Nicholas Nixon (born 1947)
'The Brown Sisters' (top)
Museum no. E.2721-1990
'The Brown Sisters' (bottom)
Museum no. E.2711-1990
These two photographs of the Brown sisters, which include Nixon's wife Bebe, were taken ten years apart and are from his series of annual portraits of the sisters. They are both contact prints from 8x10 inch plate negatives and the print quality is subtle and undramatic, which is typical of his work. The innovative qualities of Nixon's work rest in his exploration of traditional photographic technique and choice of subject matter.
The portraits of the Brown sisters very clearly map the passage of time in human life, showing it to be neither linear nor predictable. The pictures also create a dialogue on the response of sitters to the camera. Do the women's gazes towards the camera reflect their recognition of the photographer as a member of their family, and can we tell from looking at their eyes which woman is married to the photographer?
Nicholas Nixon began to use an 8x10 plate camera in the mid 1970s, which was to become his standard photographic equipment. He took a series of city views which were exhibited at MoMA in 1975. He then became interested and challenged by making people the predominant subject matter of his photographs. He photographed people, usually strangers to him, mainly out of doors, considering both their public and private personalities. Nixon continued to use 8x10 negatives, from which he produced contact prints, in order to capture maximum clarity. This technique is simple and highly traditional, referring to the earliest decades of photography and also to photographers such as Walker Evans and Paul Strand. A comparison with Evans and Strand inevitable because of Nixon's choice of subject matter as well as technique but Nixon's work has a greater sense of spontaneity and sensitivity to the personalities of those he portrays than his forbears.
He also seems not to place personal values onto the status of his sitters. He has worked on specific projects such as a series of images of people in nursing homes (1983-5) and people with AIDS (mid 1980s). He does not supply captions for his images, stressing instead the images' ability to convince us of what is shown. Since the mid 1980s Nixon has taken intimate portraits of his family; the only family project which pre-dates this is his annual photographing of his wife and her three sisters which began in 1975 and still continues.
Processes and Techniques
These prints are gelatin-silver prints. 'The silver salts contained in the gelatin emulsion laid on the paper are principally silver bromide or silver chloride, or a combination of both.' Gordon Baldwin, 'Looking at Photographs', J. Paul Getty Museum, 1991
This photograph can be found in Prints and Drawings Study Room box EDUC