The Brown Sisters, 1978
© NICHOLAS NIXON (AMERICAN, BORN 1947). PHOTOGRAPH, GELATIN SILVER PRINT. PROMISED GIFT OF JAMES AND MARGIE KREBS. COURTESY, MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS, BOSTON

Among the most compelling of Nicholas Nixon’s photographic series are the portraits of his close-knit family. Taken over four decades, these photographs explore long-committed relationships, the passage of time and enduring family connections. Nicholas Nixon: Family Album, on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA) through May 1, 2011, features more than 70 blackand- white portraits by one of the most celebrated American photographers of his generation.

The exhibition includes the entire sequence of The Brown Sisters — portraits of his wife, Bebe, and her three sisters (a promised gift to the MFA). The series presents one of the most compelling investigations of portraiture and time in contemporary photography. Taken annually, these pictures reveal gradual changes as the women are marked by time and shifts in their relationships. In 1999, the Museum of Modern Art in New York published a book of the first 25 images in The Brown Sisters series, which was updated in 2008 under the title Nicholas Nixon: The Brown Sisters, Thirty-three Years. In 2006, the National Gallery of Art mounted an exhibition. The current show at MFA brings us up to the moment with the sisters’ 2010 summer portrait.

In this series, Nixon manages to accomplish a kind of time marking at which few, despite good intentions, succeed. Think of your own truncated family albums: the profusion of baby pictures of the first child that fall off precipitously with the arrival of the second — an early harbinger of entire family chapters passing into oblivion. We think we will remember; our tragedy is that we do not. Nixon’s images remind us of all we have missed, everything that has slipped away in the passage to today.

More of this article can be read in the Spring 2011 issue.