40 Years

The first time I wrote about Nicholas Nixon‘s series ‘The Brown Sisters‘ I think was when the project with an annual photograph of the four of them – one the photographer’s wife –  had been going for 25 years. At the start of this month the New York Times published the 40th in the series at the bottom of an article in the magazine, 40 Portraits in 40 Years, written by Susan Minot.  In November 2014, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, MoMA, is holding a show of the 40 images and publishing the book, The Brown Sisters: Forty Years.

It seems to me to be remarkable enough that the five people concerned, Heather, Mimi, Bebe, Laurie (always shown in that order, left to right) and the photographer, have actually managed to get together every year for a photograph since the first in 1975, certainly not something we could have managed in my own family. The photographer was born in 1947 and so is now 66 or 67, and the sisters must be not that different in age. And remarkable too that it should have resulted in a series of such quality (though I find a few a little weak compared to the others.)  There are links to more of the pictures in a recent post here about a series of annual self-portraits by Lucy Hilmer, which she began the year before Nixon’s Brown Sisters.

I first became aware of Nixon’s work when he was included in an exhibition in 1975 at George Eastman House curated by William Jenkins called “New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape.” I didn’t get to Rochester to see the show, but I read about it and saw pictures from it in magazines and books, as well as a couple of years later attending a workshop with one of the other photographers involved, Lewis Balz, who talked about  and showed work by those in the show and others working in a similar vein. A few years later I bought a small publication, Nicholas Nixon, Photographs From One Year (Untitled 31); the year was in 1981-2, and the book came out in 1983. Some of the pictures from the book are in the MoMA collection (organised by date – start here – but not all images here from 1981-2 are in the book.)  The title and format of the book reflected Nixon’s desire to deliberately set himself different goals for each year of his work.

The 39 plates in that book are finely reproduced more or less actual size from Nixon’s 8×10″ contact prints, and it is a superb set of pictures of people in and around their homes in some of the less affluent districts of American cities, with an introduction written by photographer Robert Adams. Inside my copy are some brief notes made for when I was talking about the work to students, including this about the apparent relation between Nixon and the groups of people he was photographing:

They are not the ‘subject’ but with him part of the act of photographing. And it is an act which does not simply restate the beauty and sensuousness of natural light correctly pictured, but respects and affirms those within its frame.

Copies of this thin book, 48 pages in all, are still available for from around £3 second-hand (a fraction of what it cost me, as the cover price of $16.00 would have meant it was on sale for £16 or more here), and it is well worth buying, even though postage may double the cost.  It may well appreciate shortly, as one dealer is already asking over £50 for a copy.

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