The space is empty but for two retro navy blue sofas in the center. The walls are lined with black-and-white photographs taken since 1974. Compared to the surrounding galleries full of abstract and digital contemporary works of art, this exhibit pulls its audience back to simplicity, consistency, and family.
The Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) opened Nicholas Nixon: Persistence of Vision in December and will run the exhibit until April 22 of this year. It displays Boston-based photographer Nicholas Nixon’s continuous collection, The Brown Sisters, a series of images of Nixon’s wife, Bebe, and her sisters, Heather, Mimi, and Laurie. These meaningful snapshots in Nixon’s best-known series show an evolution of the sisters’ style and personalities with a single photo per year from 1975 until the present.
While the sisters have the freedom to vary the photos from each year, the images follow a general formula: The women always stand in the same order (Heather, Mimi, Bebe, Laurie), Nixon photographs them around the same time every year at a family gathering, and each photo represents the year for the sisters. Nixon prints the images, taken with long exposure on an 8×10-inch view camera mounted on a tripod, in black and white.
Assistant curator Jessica Hong explained the museum’s desire to showcase the local photographer, who has remained largely unknown in the area for a while. When Nixon, formerly based in New Mexico, relocated to the northeast in the ’70s, he found the altered landscape so distinctive and intriguing that it inspired his later photography, some of which is displayed alongside The Brown Sisters.
Other photographs, primarily of landscapes and people, surround the series from the top and bottom—each column represents a year. The curators included no more than two additional images taken in the same year as a single photo of the sisters. They contacted Nixon to aid in choosing the accompanying photographs so that the exhibit could represent the progression of his own image of the world along with the evolution of Brown sisters.
Persistence of Vision exudes a relaxed and reminiscent environment, contrasting with the extravagant modernism of the surrounding exhibits. The ICA intends, however, for its exhibits to strike various chords so that all audiences can appreciate the museum in some way.
“We wanted to provide a diverse range of experience for our viewers, and also celebrate this really important local artist, as well,” Hong said.
Oftentimes, museums will exhibit The Brown Sisters in a chronological grid, from top to bottom. At the ICA, however, the series is displayed in a single chronological row, an arrangement that Nixon himself has never seen before. By viewing the images linearly around the room, audiences can truly identify and examine the subtle transformations in the photographs. The differences begin stark and drastic, with the girls’ appearances—from fashion to hairstyle to real biological changes—changing constantly. As the sisters age, however, the changes become more and more subtle, until they have aged enough that the years in which photographs had been taken are indistinct.
The series is prefaced with a photo of the entire Brown family from 1974. In the background of this image, a family portrait hangs on the wall, depicting the family in an unnaturally posed position. These deliberately posed scenes within the same image are juxtaposed with the the personal liberties with which the subjects are allowed to manipulate themselves in the photographs in The Brown Sisters.
The exhibit shows the passage of time with subtle changes based on age: When the sisters were young, the changes were drastic and dramatic, but as they age, the years become increasingly difficult to differentiate among the photographs because their appearances change very little.
“It’s one thing to experience it either digitally or reading reviews—I think that especially with these works, you have to see them in person,” Hong said. “You have to experience each of these photographs for yourself and look at the incredible amount of detail, and the composition, and the range of Nick as an artist.”
Featured Image Courtesy of The Institute of Contemporary Art