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Four Sisters...36 years
May 2, 2013 1:11 AM   Subscribe

In 1975, American photographer Nicholas Nixon took a photo of his wife Bebe and her three sisters. Since then, the Brown sisters took a photo every year till 2010.

Bonus: Five Friends, 30 years.
posted by Omnomnom (53 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite

 
They look lovely in every photo.
posted by maxwelton at 2:04 AM on May 2, 2013 [2 favorites]


I am impressed that these four sisters were talking to each other at least once a year every year for 36 years. The series of photographs say more to me about these women than the images do.

Of my four sisters there is always at least one who can barely stand to be in the same room with the others, let alone pose for a photograph with them. An annual photograph would be just another thing to hold hostage. My family would look at a photo set like that and say about the missing sister, "X was mad about this that year" and there would be many years where there would be no photo at all.
posted by three blind mice at 2:15 AM on May 2, 2013 [10 favorites]


Of my four sisters there is always at least one who can barely stand to be in the same room with the others, let alone pose for a photograph with them. An annual photograph would be just another thing to hold hostage. My family would look at a photo set like that and say about the missing sister, "X was mad about this that year" and there would be many years where there would be no photo at all.

This is bizarre to me even though I know it can be the norm. I think it's because I have only one sister who is eight years older than me. My brother is ten years older than me. I've only ever had one fight with my sister in my life and I count myself lucky that we're that close. I've never fought with my brother and I can't imagine not wanting to be in a picture with either one.

If we'd been closer in ages maybe it would have been different and we'd be at each other's throats a lot. We also come from divorce though so it brought is closer as children. I dunno.

I guess my point is I love my sister dearly and I think this is a wonderful link. Thanks for sharing it OP!
posted by Malice at 2:44 AM on May 2, 2013


Previously (in which I cite my favorite example of this sort of thing, The Arrow of Time).
posted by LeLiLo at 2:44 AM on May 2, 2013 [2 favorites]


This really is moving for some reason.

I think part of it is that they project an enduring unity as a group, but all appear to be very powerful individuals.

Thanks for the post...
posted by HuronBob at 3:21 AM on May 2, 2013 [2 favorites]


35 years and not a single smile.

Which reminds me of that gloomy adage that was written on a wall in my grandparents' house (which roughly translated said) "You should smile before you were happy, otherwise you could die before you smiled."

:(
posted by bigendian at 3:46 AM on May 2, 2013


Curious why they stopped in 2010.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 3:46 AM on May 2, 2013 [3 favorites]


Very moving to see their faces change over time. Two things that jumped out: The aging that clearly happens in one specific year with sister #3 (Bebe?) in 1982 and sister #2 (Mimi?) in 2000.
posted by kinetic at 3:54 AM on May 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


I met Nick Nixon years and years ago at a party, when I was barely out of diapers and desperate to become a photographer.

I remember asking him "Who do you take most of your pictures for"?

"Myself", he replied.

I love the Brown sister series. If you look carefully, and don't know, it's possible to work out which one is his wife just by the way she looks at him.
posted by unSane at 3:55 AM on May 2, 2013 [3 favorites]


Does anybody know why they stopped in 2010? That sounds a little ominous, like somebody died or something. Hopefully they just decided the project had run its course.

It's interesting how a group mood seems to characterize each year. One year they're all huggy and smiley, the next year they all look dour and kind of defiant. It's also weird how for many years they all seem to get older and then younger and then older again, their physical aging is not linear at all... I don't know if it was a trick of the light, or if some years were just harder than others. In 1977 the redheaded sister looks 10 years younger than she did in 1976.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 3:56 AM on May 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


I was quite taken by the age in their faces and my gut reaction was "man, it's terrible what sun exposure can do for your skin, but it looks like it's at least partially reversible."
posted by seanmpuckett at 4:12 AM on May 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


I've seen the book, The Brown Sisters, in which these photos were originally published. I highly recommend it. Nicolas Nixon took all these photos with a large-format camera - you can see the shadow of him and his camera in the 1984 photo - and the prints are very high quality.
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 4:21 AM on May 2, 2013


35 years and not a single smile.

Okay, I saw this in the article's comments too and it's puzzling to me. Are we looking at different pictures? Do smiles only count for picture purposes if you're baring your teeth like a territorial chimpanzee? They're new to always smiling in those photos, but when they are, it's a relaxed, natural expression that makes them look a lot happier than saying "cheese" would.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 4:23 AM on May 2, 2013 [9 favorites]


The pictures are amazing. Something about the eyes just grabs me.

The grammar and spelling at boredpanda.com, on the other hand...
posted by ElDiabloConQueso at 4:49 AM on May 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


I like that they are not always smiling. It's like they are being their real selves instead of trying to "look nice". I think this is what makes the pictures compelling.
posted by Omnomnom at 5:13 AM on May 2, 2013 [2 favorites]


They're new to always smiling

Not always smiling! Dammit, Swiftkey!
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 5:31 AM on May 2, 2013


The first rule of sister club is...
posted by blue_beetle at 5:37 AM on May 2, 2013


35 years and not a single smile.

Their expressions are much more authentic than "cheese for the camera" would have been.
posted by aught at 5:40 AM on May 2, 2013 [6 favorites]


I feel terrible for saying this... this reminds of a photo series in which someone took a picture of the Thanksgiving turkey every year, with last year's photo held in the frame.
posted by mkb at 5:50 AM on May 2, 2013


That's a wonderful series. And I see a lot of smiles in there.
posted by zombieApoc at 5:55 AM on May 2, 2013


for me the arms around the shoulder, the coming in close all these years to pose together - this speaks volumes more about their happiness than a fake smile ever could.
posted by cristinacristinacristina at 6:08 AM on May 2, 2013


I was in a photography class that showed us these and we could guess who he was married to after looking at a few of the pictures. The teacher said that happened with every class.
posted by shothotbot at 6:09 AM on May 2, 2013


Does anybody know why they stopped in 2010? That sounds a little ominous...

I examined the online MoMa collection and found that they have digital versions of these photos up through 2010. However, while they have the photo for 2011 (apparently a gift to MoMa from Nicholas Nixon) in their collection, they apparently haven't gotten around to scanning and uploading a digital version to their database.

I like to think that Nicholas Nixon has the 2012 photo hanging on his wall and that perhaps when he takes the photo for 2013 it will go up on his wall and he will gift the 2012 photo to MoMa.
posted by RichardP at 6:09 AM on May 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


That is an intense group of women.
posted by ChuraChura at 6:13 AM on May 2, 2013


It's beautiful, but it also makes me want to wear sunscreen more regularly.
posted by leotrotsky at 6:21 AM on May 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


whelp, after a quick google, it turns out that I'm not capable of figuring out which one was his wife. I was convinced it was the one all the way on the right.
posted by namewithoutwords at 6:22 AM on May 2, 2013


"I was convinced it was the one all the way on the right."

Crap, me too. As a guy who's never been under the gaze of a spouse, what should I be looking for in the photos?
posted by klarck at 6:27 AM on May 2, 2013


There's something striking about the woman on the far right. Very Margot Kidder beautiful.
posted by stormpooper at 6:35 AM on May 2, 2013


I saw this at the Kimble art museum (was it the Kimble or modern art museuem in fort worth?). It was striking how the gallery was set up so simply. Just the photographs hung in chronological order aground the room. Walking in the circle was like walking through time or somthing...
posted by missriss89 at 6:37 AM on May 2, 2013


Crap, me too. As a guy who's never been under the gaze of a spouse, what should I be looking for in the photos?

Exasperation.
posted by notyou at 6:53 AM on May 2, 2013 [5 favorites]


Does anybody know why they stopped in 2010? That sounds a little ominous...

Given that this is a blog entry that has taken the images from another blog entry, which presumably swiped copied them wholesale from MOMA's site, I wouldn't read all that much into it. It's not like we're looking at Nixon's own personal site here.
posted by aught at 6:53 AM on May 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


Do any of them have teeth? Did their mother teach them that ladies never open their mouths unless their talking or eating?
posted by mareli at 7:09 AM on May 2, 2013


smiles are overrated.
posted by incandissonance at 7:12 AM on May 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


Crap, me too. As a guy who's never been under the gaze of a spouse, what should I be looking for in the photos?

Somewhere between the stinkeye and the evil eye, in my experience.

But don't let my experience prejudice you or anything . . .
posted by flug at 7:13 AM on May 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


I love these photos. I love seeing how the sisters' faces change over time, and how they seem even more connected to one another with each passing year.

And really, people age. Sunscreen and avoiding overexposure are relatively recent concerns. Women can be beautiful with lines on their faces. I can't help but wonder if a series of photos depicting four BROTHERS would have netted as many "wow sun damage" comments.
posted by little mouth at 7:15 AM on May 2, 2013 [10 favorites]


I think you and I have different definitions of "stink eye".
posted by Brocktoon at 7:18 AM on May 2, 2013


I can't help but wonder if a series of photos depicting four BROTHERS would have netted as many "wow sun damage" comments.

Well, there's a thread where you can put this to the test. Short answer is that while there's no specific comments on sun damage per se, there's a pretty obsessive vein of commentary on their appearance and the harsh toll that aging takes--starting from the very first post. And no one seems to think they're all beautiful in every photo, alas.
posted by yoink at 7:32 AM on May 2, 2013 [2 favorites]


I love these -- I saw them somewhere (the Brooklyn Museum?) as a series of large prints on a wall, and it struck me that the sense of vertigo these images induce, how concisely and effectively they show the shortness of the human lifespan, is totally offset by the humanity and closeness in the faces of the sisters. Life goes by so quickly, but nothing is lost if you've had someone to share it with.
posted by swift at 7:34 AM on May 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


Some of the perceived rapid aging from year to year is probably a function of the type of lighting. When Nixon doesn't bother to fill an unflattering overhead light source, the wrinkles and dark circles under the eyes come to the fore.
posted by mrhappy at 7:39 AM on May 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


I wonder if we would be discussing the lack of smiles if these were brothers instead of sisters.
posted by hmo at 7:47 AM on May 2, 2013 [6 favorites]


Thanks OP this was very interesting, and moving to click through.

I picked a 'favourite' sister pretty on and was happy when she wasn't so stern looking, but smiling instead.
posted by Faintdreams at 8:15 AM on May 2, 2013


I wonder if we would be discussing the lack of smiles if these were brothers instead of sisters.

Or seeing people make odd little comments about how wives can generally be identified by intolerant expressions aimed toward their presumably hapless spouses.

Relatedly, my googling brought up this book with text and interviews from Bebe Nixon's work with AIDS patients and photographs by Nicholas Nixon.
posted by aught at 8:26 AM on May 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


If you are bothered that these women are not smiling, that says much more about you than them.
posted by Windigo at 8:48 AM on May 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


It's interesting going through that thread I linked to above on the guys who did this (in part because the Brown sisters are linked in that thread and the same claim is made about being able to tell who the wife is). The conversation about the men is simply obsessed with their appearance: the whole tenor of the discussion is "oh my god, how awful it is that people get old!"--along with some gratuitous insults thrown in about their haircuts and clothing. What's interesting about that, though, is that it's not a loaded discussion in the way a similar one about women would be. That is, when you talk about "look how time takes a toll" on men then it's an unstated assumption that you're talking in a general way about how time takes a toll on people-in-general. A similar conversation about women inevitably tends to carry (or runs the risk of being read as) a kind of specific criticism: either "how could they let themselves go like that?" or "gosh, isn't it awful that women lose their looks and become worthless old crones by so doing."

I've long been of the opinion that if you could wave a magic "let there be no patriarchy!" wand and transform our society into a gender-equal one it would have fewer outward manifestations than people think (i.e., we wouldn't necessarily dress all that differently, say, or consume radically different kinds of cultural products), the really profound changes would be in the meanings we derived from the cultural practices we engaged in. Thus in patriarchy-free land this thread would probably have more negative comments about the looks of these women than it currently does--for example--(just like the thread on those guys does), but the negativity would be read, again, as human-generic, not as "you'd better watch out, women, or you'll lose the only thing we value you for!" I think in "patriarchy-free" world you'd be very, very unlikely to see comments to the effect that the women are equally beautiful in every photo (just as no one makes a hint of such a comment in the thread on the guys); that comment--entirely kind and well-intentioned as it is--is as much a product of a culture in which women's appearance is a deeply fraught cultural battleground as comments about a failure to use sunscreen.
posted by yoink at 9:01 AM on May 2, 2013 [5 favorites]


I am sure I've seen these before but thanks for the link again. There is some kind of beauty in every one of them in every picture that I can't put my finger on but I really like every one of these and I hope they start it back up if they can.

My family has pictures like this every Christmas in front of Grandma's fireplace and while we're not nearly as pretty or though-provoking as these ladies I'm glad we do it. It makes me feel old often, but it is nice to be able to look back on the years and bring up old memories. It's pretty fun to see who was in the picture in 1978 and what we were all wearing. People and fashions have changed over time, but my family has held together and that is neat to see in pictures.

I think every familty should do something like this if they can stand to be in the same place long enough for a picture anyway.
posted by Clinging to the Wreckage at 9:19 AM on May 2, 2013


Eh, the whole point of a series of photographic portraits taken over time is to document or demonstrate the effect of time and aging on the subject's appearance.

Noting those effects does not mark one as a victim of the patriarchy.
posted by notyou at 9:21 AM on May 2, 2013


I can see how the choice to look serious, or a bit severe, might be an aesthetic one, but still i find the '92 photo to be the most engaging.
These are interesting on many levels. It's difficult not to infer changes in relationships as the years go on by who is hugging whom and so forth, but then again they are just a moment in time.
posted by OHenryPacey at 10:19 AM on May 2, 2013


They're all great but I especially love '94 and '99.
posted by Eyebeams at 10:54 AM on May 2, 2013


These are wonderful. I'm from a very close family of sisters and I'm regretting now that none of us had the foresight to marry a photographer.

Thanks for posting.
posted by gerstle at 11:17 AM on May 2, 2013


none of us had the foresight to marry a photographer

Marry a photoshopper and s/he can put a series like this together for you retroactively!
posted by yoink at 11:27 AM on May 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


yoink at 9:01 AM on May 2

I find your comment interesting but misguided. First, there is nothing wrong with noting how beautiful the women are in the photos. Other than the serious look on the faces and their choice of clothing the only other way to see the photos are for their physical looks. Second, there is nothing wrong with noting how they change over time since that is pretty much the whole concept of the series - we are meant to see how they age.

Next, I showed these photos to two women co-workers and both commented, more strongly than I did, about how beautiful the sisters were when they were young and how much they aged[!] as they got older. One woman said she was depressed seeing the photos. You may want to blame 'patriarchy' on that but I'll stick with the much more likely reasoning behind their views: people [including women] don't like the effects that aging has on looks and seeing it in black and white can be rather startling.

That said I do find these women beautiful from first photo to last - just not the same kind of beauty from beginning to end. But I wouldn't blame that on patriachy either. I'd blame it on biology.
posted by Rashomon at 2:15 PM on May 2, 2013


The photographer had them pulled down from the gallery and Bored Panda. Big mistake. He was about to get more attention and name recognition and fame that he would ever have otherwise. When your content starts to go viral, you don't pull it! This is internet PR 101.
posted by amaire at 2:22 PM on May 2, 2013


I find your comment interesting but misguided. First, there is nothing wrong with noting how beautiful the women are in the photos. Other than the serious look on the faces and their choice of clothing the only other way to see the photos are for their physical looks. Second, there is nothing wrong with noting how they change over time since that is pretty much the whole concept of the series - we are meant to see how they age.

Next, I showed these photos to two women co-workers and both commented, more strongly than I did, about how beautiful the sisters were when they were young and how much they aged[!] as they got older. One woman said she was depressed seeing the photos. You may want to blame 'patriarchy' on that but I'll stick with the much more likely reasoning behind their views: people [including women] don't like the effects that aging has on looks and seeing it in black and white can be rather startling.


I'm not saying that there is anything wrong with commenting on how they've aged. My whole point, in fact, was at in a post-patriarchal society that is naturally and uninhibitedly what we would do. My claim is that it is, in fact, a symptom of living in a patriarchal society that makes people anxious about those entirely natural claims. It is the (also entirely natural and justified) fear that such comments come with the subtext "women are only valuable for their looks" that occasions the kinds of comments upthread about how no on one would comment on how men are aging in a series of photos like this. Remove the lurking threat of that subtext (as, for example, would be the case in a private conversation between friends, such as you describe) and of course that is exactly what you will talk about.
posted by yoink at 6:48 PM on May 2, 2013


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