For reasons I’ve never quite understood, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston rarely has exhibitions that interest me enough to drive to Boston. Maybe it’s my own largely contemporary tastes or the MFA’s art historical focus. In any event, Nicholas Nixon: Family Album is enough to get me to Boston to see what I’ve been missing.
Nicholas Nixon: Family Album (through May 1, 2011) is an exhibition of more than 70 black and white photographs of his family by one of America’s finest photographers. Nixon, along with Abelardo Morell, Laura McPhee, and Barbara Bosworth, anchors the Massachusetts College of Art and Design photography faculty, one of the best photography departments in the country. So Family Album is something of a homecoming for Nixon.
Photographers have long been drawn to their family and friends as favorite subjects, but Nick Nixon is one of the few contemporary photographers, along with Sally Mann, who have made something of a fetish of photographing their families.
Nixon’s muse is his wife Bebe, a documentary filmmaker and producer well known for her work on WGBH’s NOVA series. It’s only natural that an artist should be visually attracted to the woman he loves, but Nick Nixon’s world-wide fame is based largely on the portraits he has made not just of his wife but of her three sisters as well.
Since 1975, Nixon has made a group portrait of the four Brown sisters every year. Over 35 years, he has posed Heather, Mimi, Bebe, and Laurie in the same order, recording with an 8 x 10 view camera what look to be casual family album snapshots writ large. When he started the series, the Brown sisters, who grew up in Providence, were in their 20s. Now Heather, Mimi, Bebe, and Laurie are mature women in their 50s and 60s.
Though viewers can watch them age and transform from pretty preppies to women of substance, the Brown sisters remain something of an enigma. Nixon’s photographs only tell us what they look like, not who they are. One critic suggested that the sisters might just as well be buildings. If so, they are like the Alabama buildings William Christenberry has photographed over roughly the same period that Nixon has photographed the Brown sisters – silent, personal icons of the passage of time. Their expressions, clothes, hair styles, postures and body language change, yet the sisters remain essentially inscrutable.
“In his serial pictures of family,” says MFA curator Anne Havinga in the exhibition press release, “Nicholas Nixon explores a classic conundrum in photography: how to suggest the passage of time by means of an instrument that records the instantaneous image. His effort is related to that of several predecessors – Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Weston, Harry Callahan, to name the most important – who, like him, used their wives as subject matter, photographing them over a period of years. What Nixon has added to the discussion- beyond recording facets of appearance, personality, or emphasizing formal concerns – is his emphasis on the meaning of family.”
Nixon’s ongoing Brown Sisters series has been exhibited periodically all over the world, but Family Album also features photographs he has made of his children Clementine and Sam as well as photographs of Bebe by herself. This is not just the family of man; this is the family of a man.
[Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 465 Huntington Ave., Bost MA, 617-267-9300]