Time machine

I made one of my random pilgrimages to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, where I was excited to see that they are displaying the entire series of “The Brown Sisters” photographs by Nicholas Nixon. In this famous work, Nixon — the husband of one of the women — took a portrait of the four sisters once a year from 1975 to 2007. (I suppose he’s still adding to them, but the current exhibit features 33 images.)

The exhibit is part of the museum’s rotating exhibition of its photography collection, Picturing Modernity; the current pictures focus on portraiture, to reflect the travelling Jeff Wall exhibition.

I first saw the Brown Sisters series at least twenty years ago, and every time I’ve seen the pictures since then — as I age along with the subjects, who are roughly my age — I find them very moving.

They’re also mysterious, even “inscrutable,” as a reviewer put it. Aside from their names and the fact that Bebe, the fair sister, is married to the photographer, no facts are given about the family; one has to guess or fantasize about them and their lives. They are always outdoors, almost always poised in a landscape, often with a row of trees or a body of water in the background; one almost never sees a building. All you get by way of clues are their faces, hairstyles, clothing, and the year the image was taken. They seem to be affluent, dressing with understated good taste. Though no landmarks are recognizable, there’s something very East Coast about them, and I fantasize that many of the pictures were taken at a family seaside estate.

Just guessing, though. This 1999 article from the Village Voice suggests a more nuanced reality.

The pictures will be on display through Feb. 24, when the Picturing Modernity photo exhibit rotates again.

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