4 Sisters Took The Same Photo For 40 Years

1975: Nicholas Nixon’s second photo of the Brown sisters: left to right, Heather, Mimi, BeBe and Laurie, in New Canaan, Connecticut.

Sisters share a very special bond. Being a sister means being part of a wonderful experience. These four sisters decided to document their experiences in a special series of insightful photographs. Join the four woman as they document their personal lives in a series of incredibly insightful photographs taken over four decades. It all began in the summer of 1974 when Nicholas Nixon visited his wife’s family. He wondered if the sisters would agree to pose for a quick picture and he took the very first image of his wife, Bebe and her three sisters. However he did not keep the 1974 photograph but the following year, he took the first of the photo-series where the four sisters poses in the exact same order in every photo. The only change we see is the location and time. Heather, Mimi, BeBe and Laurie lined up in the same order back then. They have done so for him ever since for forty years showing the passage of time.

In 2014, this series of photographs of the Brown Sisters were part of an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In subsequent years, Nicholas Nixon has exhibited the photographs at the National Gallery of Art, the Cincinnati Art Museum and the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. He has also exhibited the photographs internationally. They also appear in Nixon’s book, “The Brown Sisters.” Nixon, born in 1947, earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan and a master’s degree from the University of New Mexico. He teaches at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design.

Hartford 1976

Nicholas Nixon is married to Bebe, the eldest Brown sister, who was twenty-five years old at the time he took the first photograph in the collection. The other sisters are Heather, Laurie and Mimi. In 1975, Heather was twenty-three, Laurie was twenty-one and Mimi was fifteen years old. On a whim, Nichola Nixon took the first photograph not thinking much of it, but then it soon became a tradition. The composition of the photograph remains the same each year, with the women positioned in the same order from left to right: Heather, Mimi, Bebe and Laurie. Nixon has always photographed using a large format eight by ten inch view camera on a tripod, and the photographs are always in black and white.

Here, the sisters wear dresses and offer a relaxed pose for the camera. The young women look to the future with great hope. Each stands casually, relaxed and incredibly confident in the summer sunshine.

Cambridge Massachusetts 1977

A year later, the sisters look into the camera more pensively. No longer wearing dresses, they still give off an aura of confidence but they clearly have more on their minds than they all did just a short year ago.

 When asked about the Brown Sisters photographs as it first exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, Nicholas Nixon remarked, “The world is infinitely more interesting than any of my opinions about it.” 

Harwich Port, Massachusetts 1978

The sisters seem even less happy in this photograph. This shot, unlike the previous shot, brings the viewer a little closer to their faces. We can see the young women here already perhaps thinking closely about the challenges they face as they head into the world of adulthood and start to shoulder the burdens of growing apart. All the sisters frown and we’re not sure why just yet.

“The series grew out of boredom. We’d go down to visit BeBe’s parents on weekends. It was kind of boring, a lot of socialising, we were expected to show up for dinner every day … Out of a friendly desperation, I said: ‘Let’s take a picture.’”

Marblehead, Massachusetts 1979

Each sister has started to establish her own dress style. One sister chooses a more formal dress while another chooses to opt for pants. One sister holds her arms close to her body while another brings a more relaxed and calmer pose. The viewer wonders what they are thinking.

The body language of each sisters shows that each woman have a preference of how they consciously or subconsciously carry themselves. For instance, Laurie, the one on the far right of every photo often crosses her arms. Body language experts explains that crossed arms may has a variety of meanings but more than not, they are creating a physical barrier. Often times seeing someone crossed their arms can signify that they are feeling tense, anxious, resistance, or it may be that they are stress, insecure or responding to distress.

East Greenwich, Rhode Island 1980

Sisterly love is on display in this thoughtful photograph. The four young women embrace each other, perhaps wanting to show the world they are still close even as they grow older. The solemn faces of previous years have given way to shy smiles and a sense that the world is waiting for them.

We are all aware of time passing and us not being aware of it while it’s passing, so seeing the sisters, for a lot of people, gives them a reliable marker that a year has passed.

― Nicholas Nixon

Cincinnati, Ohio 1981

It’s summer again and the sisters show off their healthy bodies and lean legs. Caught in the light, the sisters look confident, knowing they present a pretty picture to the world. Yet there’s still a wariness to their look as they lean just a bit back from the camera, almost daring the viewer to follow. In this photo, Bebe who is now thirty-one years old seems to be more are ease with herself and her expression, she has that calmness that Heather seems to have throughout these photo series.

The expressions of Mimi and Laurie are still “defiant” as though they are questioning the present and the future. What exactly does the future have to hold for them.

Ipswich, Massachusetts 1982

Moving to colder climates, the sisters still show off a certain sense of self-confidence. Here they are all bundled up, letting the wind sweep through their hair and they let the world watch them pose yet another year for yet another picture. It’s no secret that getting them to all smile is a challenge but you’ll understand why at the end.

This life is what you make it. No matter what, you’re going to mess up sometimes, it’s a universal truth. But the good part is you get to decide how you’re going to mess it up. Girls will be your friends – they’ll act like it anyway. But just remember, some come, some go. The ones that stay with you through everything – they’re your true best friends. Don’t let go of them. Also remember, sisters make the best friends in the world. As for lovers, well, they’ll come and go too. And baby, I hate to say it, most of them – actually pretty much all of them are going to break your heart, but you can’t give up because if you give up, you’ll never find your soulmate. You’ll never find that half who makes you whole and that goes for everything. Just because you fail once, doesn’t mean you’re gonna fail at everything. Keep trying, hold on, and always, always, always believe in yourself, because if you don’t, then who will, sweetie? So keep your head high, keep your chin up, and most importantly, keep smiling, because life’s a beautiful thing and there’s so much to smile about.

― Marilyn Monroe

Allston, Massachusetts 1983

Coordinating their look, the sisters present a united front to the world. They seem to cling to each other more tightly in the middle of field, letting the sun hit their faces and the wind whip around their hair. Each sister shows a hint of something that clearly gets reflected on all of their faces. Heather (far left) with a hint of a few frown lines above her eyebrow, perhaps due to the rays of the sun hitting the left side of her face, has that ever internal ease of expression. Laurie’s face (far right) is protected by her sister’s shadow as she subtly smirk into the lens of the camera.

The Brown sisters have the final say in every photographs of the four. Interestingly, they are the arbiters of each image, with all four sisters having to agree on the choice of photograph every year.

Truro, Massachusetts 1984

At the tip of Cape Cod, each sister offers a more grown-up look. No longer the coltish young ladies, the camera does not tell us what has become of their lives in the past year, allowing us to look at each woman and imagine it for ourselves. You can tell there is more behind the picture…

It didn’t really get serious until the next year, the year of Laurie—the woman on the right’s—college graduation. And that’s when I took the second one, and kind of on a whim, said let’s do it in the same order. So it was having two pictures in my hand, and the year space between them that gave me the idea that it would be really interesting to do it forever. And so I asked them if we could. And they all laughed at me and said sure.

We joke about it. But everybody knows that certainly my intention would be that we would go on forever no matter what. To just take three, and then two, and then one. The joke question is what happens if I go in the middle. I think we’ll figure that out when the time comes.

Being an only child, it was really gratifying and lovely to be embraced by this family. There’s still a ground water of affection, and support. I look back at these thirty-some pictures and it’s like they’re of my sisters. I can feel myself getting old with them. And I’m part of them; they’re part of my love.

― Nicholas Nixon

The question of mortality is a looming question that no one wants to address over the course of the project. The big what-if of mortality should one of the sister dies… will Nicholas Nixon carry on with the project?

Allston, Massachusetts 1985

Once again the sisters leave us staring at their faces noting the similar clothing choices they make and the way each one seems to bring something totally different to the front of the camera, making each picture different and yet like a new idea. Although no smiles, you can tell their bond is strong.

People are self-conscious at first. But it gets better as we kind of dance with each other… it’s like a date, in a way. We get more comfortable together. The best pictures are usually the last ones.

― Nicholas Nixon

Cambridge, Massachusetts 1986

It’s over a decade into the project and the sisters remain as familiar and mysterious as ever. The viewer gets a sense that each sister may have talked about their plans for this year’s picture to their sisters before they decided to pose. The mystery unfolds as the years move on.

Sister. She is your mirror, shining back at you with a world of possibilities. She is your witness, who sees you at your worst and best, and loves you anyway. She is your partner in crime, your midnight companion, someone who knows when you are smiling, even in the dark. She is your teacher, your defense attorney, your personal press agent, even your shrink. Some days, she’s the reason you wish you were an only child.

― Barbara Alpert

Chatham, Massachusetts 1987

Time is clearly taking a toll on the sisters and yet it’s obvious the fierce determination is still there. Each sister looks into the camera with grave determination and a sense of defiance, making us think about the thoughts behind their mild visages.

For there is no friend like a sister
In calm or stormy weather;
To cheer one on the tedious way,
To fetch one if one goes astray,
To lift one if one totters down,
To strengthen whilst one stands

― Christina Rossetti

Wellesley, Massachusetts 1988

All four sisters have a subtle smile on their faces. All four sisters give the camera a look that shows a slow smile unfolding in front of us. We leave thinking something good happened or perhaps it’s simply a nice day and they want to enjoy it. You’ll never guess what’s behind these subtle smiles.

We hug, but there are no tears. For every awful thing that’s been said and done, she is my sister. Parents die, daughters grow up and marry out, but sisters are for life. She is the only person left in the world who shares my memories of our childhood, our parents, our Shanghai, our struggles, our sorrows, and, yes, even our moments of happiness and triumph. My sister is the one person who truly knows me, as I know her. The last thing May says to me is ‘When our hair is white, we’ll still have our sister love.

― Lisa See, Shanghai Girls

Cambridge, Massachusetts 1989

Heather appears to change her pose slightly, hiding behind Mimi and forcing us to look for her in the picture. The mild smiles were put to rest this year. We can almost surely assume it has been a challenging year for these sisters. The sisters’ expressions all looked so pensive, especially Mimi’s (second to the left) seemed to be forced.

We hang out, we help one another, we tell one another our worst fears and biggest secrets, and then just like real sisters, we listen and don’t judge.

― Adriana Trigiani, Viola in Reel Life

Woodstock, Vermont 1990

Two of the sisters appear to have a close bond while another seems slightly withdrawn, pulling herself slightly out the reach of the others. We see her and perhaps think that she has chosen to consider a different life for herself, possibly moving away to another town or even another state.

I don’t feel the need to explain my actions to her. I don’t clarify, I don’t doubt, I don’t worry. I don’t tell her everything, not anymore, but I tell her more than anyone else, by far. I tell her as much as I can.

― Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl

The passage of time has not been kind to these sisters.

Watertown, Massachusetts 1991

The sisters keep some distance from each other in this revealing photograph. If you’re asking yourself why is it so difficult for these sisters to all smile, you’re not alone. Do sisters inevitably find their bonds fading through time and then falling apart as age and distance catches up with them?

There’s an inquisitive look to Bebe, almost as though she’s questioning or challenging the viewer to perhaps take a deeper look at our own mortality. If only we knew what each of these sister were thinking when this photograph was taken.