Everyone is a part of the same journey of life, and as we age we somehow realized that time has gone by without realizing that it’s happened. This is why we so often like to leave things behind, or capture moments in time so that when we’re older we can look back and reflect upon the things that we may or may not remember.
It’s incredibly important for us to record our own history so that we are able to look back and see how times have changed, or how they haven’t. One of the primary ways that we document and record things in this day and age is photography.
A photograph is able to capture a single frame of time and give it a sense of permanence. Through photography, we can really get a sense of human morality, especially by photographing people.
Nicholas Nixon, a photographer from the US- has been taking the same portrait of his wife Bebe and her three sisters for the past forty years. Using the same 8×10 camera he’s used since 1974, it’s remarkable and almost moving to watch the sisters age from young girls to older women. It is known as ‘The Brown Sisters’ and was on display at MoMa in 2014.
1975: The series started primarily out of boredom. Nicholas had primarily been a landscape photographer when he began to grow tired of it and slowly, people began slipping into the frame. When this first photo was taken the sisters were ages ranging from 14-25. Bebe is the right middle and was the eldest.
1976: Nixon and BeBe met in 1970 and fell in love when he was 21 and she was 20 and were married a year later. They would often go to visit her parents’ house for dinner which Nixon admitted was kind of boring. One day he suggested they take a photo. And thus sparked a yearly tradition that was about to last for the next 40 years.
1977: This didn’t always prove easy. Nixon said the sisters on the outside wanted to take turns in the middle, but that it was important they kept the same order as it would define the series. He eventually decided on the order that the sisters would take year after year.
1978: It’s fascinating and thought-provoking watching the sisters age slowly as you scroll through the images. Although we now live in an age where it’s quite easy to document and take photos, there’s something about the raw photography and black and white that hasn’t changed in 40 years that gives this series a nostalgic and surreal feeling.
1979: Not only are the women slowly growing up, it’s also interesting to note the varying facial expressions as well as the look in each of their eyes. It makes the viewer contemplate what each woman might have gone through in the past year.
1980: Nixon explained that as the years passed, he kept telling the sisters to stand closer together ‘if the space between them was boring,’ he explained to MoMA. If their faces are further apart ‘they’re less voluptuous and less powerful physically.’
1982: The closer the sisters stand, the larger their facial gestures appear in the frame. I wonder what it would feel back to look at over 40 years of the same photo of yourself and taking in the way that you slowly change over time.
1984: Dynamics continue to shift between the women as they take in and experience life in their own ways.
1986: It’s not been ten years since the start of the series, and you can really see how the Brown sisters have gone from girls to women. You can also begin to see the age differences between the eldest, Bebe, and the youngest Mimi on the left.
1988: The series was showed for the first time at the Fraenkel Gallery booth at Paris Photo. The series does an amazing job at showing photography’s ability to document the passage of time.
1990: ‘We are all aware of time passing and us not being aware of it while it’s passing,’ Nixon said. ‘So seeing the sisters, for a lot of people, gives them a reliable maker that a year has passed.
1991: The series would make anyone want to gather with their sibling or families and begin taking their own yearly portrait.
2011: Nixon explained that once you get close enough to a person you are photographing then it immediately becomes all about them and the background has to be ‘integrated with the fame but it’s not about the overall view anymore.’ Jumping 20 years into the future, you can see how much time has changed the Brown sisters.
2012: He paraphrased Jen Groover who, after switching from painting to photography, said that the problem with photography is that you have to make the grass as interesting as the cow.
2013: The photos continue to captivate with each passing year and facial expressions continue to vary and change. Now the age differences don’t seem as drastic as they did ten or twenty years ago.
2014: If you want to see the entire Browns Sisters series you should check out the rest of Nixon’s work.