On the last day before running away from the suffocating heat of Barcelona to the crisp weather of the Catalan Pyrenees, I decided to take myself to an exhibition I had been wanting to go to for a while. It was at the KBr, a center dedicated to artistic photography since 2009 and one of the only ones in the city solely dedicated to this artistic medium.
My last visit to the KBr incited me to take up HISTART 240 (“The History of Photography”) which introduced me to a branch of the arts that I had not been exposed to enough. The previous exhibition had been of Bill Brandt and his distorted nude photographs — works that danced the line between the human and the alien, between feminine curves and Jean Arp-esque sculptures. This artist was the first to pique my curiosity.
This time around, the KBr presented two different artists: American street photographer Garry Winogrand, and University of Michigan alum Nicholas Nixon, who is mostly known for his portraiture and documentary photography. I began with the latter, per the suggestion of my mother, who had visited the exhibition a few weeks before. Nixon’s showcase, titled “The Brown Sisters,” was a temporal assemblage of 45 horizontally placed portraits featuring his wife Bebe, alongside her four sisters — Heather, Mimi and Laurie.
Nicholas Nixon was born in Detroit in 1947. He graduated from the University of Michigan in 1969 with a bachelor’s degree in American literature. It wasn’t until he read about iconic photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson in 1968, while working at a library, that he enrolled in his first photography course. On the second day of the class, he spent almost all his savings on a 35mm Leica camera.
In 1974 he photographed the sisters for the first time at a family gathering. However, unsatisfied with the negative, he tossed it away. The following year, he began photographing “The Brown Sisters” when they were still in their 20s. After that, they collectively decided to make it an annual event. In his words, pasted on the wall of the exhibition: “These pictures grew out of the curiosity about and admiration for this band of beautiful, strong women, who first let me into their lives then allowed me to try making one picture, then joined me in a tradition, an annual rite of passage.”
Nixon uses an 8×10 inch camera, a large-format view that allows him to photograph subjects up close, bringing a feeling of intimacy without suggesting intrusion. The comfortable posture between the sisters, the smirks that come and go, the soft embraces, the transition from adolescence to maturity, the restyling of hairdos and the trends that came and went — they’re proof that the ambiance between the artist, the medium and the subjects is one of utmost complicity.
This series was bought by the KBr in 2007, and the center acquires every piece that is made every year since. “The Brown Sisters” was also exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in 2015 and is a part of the collection of other renowned museums, such as the National Gallery of Art, the Texas Museum of Fine Arts and the Fogg Museum.
The last portrait of the series, so far, was in 2020. It ends the timeline with a reality check: a Zoom-like grid, the four sisters confined in their respective homes. It’s a loud sign that a trend can be followed for decades with no other change but that of time, only to be halted with unexpected happenings: call it COVID-19, call it arguments or, eventually, death.
Maintaining the same order, with similar poses and candid expressions, the four sisters encapsulate the passing of time in a bittersweet and beautifully nostalgic manner. I saw a familiar closeness in those images, as I myself have three sisters, with similar age gaps. I understood right away why my mother reckoned I would especially like this one: Nixon’s portraits are a mirroring of us Duran sisters.
It dawned on me that my three sisters and I had very few pictures together. One was always absent on a trip or taking the photograph, or perhaps one hadn’t even been born yet. I felt my stomach sink — seeing the lives of these ladies, or more precisely, their ties, so simply yet essentially captured, made me realize the importance of freezing time in a snapshot, even if it’s a once-a-year thing. The pit grew heavier when I understood that coming together for this would become harder as time went by. With each sister leaving for a different coast and our increasingly syncopated schedules, we would have to make this a ceremony. We’ll begin this year on my father’s birthday, we’ve agreed, although we’ll have to conform to shooting with an iPhone camera, given that none of us take our appreciation of photography to its practice.
The Brown sisters are the definition of graceful aging, of bonds as strong as the tides, of serenity among grief — it’s plain to see that they go through the push and pull of life; it’s in the way they hold each other, the direction of their vision, the juxtaposition of their bodies … a sincere depiction of life.
Daily Arts Writer Cecilia Duran can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.