Snap happy: sisters photographed every year for 40 years

A series of photographs taken of four sisters over a 40 year period has been exhibited at MoMa and seen around the world. Now a complete set of the images has come on the market

 Taken in 1975, this is the first of 40 years worth of portraits of the Brown sisters, taken by Nicholas Nixon. They were photographed in this order every year over four decades. From left: Heather (then 23), Mimi (15), Bebe (25), and Laurie   (21)

Taken in 1975, this is the first of 40 years worth of portraits of the Brown sisters, taken by Nicholas Nixon. They were photographed in this order every year over four decades. From left: Heather (then 23), Mimi (15), Bebe (25), and Laurie (21)

 

A remarkable set of prints go to auction in Sotheby’s New York on April 1st when a complete set of The Brown Sisters goes on sale.

In August 1974, Nicholas Nixon was 26 years old, and had been married to Beverly (Bebe) for three years. He made a photograph of his wife and her three sisters, Laurie, Heather, and Mimi, at a family gathering, but wasn’t happy with the result and discarded the negative.

In July 1975, he made another with an eight- by 10-inch view camera, and this he kept.

At the time, the sisters were 15 (Mimi), 21 (Laurie), 23 (Heather), and 25 (Bebe). The following June, Laurie Brown graduated from college, and Nick made another picture of the four sisters.

It was after this second successful picture that the group agreed to gather annually for a portrait. In New York, John Szarkowski, then director of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMa) department of photography saw the early promise in the work and encouraged Nixon to continue the series.

From then on, the sisters would always appear in the same order – from left to right: Heather, Mimi, Bebe, and Laurie – and they would jointly select a single image to represent a given year. Year after year Nixon photographed the sisters building up a remarkable documentary project.

Click here to open the gallery

Each image is made with the large format image on a tripod and is captured on a black-and-white-film negative.

Nixon printed these negatives as contact prints, so that the results were always the same size and showed exquisite detail and continuity of tone.

The photographer says about the process: “It creates the illusion of being able to see more than the eye could see if you were there. It’s basically the clearest picture one can make in photography.

“Part of it has to do with faithfulness, but it’s also a matter of making a print whose quality of realism is so heightened that it’s sometimes surreal. Yet I can’t make it up: it’s absolutely there. I just love that. I’ve loved that for 20 years.

“I’ve tried everything from a half-frame camera to 11 by 14, but I stick to making contact prints. And eight by 10 seems to be my size.”

Relatively little is known about the sisters, their privacy has been protected despite the annual photograph, selected by the sisters in collaboration with the photographer. Their input is vital and one year when they overrode the photographer’s choice with their own, Nixon acceded to their request.

The large format detail and consistent approach makes the viewer look closely at the images, observing the passage of time, reading the faces and wondering at the life experiences that have shaped the faces, the expressions, the clothes and posture.

In a sense the photographer’s technique has been to remove technique from the equation, bringing the viewer face-to-face with the subjects. It is in the cumulative set of the images where the powerful effect builds, image by image, creating a most remarkable document, sometimes copied but never equalled.

A complete set of 40 photographs is offered for sale on April 1st as a single lot with an estimate of $200,000 to $300,000 (€186,000 to €280,000).

Although the work is represented in many collections, including MoMA and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, this is only the third time a full set has come to auction. The Brown Sisters: Forty Years was published by MoMA last November at $40 (hardback).

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