By Shana Lee
The 4 Sisters Took Photos Every Year For 40 Years, You Won’t Believe What Happened To Them.
In 1975, Nicholas Nixon began a series of annual photographs of four sisters that have spanned 43 years of their lives – to date. Although married to one sister, Bebe, Nixon’s series is more than a record for the family album. The black and white photograph collection has been exhibited in many galleries and museums and published as a book.
The photos offer an insight into how we age and wear life experiences in our physicality, along with the closeness siblings can have. Interviews with Nixon give a further glimpse of the process. While the poses and the location vary a little from year to year, the left to right position of each of the sisters is always the same.
The Brown sisters in 1975, New Canaan, Connecticut. From left to right is Heather aged 23, Mimi aged 15, Bebe aged 25 and Laurie aged 21. The sisters lined up and Nixon has said they liked it and found it refreshing because it was different from the traditional family line up from youngest to oldest – and being expected to smile!
This photo was taken in Hartford, Connecticut in 1996 following Lauri’s college graduation. Nixon decided to capture the four sisters wearing dresses on this occasion, which apparently didn’t usually happen! It was after this photo, he says, he decided to suggest they do it forever.
Over the next few years, Nixon says, there was a debate on the lineup, with the two sisters on the outside saying they would prefer to be in the middle. To offer a compromise, he took shots with them in different positions, with the option for him to choose lineup from the best shot. The original order came up trumps. This picture was from 1977 is in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Nixon has spoken of part of the drama, or interestingness of the photos as being the degree to which each of the sisters is willing to open up and show their vulnerability from year to year. This image from 1978 was taken in Harwich Port, Massachusetts.
The sisters come to a common consensus each year on the final choice of which shot will be published from a total of around 10 taken. This shot was taken in 1979 in Marblehead, Massachusetts.
Nixon himself grew up as an only child. He has spoken of being embraced by marrying into this family of close-knit siblings as gratifying and supportive. This image was taken in 1980 in East Greenwich, Rhode Island.
Given we are now in an age of selfies and social media where people post happy or posed images, this photo from 1981 in Cincinnati, Ohio, doesn’t give the impression of the sisters having much enthusiasm for the annual shot!
Bebe Nixon has said that the sisters are not directed by her husband as the photographer/artist on what to wear on the day they take the photos to get a certain look. She says they just wear what they feel like wearing on the day. This 1982 photo was taken in Ipswich, Massachusetts.
In some years the appearance of the sisters suggests someone may be pregnant. However, the series keeps its focus on the sister dynamic, rather than any additions to the family. This photograph taken in Allston, Massachusetts, is from 1993.
Nixon’s joined this beach shot from 1984 in Truro, Massachusetts! You can see the shadow from him and his old-school 8x 10 camera – which Nixon uses every time.
Ten years since the first photo. Heather will have been aged 33, Mimi aged 25, Bebe aged 35 and Laurie aged 31. This photo is from 1985 in Allston, Massachusetts.
This is the most close-up and intimate image of the sisters in the series to date. This shot was taken in 1986 in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
The youngest and oldest sisters take the foreground in this image from 1987 in Chatham, Massachusetts.
It’s the middle sisters turn to take positions towards the front in 1988 in Wellesley, Massachusetts.
Nixon speaks of the photographs having developed a public following because they have become a marker for people to note another year has gone by. This image is from 1989 in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
From the beginning, Nixon’s direction was that the sisters didn’t have to smile, he says he told them to “just give me what you’ve got”. This the image from 1990 in Woodstock, Vermont.
Nixon speaks of people being aware of time, but unaware of time passing while it is. He sees this project as about showing a bigger chunk of time – and the longer and bigger the better. This photograph is from 1991 in Waterton, Massachusetts.
In all of the previous years’ shots, the sisters were looking at the camera front on and very directly This is the first of only a few photographs where one or more of the sisters have their focus elsewhere. This 1992 photo was taken in Concord, Massachusetts.
The light may be darker in 1993, but a warmth seems to radiate from the sisters’ eyes in this shot taken in Boston, Massachusetts.
This is 1994, and the actual twentieth anniversary of the first photo. Nixon threw the first image taken in 1974 away, thinking it was “dumb”. This photo was taken in Grantham, New Hampshire.
Twenty years since the first published photo. Heather will have been aged 43, Mimi aged 35, Bebe aged 45 and Laurie aged 41. This photo is from 1985 in Allston, Massachusetts.1995, Marblehead, Massachusetts.
Nixon and his camera have dropped in again via shadowing in this shot from 1996 in Lexington, Massachusetts.
Nixon says when he’s looking for his choice of shot he goes for what is interesting about each of the four, and which has the overall best drama. He says “it usually has something to do with the truth, but it might not”. This image is from 1997 in Wellesley Hills, Massachusetts.
According to Nelson, the sisters want to be anonymous women as far as their professions and family go, and they would feel betrayed if he revealed that. This photograph is from 1998 in Falmouth, Massachusetts.
Nelson says the physical closeness of the sisters in each year’s photo has come naturally as they’ve grown older. This photo is from 1999 in Brookline, Massachusetts.
Twenty-five years on, and the year of the new millennium. This photograph is from 2000 in Eastham, Massachusetts.
Nixon has quoted one of the sisters as saying “You know, these aren’t just about us. These are Nick’s stories about four women, as much as they’re a recording of the four of us. In a way, it’s not you, it’s the woman in the picture.” This photograph is from 2001 in Brewster, Massachusetts.
Nixon says he’s feared that the sisters may become self-conscious, but it hasn’t happened. The gestures of affection are genuine and in the moment. This photograph is from 2002 in Marblehead, Massachusetts.
Looking through these photos, it’s hard not to imagine and wonder what is going on in their lives. This image is from 2003 in Ipswich, Massachusetts.
One thing that is striking from the naturalness of these photos, is that these women could be anyone from within your own extended family. This photograph is from 2004 in Cataumet, Massachusetts.
Thirty years since the first photo. Heather will have been aged 53, Mimi aged 45, Bebe aged 55 and Laurie aged 51. This photo is 2005 in Cataumet, Massachusetts.
2006, and the third year in a row that Laurie, on the right, has been looking away into the distance. This photo is in Wellesley, Massachusetts.
2007, and another rich image. We can see these women aging and the changing seasons in their faces. This photograph was taken in Cataumet, Massachusetts.
2008 and located in a completely different State. Most of the photos have been set in Massachusetts, however, the location of this photograph is named as Dallas, Texas.
Are Nixon’s fingers joining the sisters in the top right-hand corner of this photo from 2009 in Truro, Massachusetts or is it leaves?
Thirty-five years on, this photograph was taken in 2010 in Truro, Massachusetts.
The Brown Sisters books have been released in three editions. The first in 1999, the second in 2008 and the third in 2014. This photo from 2011 was taken in Truro, Massachusetts.
It is a remarkable journey to look through these photos and see the enduring relationships of siblings over time. This 2012 photograph was taken in Boston, Massachusetts.
The photographs seem to show that, contrary to pop culture, beauty does not fade with age. This is the 2013 photograph, taken in Truro, Massachusetts.
There’s something in this image from 2014 clearly suggesting that these sisters have literally got each other’s backs. This photo was taken in Wellfleet, Massachusetts.
Forty years since the first photo. Heather will have been aged 63, Mimi aged 55, Bebe aged 65 and Laurie aged 61. This photo is from 2015 in Wellfleet, Massachusetts.
Nixon has spoken about his approach to photography and working with people as “dancing in the moment, or collaborating in the moment”. This photo was taken in 2016 in Truro, Massachusetts.
When asked whether the series will continue after one or more of the sisters are not around, Nixon says it is his intention to carry on, whether there’s four, three, two or one and/or he has to jump into the shot himself! This is the Brown sisters in 2017, Truro, Massachusetts.