeing the series in person for the first time, I was struck by how, for all the apparent similarities between the images, their sameness ends at the composition. Like any person (and these photographs contain four), these portraits contain multitudes. Emotions vie for prominence in each image, and the visible surface is only the beginning of the experience. Whatever feeling you sense most strongly on first viewing, in fact, overlays a series of complex relationships—frustration, joy, jealousy, boredom, belligerence. This is unsurprising given that the series features four sisters: sibling relationships are nothing if not filled with interwoven and occasionally painful feelings.
Looking at photographs of the sisters alone, we enter a parallel world where time is compressed. In a potent exhibition at The Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, the hanging offers something more. Quiet from a distance, magnetic up close, “The Brown Sisters” are arranged in a chronological line along the room’s four walls. Above and below the portraits are two, sometimes three photographs taken by Nixon that same year. The effect of these expanded pairings is to remind the viewer that the sisters do not exist in a vacuum. Although many of the images are completely unrelated to “The Brown Sisters,” they add a degree of richness, life, and human context to the dominant timeline of the four characters. For example, in 1988, Nixon made photographs that are raw with sorrow and grief of the deepest kind—he was working with subjects dying of AIDS. Opening our perspective beyond the sisters themselves fleshes out the attentions and attractions in Nixon’s eye as he moved from year to year.
The exhibition is so powerful, so charged, that I feel drawn to return to it, again and again. And yet I also feel myself hesitating in the doorway, reluctant to cross the threshold. “The Brown Sisters,” like much of Nixon’s work, is a monument to inevitability. Aging, death, and the deterioration of the body are all on display in this show; Nixon faces death unflinchingly. But tempering this darkness, the exhibition also offers a record of enduring love and tenderness. If we’re lucky, we get to live a life that encompasses both.
Editors’ note: This interview was conducted at Nixon’s home outside of Boston on the occasion of his solo show at the Institute of Contemporary Art.
LensCulture: Tell us how you first started “The Brown Sisters”—I read that you weren’t interested in the first image you shot of the sisters, which you subsequently discarded. What made you come back to the idea and then continue the series?
Nicholas Nixon: Well, I took a picture of my wife, Bebe, and her three sisters in 1974 for the heck of it. I just decided to do it. I looked at the first picture and thought it was really dumb and threw it away, but the concept was in my mind after that.
A year later, when everybody was hanging around—I don’t know if we were bored, but we were certainly full of languor in summertime and not doing too much—the idea kind of popped up in my mind again. I proposed it. They said fine. We took the picture, and they liked it and I liked it.
The order was determined in the first year of the series, 1975. They got into the order they wanted, and I took the picture. Then a year later, the one on the right, Laurie, was graduating from college. Usually, in those days, social events were not my thing. I would always bring the camera in case there was something else going on where I could go off and take a picture. I had the camera in the trunk, and it turned out that they had dresses on, and it turned out that two of the dresses were the same. I said, “You look like a flag. Let’s take a picture.”
I said, “Stand in the same order as last year. We all liked that picture.” Again, it was all very fast and on a whim. At that point, I had those two pictures and I decided that was it. We needed to do it for a long time and they needed to stand in the exact same order.
LC: Did they ever want to change the order?
NN: Oh, yes.
LC: How did you convince them to keep it the same?
NN: I told them directly: “I really think the order matters, but how about if we take half the pictures in any way you want and half the pictures in the order that we’ve taken them so far? We can look at them together and if one of yours is better, I’ll consider changing.”
There was never a better photo. My order was better. Everybody agreed, so that was that.
LC: Why was the order important to you?
NN: When you’re looking at a line of them, or when you’re looking at the book, you don’t have to jump around. It seems to me that would spoil the smoothness of going from year to year.
We usually take about 10 pictures total, and then we all look at them and choose the best one. In the beginning, I chose the photo that would be included in the series. Then, for a while I chose it, but they got to vote, but I got two votes. Then, it became completely equal. This last year, I let them choose it.
LC: Why did you let them choose last year?
NN: Because they all liked the same one. I liked it okay. I might have chosen another one, but I liked it okay, and I thought it was good for the group to be so unanimous. I wouldn’t have done it if I didn’t like the picture. I mean, I’ve got to print 40 of the things.
Granted, I can’t let them pick every year from now on, because we have different reasons for choosing one picture over another. Their choice has to do with how they look and how somebody is leaning on the person next to them. They mix it in with what they think is being objective; meanwhile, I’m absolutely ruthless. I’m going to look at it and say, “What’s an interesting picture of four characters? Which image has the best drama?” It usually has to do something with the truth, but it might not.
Somebody might look angry if they have a stone in their shoe, but if that looks good in the picture, I’m cool with that. If somebody looks ecstatic and inspired, it also might be because they got their SATs back the day before or something. It’s photography. What you see on the surface is the surface, but what makes that happen is not as cut and dry as some people would like to think it is.
LC: That’s interesting, because when I looked through the show, I felt like I could pinpoint who had a good year and who was going through a tumultuous period. Some of the faces in select photos are like a punch in the stomach. In a few of them, they seemed mad at you.
NN: Oh yeah, there’s a couple where they’re completely mad at me. And yes, they go through changes in their lives, and they don’t want anybody to know about it.
They want to be anonymous women. Everybody knows they’re married. I think everybody knows that they all went to college. But as far as what they do professionally or what their relationship with their children is, they would feel betrayed if I were to speak about that.
The Today Show called up a year ago when the series was up at the Modern [the Museum of Modern Art in New York]. And my wife just said, “No. We don’t want to do it. All they’ll want to know are questions that we don’t want to answer.” These days, as time goes on, not much stays mysterious anymore.
LC: The show at the ICA was the first time I had seen the series all lined up in order. I was struck by how at the beginning, the sisters stand further apart, while at the end, they are much closer. I was wondering if that’s something that you encouraged, or whether they catalyzed that drawing together. Some of your recent work has you and your wife very, very close together.
NN: It’s related to them getting closer as they grew older, and their mother’s failing health, and the five of us coming to grips with life. It’s made us all closer. Also, as time has gone on, I’ve found being five feet from somebody less interesting than being one foot away because of the intensity of the emotions.
With the sisters, I realized that if I could get them close together, then each of their faces would be larger in the picture. I like that. I want to see them as large as possible, and that has lately coincided with their affection and their willingness to be close. I used to have to say, “Oh, can we get a little closer?” You know, if the space between two of them was a little ugly or something. I don’t need to do that anymore.
LC: The series has gone on for so long. In some ways, it’s difficult for me to imagine five people all being on the same (or similar) page, year after year. Coming together to create an image without something halting the process. Though I’m sure you’ve experienced some difficulties.
NN: Oh, definitely. Many years ago, one of the sisters didn’t like the way she looked in one of the pictures. I liked it, but she said, “I look like a Diane Arbus character.” The picture was terrific. We spent a long time talking about it. Eventually, one of her sisters said, “You know, these aren’t just about us. These are Nick’s stories about four women, as much as they’re a recording of the four of us. In a way, it’s not you, it’s the woman in the picture.” That made her feel much better.
I said to her, “It’s absolutely great that four people who like each other can stand side by side and show four such different emotions: sadness, apprehension, joy, protective joy.” That those four things can exist within a six foot square of Earth at the same time, to me, is thrilling and part of the story.” She said, “Okay, I get that. You’re okay.”
LC: How much do you direct Bebe (your wife) and her sisters? I noticed that their poses have changed so much since the beginning. These days, it’s almost like they go back and forth between resting their hands on each others’ shoulders.
NN: My fear is that they might get self-conscious, but so far it hasn’t been an issue. They aren’t composing themselves, really. They kind of wing it, given the architecture of the stance that they’re in at the moment, but it’s genuine. They know I like it. When I see a touching hand I say, “Oh, that’s wonderful. Let’s take that.” I’m kind of a cheap date that way. If I see something wonderful, it’s obvious to the people I’m photographing.
Did I know we’d be taking these pictures for so many years? No. I had no big thought. It wasn’t really until there were 25 of them and the Modern [MoMA] wanted to do a book and put them up on the wall that I said, “This is something.” Up until then, I kind of dismissed them as being the thing that everybody wants to look at, while I want them to look at the other work that I’m making. Sometimes I was a little irritated that people were mainly interested in something that only takes me a half hour once a year.
When we reached 25 pictures, I sort of softened toward the series and started to value the images a little more.
LC: Has your perspective on the work softened further after 40?
NN: It has. They can’t really see the end, but I can see the end. I can see that the photographs will stop sometime. I hope they’ll only stop when I die. I hope that they won’t stop for any other reason, but it’s not completely up to me, you know? The sisters need to be completely co-collaborators. If one of them would die and then everybody would say we need to stop, I would reluctantly have to go along with it.
I would argue, though, that the pictures promise a more interesting end than that. Time is so big, it’s so rich. The pictures have an implicit promise that they will come to an end that doesn’t have to do with people just turning the lights out and saying “we’re done.” I don’t know if they’ll buy that or not, but Bebe agrees with me. The others don’t want to talk about it.
Bebe is a social worker at a cancer treatment and research center here in Boston. She deals with cancer patients every day. I’ve photographed old and dying people, so both of us are clear-eyed about dying and trying to make it as good as possible; her sisters aren’t as familiar with it. I think most people aren’t. In fact, part of Bebe’s job as a social worker is to get her patients a little bit comfortable with the idea that they won’t be here forever, and that they should consider what they want to do in the meantime. It’s hard. Everybody’s different. The level of denial is very high.
LC: Knowing some of your other work—“People with AIDS,” for example—it seems from the outside that you’ve photographed some deaths that we might not consider “good deaths.”
NN: That’s absolutely true. Actually, the two good deaths in my family are the only times that I haven’t taken a picture: with my mother and with Bebe’s father. I just didn’t want to. I wanted to experience them. That surprised me a little bit. I didn’t feel that it would be wrong, but I just didn’t want to. I only wanted to be there—to be there in the moment and be part of it.
LC: Did you feel that photographing would take you out of the moment?
NN: Maybe, yeah. I wanted to be close. It’s funny—it’s almost like I wasn’t a photographer. It’s like I was just a man.
A couple of years ago I was very sick. During that time, I kind of felt like it was death practice. That was the only time in my whole life that I haven’t cared about photography. There were a few days in there where all I wanted to do was be close to my family. The heck with everything else.
I think that experience influenced “The Brown Sisters.” Bebe thinks I got a little nicer and kinder and more appreciative after that. I hope that’s true. I hope I’ve become a better husband and father and all those other things that I used to think were less important than being a photographer.
LC: Some artists or photographers use photography as a way of grappling with their mortality, but it seems that because death has been so present in your (and Bebe’s) life, you don’t feel you need to grapple with it in order to understand it.
NN: That seems right. We feel like we can give more to the experience and to the other people around us if we’re just present in the event. It’s very powerful to be there. It’s almost like a birth, passing from one state to the other. It’s a privilege.
LC: How do you approach photographing those kinds of situations? There’s a fine line between sensitivity and sterility, but also between proximity, emotion and invasiveness.
NN: I’m incredibly sincere. I don’t photograph anybody unless I like something about them, or find something about them interesting or compelling. Whatever it is that I like—their eyes, the way they hold their head—I’m very honest about it. It’s not a strategy or anything—it’s the only way I know. If I’m feeling some bond or some sense of beauty or some sense of appreciation, that’s really a good place to start. It all goes from there.
LC: People talk about “learning how to see” with photography. It’s such a vague idea. But your photographs, to me, really speak to “seeing” the emotion hiding below the surface of people’s bodies.
NN: That kind of concentration, that kind of presence, is really available to all of us much of the time. We just don’t take the time. We’re busy. We’re not desperate. When I say I’m looking at your arms in that chair, I’m not just thinking about you sitting in a chair. My mind is thinking, “What if there is some profound relationship between soft light on flesh and sunlight on wool and tweed all happening in the same room? What if there is something just great about that?” There probably isn’t, because it’s a dumb example. But that’s kind of where I am now—I’m feeling that there is a lot to be seen in what you don’t see habitually.
LC: Have you worked that way since the beginning? Also, how did you first decide to pick up a camera?
NN: My way of working hasn’t changed much. As for my beginning, my plan was to go to school, study literature, get a graduate degree, and become a professor of literature. But when I was in college, I had a bunch of jobs, and one of them was in a bookstore—a big, fancy art bookstore. In my spare time, I started to look at photography books and art books. I saw that Ann Arbor offered a summer course in photography for people who weren’t in the art school. Because I had seen Cartier-Bresson and I had looked at some of the books, I thought, “Oh, wow. I should do that.”
I signed up, and on the first day, that was it. The first day, I thought, “This is what I’m going to do.” All of a sudden I wasn’t a coach anymore—I was a player. Even if I was going to be a bad player, I’m a player. The future was uncertain, but it was instinctual. I thought, “I don’t care, I want to do this. I love it.” I was just smitten. I went down to the local drugstore, which was also the camera store. They had a Leica M3 in the window, a used one. I loved Cartier-Bresson already, but I didn’t know anything about him. I didn’t know this was his camera. I saw that thing and I thought, “Boy, that looks like a way to make pictures.” I went right in and I put $270 out of $300 I had in the world right down on the counter.
To be honest, that isn’t so different from the way I am now.
LC: And how about your process? Have you always interacted with your subjects in the same way?
NN: When it comes to my process, especially when I make portraits, I find that the method is partly cajoling and partly seduction. If you don’t want to be seduced, that’s one thing, and there’s nowhere to go. But if you want to be seduced, usually one person needs to be the leader, and then the person who wants to be seduced goes along and lets it happen—or maybe they take over.
I find that most people who are willing to have their picture taken, if they say yes, then I need to convince them that it’s safe. If they say a really strong no, that’s that. Some people say no but mean, “I don’t know. Give me a minute. Let me think about it. Explain yourself. Maybe. Maybe. We’ll see.” You have to know the difference.
LC: When people were teetering on an edge, did you let it sit with them for a while? How did you make them feel comfortable?
NN: I would let them look through the camera. I would explain myself even more. I would tell them that I’m an art teacher. I would be just a little more open with what it was that I was doing and why I liked them. Sometimes it went south, and sometimes they liked the idea the more they thought about it and the more they saw what the process was. The more they trusted me, in other words.
LC: This question of trust being interwoven with photography is important.
NN: Yes. I also think the big camera makes my work seem a little more trustworthy. With my camera, it’s really impossible to take something that somebody doesn’t want to give. It’s almost impossible to “sneak” a picture.
My camera is very large—it’s a spectacle that you have to collaborate with. Usually people are looking at it and wondering, “What is this foolish thing, and why does this guy want to take my picture?” You have to put the film holder in, you have to pull the dark slide out. It’s a big deal to take the picture. The camera is more like a piece of old furniture than it is a technological machine. It’s a box that’s made of wood. It’s old-fashioned and clunky-looking. I think that’s comfortable for people: the clunkiness of it and my affection for the process.
LC: Why does that make people more comfortable?
NN: Well, I’m thinking of body position, for one thing. When you’re holding a 35 mm camera, you’re looking through it and you’re leaning toward your subject. They can’t see you. They just see the lens, which looks a little impersonal.
Whereas when I take a picture, I’m standing next to the camera, and they can choose to look at the camera or look at me. When I’m composing the picture, they can also look through the camera if they want to. A lot of people like it so much they don’t want to come out: “Let me look a little more. Let’s point it over at that thing.”
LC: There’s also a comfort in the feeling of something tied to the past. And there’s a kind of deliberateness to the process that’s soothing.
NN: Yes, there is. And I think people instinctively know that when you use film, it’s much more difficult to distort things. In fact, it’s important to me that nothing gets changed too much. Maybe a little lighter here, a little darker there, but it’s basically the same old tricks that photography has always had. I can’t change the shape of somebody’s eyes, I can’t change their expression, I can’t take them out and put somebody else in. I would never be interested in that anyway. It’s important to me to keep the honest quality of the photograph. This camera reeks of honesty.
Sometimes, when I’m taking their photograph, people say, “Where do I look?” I say, “Wherever you want.” Usually the only direction I give them is, “Just be yourself. Don’t be fake.”
LC: Do you ever find that when you say, “Just be yourself,” they clam up more?
NN: Yes. They don’t know what it means.
LC: I feel like I would think, “Wait, what version of myself should I be in this moment?”
NN: I would say, “Think of your sweetheart.” If that made you too sappy, I might say, “Think of your death.” I don’t usually have to do that, but when somebody is confused, I can talk to them and bump them out of being uncertain in any way.
LC: Reconciling all the different versions of ourselves—who you are with your partner, your closest friend, a stranger, your parents—isn’t always straightforward. Sometimes I feel like I’m a vessel holding all of these different versions at once.
NN: Yes. It’s kind of a wonderful challenge. Some people rise to it, because with the big camera, there is a certain solemnity and seriousness about the process. The camera is a third party. It’s there, and it’s wooden, and it’s kindly, but it’s still uncaring in itself. Then, between the three of us—me, the camera, and you—we come up with something that we think is worthy. The process has a certain amount of dignity that allows people to take it seriously.
LC: And what about setting—do you bring people into your home?
NN: No. I would have too much power. The best place to take a picture is their house. In a park isn’t good, because they might choose the park because they feel safer there, and I’d have to respect that, but because we were in a park together, they would be aware that we were a spectacle to some degree. They would therefore be less giving and less open, even though they’d feel safe. I want both: I want them to feel safe, but I also want them to be in a physical and psychological place where they can give as much of themselves as there is to give on that day.
I have to get them to be as open and as willing as possible without crossing the line of making them uncomfortable. I never want that. I don’t want to walk away and have people feel like I’ve taken something. I want them to walk away thinking, “That guy was a little strange, but that was interesting, wasn’t it?”
—Nicholas Nixon, interviewed by Coralie Kraft
Nicholas Nixon: Persistence of Vision is on view at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston until April 22, 2018.