by Peter Brown
This is a mesmerizing book. I have left it around various vacation homes over the past few weeks, and family and friends— particularly women, (and even more particularly, those in their 405 or 505), pick it up, sit down, drift into it as into a dream, and do not re-emerge until they are awakened by something in the present.
Generally, most people do not react to photographic books in this way. More often than photographers like to admit, there is a swift riffling of pages from back to front (a sweep that often dings up the reproductions), a few glances, three or four long stares, and then that pole-axed look, upwards, blank, maybe thinking, maybe a little irritated. But down goes the book. Finished.
Not so this time. The Brown sisters get questioning brows, wry smiles, knowing nods, shaking heads — a reaction that is almost the body equivalent to that of listening to salsa music — and this bobbing and weaving goes on, oblivious to all surroundings.
Like many, I have been aware of Nicholas Nixon's long-term portrait project with the Brown sisters. The photographs have been shown singly and in small groups in many places over time, but have not, to my knowledge, been exhibited or published in such quantity before. (Twenty-five years and the cusp of a new millennium are good places to pause and reflect.)
These sisters — Heather, Mimi, Bebe (Nixon's wife) and Laurie have been photographed — grouped together, standing in the same order, annually (one chosen photograph a year) for the past quarter century. An 8" x 10" view camera (a beautiful, bulky machine mounted on a tripod) and black-and-white film have been used, as they have in Nixon's past work.
The portraits, which are varied in place and season, have, in their early stages, a cool if not combative distance about them; yet as the series progresses, a mix of intensity, care, warmth, and indifference shift from year to year, and from face to face, until a closeness that the sisters share with each other, and ultimately with the viewer, becomes paramount. The photographs are of interest individually but come into power when viewed as sequence. And in some ways, they are as compelling for what they refuse to show, as for what they reveal.
What they do show, and what seldom fails to rivet those who pick up the book, is the sight of a small group of our contemporaries aging before our eyes. These are beautiful and, as Nixon says in his short acknowledgment, "strong" women.They seem (and "seem" is the mystery word which swirls with glee throughout this book) to be members of a family from which most of us would be happy to be counted. A poet friend of mine, an only child (like Nixon), after finishing the book, looked at me with the eyes of a woman more than a little cheated by life and said in the voice of a small girl, "I want to be one of them! I want them for my sisters!"
What do we know about these women? Not much, really. At bedrock, we understand what they have looked like forfractions of 25 specific seconds over the course of 25 years. We also know that there are four of them — a fact remarkable in its own right. (I am 51 and have known only one other "four-sistered" family in that time.) There is an age difference of 10 years between the oldest and youngest, with the series beginning in 1974 when Mimi was 15 and Bebe 25. The sisters are carefully and "tastefully" dressed, though in casual ways, with Mimi, the youngest, being the most maverick in terms of style. She alone appears pregnant (in the 1992 photograph), the only obvious pregnancy. The fair-skinnedBebe, the eldest, seems to have aged the most in conventional ways (though in the last few years she seems to haveturned back the clock). The sisters are photographed with little identifiable background — though beach, ocean rocks, shrubbery, lawns and, a couple of times, a wall make their presence known in the background. The photographs are taken most often during the summer. We seem to be on the East Coast, and the sisters seem to be middle or upper-middle class Easterners — but perhaps not. In some photographs they hold each other, in others they are more separate, and in some there is a mix of embrace. Their facial expressions vary, but in the earlier photographs seem to more strongly confront the viewer than in the more receptive images that end the book. And there are many facts of dress, hairstyle and posture that would be of interest to a cultural anthropologist (facts that will increase in power over time), but facts that the rest of us interpret in spontaneous ways.
Peter Galassi's Afterword fills in more, but not much: a college graduation after which the photographs began in earnest;the Brown parents' habit of photographing the sisters for Christmas cards when they were kids; the fact that Nixon is not only an only child but also the son of two other only children; a few dates from which we can guess at ages, but purposely,Galassi's essay gives away little. We are meant to react to these photographs only as images, without much backup or explanation. And this is both interesting and irritating. And interesting in its irritation.
We know nothing, for example (apart from intuition), of the obviously complex relations between the sisters, of their mixed responses to the photographer, of their marriages or the lack of them, of children, jobs, educations, pasts, senses of humor, passions, hates, homes, health.
Yet I drifted happily and easily into speculation. As Galassi notes, the portraits are like the family photographs that all of us have in albums and boxes at home (though these are considerably more disciplined, of course). And he points out what we're not a part of: the subtext, of course, the intimacy that these people have shared over many years.
What are we to make of these photographs then? For that matter, why should we care about them at all? A variety of responses popped up for me, all interesting, and all intertwined. I'd like to separate them a bit, to pull them apart, because the book can be approached from a variety of points of view. (Though that first confused rush of connection, curiosity and voyeuristic fascination is perhaps the most fulsome response we will have, and such a reaction, without a lot of structured thought may be the best way to think of the book in the long run.
But as preface, the idea itself, a very simple one, is overwhelming as we watch it move through a quarter of a century. This clearly is a collaboration. Nixon is the photographer, but for 25 years, the sisters have choreographed these images with him. And they seem much less subjects of a photographer's scrutiny than active participants in a long-term process (though again, we don't know the full story). We do understand quickly what these people are up to, however, and I wished (somewhat grumpily) that I had had the forethought to do the same with my own family. Anyone could create something roughly equivalent with a point-and-shoot (though again not as far reaching or beautiful), but still, a few hours at most, once a year, and a resonant record would exist. What else is there?
In an expanding order of my own interests: first, I'd like to dispense, at least momentarily, with the questions of background and look at the images simply as visual material, non-metaphoric and unladen by content: the facts, simply those photographic facts. I found that, as a photographer, and with some difficulty, I could examine the photos as I might ahyperrealist painting of a shop front, say. Just ferreting out information. I watched, from image to image, as Nixon's camera moved in front of the sisters, changing its line of view, ratcheting up and down, moving back and forth, occasionallythrowing a shadow over the four — but each time culminating in a photograph that by virtue of the camera's positioning created a specific mix, a structure that might be construed as intimate, dominant, careful, mysterious, neutral ... aconstruct that, among other things, might create a mood or a set of interpretive feelings. I found myself looking at this structure as well: the way the sisters are sometimes centered, sometimes not, sometimes cropped on one side or another (a leg, an arm, half a face missing). I looked at occasional lens distortion (which can give a creepy migraineish quality), at the varied light that Nixon is interested in (normally a sensual part of his work) — and on occasion, its drab lack; at the intermittent use of flash; at the various ways the women fit into the background of leaves, rocks, sky; at the mix of tonal values (their beauty, derived from the 8" x 10" contact prints from which these reproductions are made); the lack of grain; the intimate size of the book; the sisters' eye contact with the lens, or not; and so on. And while this is an interesting exercise, it ultimately pales because of the human content of the photographs. These are multi-layered pictures of people, and we want to make more of them than a formalist reading allows. (Though on formalist scores, it should be noted that Nixon has worked with large-format cameras in the street, at home and in a variety of hospitals and schools for many years, and with remarkable dexterity. And while these portraits are more studied and compositionally doctrinaire than most of his other work, lyrical flourishes of line and background are still a motive force — although in a kind of miniaturist fashion.) Second, one might put on another set of blinders and look at the book just as pictures of these particular women, again without metaphoric thought — just considering the "news" of their metamorphoses — watching them grow, change and age. You could leaf through the book a number of times, keeping an eye out for specific things: each woman as an individual; the group as a whole (the sisters' dresses, the changes in group facial expressions and body language, the shifting sibling alliances we note through the linkage of arms and the like) — and as a finale, you might zip through the book quickly, almost as if viewing a film, just to see what holds.
Third, one can't fully consider the images outside of the historical context of the last 25 years. The Brown sisters, at some point in our thought, will stand in for white middle-class American women who have grown up in a particular segment of the 20TH century, and some distillation of all we have come to believe about this generation will make itself known.
In the progression of these images, there seems to me to be a parallel to the lives of many women I have known of the Brown sisters' age, women both in my family, as well as friends. First, these are photographs of four sisters. Just that. Four sisters who react to each other and to another family member who happens to be photographing them in the same sorts of ways that we all have reacted in our own lives. And there is a sweet intimacy to this that we all attend to and appreciate — as well as a mute tenderness and vulnerability from which other issues spring. Grossly oversimplified: the expressive stances of the sisters move (in varied ways) from somewhat symbolic postures taken in the seventies, which can be read, either as an immediate reaction to Nixon and the act of being photographed — or, more interestingly perhaps, as having been generated by these particular times, set in response to a configuration of cultural expectations: generational politics, patriarchal and feminist issues particularly, but also a wide variety of undefined social and immediate photographic concerns. Each woman seems, in general, more alone than a part of the group, yet still hangs onto a great deal of self-sufficiency. The look and feel of the gentler aspects of Judy Dater's early work comes to mind as a parallel. In the eighties — greater closeness (photographically speaking) develops between the sisters, yet still, a somewhat confrontational stanceis taken in regard to the outside — not a lot of smiling, but arms linked, ample strength apparent, yet less as individualsand more as a group. And in the nineties, little of this strength is lost. What is won, however, is a visible warmth and a difficult but resonant peace — just look at these faces now. We have watched the sisters age for a quarter of a century in a matter of minutes and these women though changed are still beautiful and in deeper ways than when they were young. They greet us openly, if mysteriously, and the bond between them is profound (as is the courage that they show in allowing us to watch them age in this era of perpetual youth).
As cliched and absurdly rushed as this synopsis may sound, the cumulative effect is very moving. To witness, as confrontation, strength, love, and wisdom combine, in individuals, in a group and in this group's relation to the outside, isremarkable in its own right. Yet it's also an experience that can help one review one's own past and the lives of one's loved ones.
To some degree, all of this is, of course, conjecture. And there still is unresolved tension. But in viewing the book again and again, this multifaceted change, though impossible to pin down, is beautiful to watch.
One can try to decipher the series by reading the work in more literal ways — but this is a difficult job. The sisters' postures, expressions, clothing, and various on-camera roles — as sisters, individuals, symbolic forces — have been formed by an enormous mix of personal and cultural forces. The worlds of sibling politics, the wider family, the lives of women in strongly feminist times, the inner-workings of the art world, the inconsistencies of the moment are all at play. And there is so much more ....
Hundreds of variant thoughts and questions, times four, inform the creation of each image. And this does not include the input from Nixon, which is considerable. Once his decisions are factored in, we might multiply each set of annual influences by the 25 years to arrive at the web of cross-currents that create the book's infrastructure. All of which is to say, that to try to divine in credible ways, the reason that one sister looks pleased for example in 1995 and is vaguely troubled in 1996, say, is, given the information that we possess, beyond thought.
(And again, we have Nixon, the wild card, who in making his 10 or 12 negatives a year, affords himself an interestingchoice as editor of this work. How do his interpretations affect the soul of the series?)
Finally, I give up trying to recreate biography from these images and move on to fiction, or at least a non-fiction novel, projecting first into the future (thoughts of aging and death, by their nature go hand in hand) and wonder where these women will be in another 25 years. How long will the series continue?
Which leads to the fourth, and to me, the most enjoyable way to consider this book: just let your imagination run rampant. Flip the pages back and forth (carefully), trying to figure out what has happened: wonder about the frowns and smiles, watch Laurie age, watch Mimi change her hairstyle, consider the remarkable intensity of Bebe ... wonder if that's Lake Michigan or the Chesapeake Bay or Maine ... think of the cousins playing tag in the background. Think of the poor husbands, talking among themselves as they wander about on the lawn checking in with their law firms or sociologydepartments by cell phone. Think about the bad pictures, the outtakes, the laughs, the spaghetti spilled on the blouse thatwas just right for the photo. Think about the elderly Browns doing the dishes, the dinner table conversation, the siblingrivalry, the new job, the warmth, the backsliding into bickering, the phone calls, the e-mail, the ball games, the rides to the airport, the rental cars: the whole ragtag novel of lives shared and denied; a hodgepodge of thoughts that are linked uncontrollably and comparatively to one's own life, one's own friends and family, and one's own recollections of time past ....
And finally, we should take Galassi's reticent and wise approach seriously, in which he maintains that as introduction, at any rate, little need be said about these images at all. But if little is to be said, it is because the photographs hint at so muchand are so easily accessible. No commentary is necessary, of course, when we can each provide our own. To say too muchabout them as interpretation, however, is (as is often the case with photographs) to clumsily cobble a reproduction of something that has already been communicated with grace and circumspection.
Still, a wide variety of thought does come rumbling into consciousness as we wander wistfully or march purposefully through this book. And it's this slippery, serious, happy and very multi-faceted potential (from photographs that are very quiet) that gives the book its power and its mystery.
This world is one that has been shared. In the last analysis, and in the most humane way, the Brown sisters do become our sisters. We are curious about their lives because, if given the opportunity, we are curious people. An invitation has been offered by Nixon and the sisters. It's been made quietly, lovingly and with an artful attempt to define a limited but powerful set of truths. We recognize the validity and seriousness of the attempt and say, "sure we'll take a look," and do so, with interest.
In the end, this is a book, which like these women, ages well. Their lives, to a surprising degree, have become an openbook. One opens The Brown Sisters, this haunting, intimate, literal book, again and again, each time hopeful of new things.•
Peter Brown is a Houston photographer. W.W. Norton published his book On the Plains as a DoubleTake book last summer. An excerpt won an Alfred Eisenstaedt Award in 1999. His photographs have been published recently in The New Yorker, LIFE and Texas Monthly.