Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young on Nicholas Nixon’s The Brown Sisters

November 29, 2010  |  By

Our “One on One” series features artists, writers, poets, curators, and others, from around the country, responding to works in SFMOMA’s collection. You can follow the series here. Today’s post is more “Two on Several” than “One on One”: Every year since 1974 the photographer Nicholas Nixon has made a portrait of his wife, Bebe, and her three sisters. Please welcome Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young on The Brown Sisters.


When Suzanne asked us to write something on Nicholas Nixon’s The Brown Sisters, we began by wondering what we might possibly say. We’ve been working together on writing some things about feminism and how it shows up or not in our small psychosexualsocial poetry scene. So we tend to talk a lot about women’s relations with each other, how they are shaped or recorded by men, and how they are shaped by our own relations with each other. And we’ve also been working together on writing some things that attempt institutional critique — we’ve been looking at things like poetry prize systems, small press publishing, performance series, literary reception and history, the MFA industry — attempting to trace the impact, or not, of feminism in those locations. And so at first glance The Brown Sistersfelt unrelated to this work. It felt familiar, familial, particular. The project didn’t seem to say much about larger systems or structures, about the relationship between these images and larger systems and structures. Not us, we deflected. Juliana said, “I have no sisters.”

And then we thought some more about how all the time we are talking about women’s bodies and how these bodies — and anxieties and projections about these bodies — show up. And here were four of them. Again and again.

There are some things we can say. The Brown Sisters is about aging, and family, and relationships.

And yet there are so many other things we don’t know how to talk about. We are struck by how difficult it is to read the images of these women as at all exceptional; struck by the minorness of these pictures’ claim in relation to the field of art history and also to gender and economics. And yet we can’t stop looking. They are so obviously middle-class women. We keep thinking, are they on Cape Cod every summer? Nantucket? Where is Nantucket? What do these sisters eat? What are their matching dresses about, striped and belted at the waist? The moments when we think one or several of the sisters are queer, why do we think that? The sexuality of the sisters is invisible, except in the case of Bebe Nixon, the photographer’s wife (and, admittedly, her sexuality is visible only in surrounding/contextualizing materials, not necessarily within the photographs themselves). We think about how the women aren’t wearing makeup, aren’t femme. Does this not being femme have something to do with the kind of power they seem to have as they age? The information here feels accidental. We imagine they are together, but wonder how the images do or don’t register shifts in their relationships with each other over time — fights, distances, alliances — but also shifts in their relationships with the photographer, their brother-in-law/husband. Sometimes they look mad or wary. In each photograph, the sisters stand in the same order, which makes it easier to track them over time. We wonder about this. We wonder who decided they should stand in the same order for the photograph every year. Did the sisters decide this or did Nicholas Nixon decide this? Did they all decide together? Does one of them sometimes wish she could trade spots, stand on the other side of the frame for once? We cast ourselves into a future photograph in which a sister will have died and consider how empty her spot will be. For a moment we feel as if we are looking at a memorial. We wonder if the sisters appreciate this annual documentation of their bodies or if it is wearisome to them. What is the nature of their commitment to this project? Did they know what they were getting into thirty-five years ago? Did they make a decision as a group — the sisters and Nicholas Nixon — to commit to this process? Did someone have to talk someone else into participating? Did someone ever threaten to drop out? Did the occasion of the photograph ever bring resolution to a conflict? What else does the group do when they meet? How far do they each have to travel each year? What do they give up to be there? What rewards do they receive? In short, what is their relationship to their own representation?

When we first discuss the photographs together, we both say something about the way Bebe Nixon seems to have a particular power in these images that her sisters do not. We’re not even sure if power is the right word for it, but we keep thinking about the way she so often feels like the center or glowing pulse at the center of these images; the way she seems to occupy, from the earliest photographs forward, a wider range of affects, of stances, of possible relations with the photographer.

Then we think how the relationship between four sisters is often comprised of two pairs, or one threesome and one person on her own, or four individual people. The photographs are so much about the group, with slight shifts in posture indicating these other sets of relation. Someone has her arms around someone else, someone is leaning a little to the side of the group. We wonder who these women are when they are not being defined so emphatically as sisters. What do they do the rest of the year, when they are not having their photograph taken? We know Bebe makes documentaries, but that’s all. We wonder if these images are about a fantasy of, or the novelty of, a female collectivity. We are often longing for a female collectivity but not only through biology, a longing that provokes us to keep writing as one giant messy “we” body, forcing us into extra long sentences joined together by commas or perhaps semicolons.

Is this image of collectivity why we can’t stop looking?

There is this thing that we call the “poetess problem.” In the poetry communities that we are a part of, women’s bodies often seem to us to be unusually entangled with their identities as poets, even as everyone likes to pretend otherwise, perhaps because of a prevailing devotion to an aesthetics of abstractions. “Poetesses” tend to be valued for their young and sexy bodies, and tend to be valued less, or become less visible, when those same bodies get old, although then they can be wise. There are very few in-between places for the female body, we want to say in all caps, STILL. The Brown Sisters photographs are interesting to us in that they are images of women’s bodies changing over time, insomuch as they are about aging. The thing we like about the photographs is how they draw attention to the ways our brains participate in entrenched ideas about women’s bodies and relations with each other and how their bodies get represented by men. And then we wonder if this is the same for viewers who might not also be as obsessed with thinking about women’s bodies and how they show up.

Most of the writing we encountered about these photographs talks about time, not aging. When the photos are discussed in terms of aging, as in an article by Tyler Green in the Boston Globe, somewhat generalizing or essentialist things tend to get said: that male viewers tend to look at the photographs of the sisters as young women, “checking out the chicks,” that “men stare with their mouths open,” whereas female viewers tend to look more at the photographs in which the sisters are older, tend to see the series as “more about longstanding intimacy than the beauty of youth,” and are “more willing to discuss the photographs with their friends.”

We are, of course, both and all the subject positions that Tyler Green describes. We look at the beauty of the younger women and kind of wallow in it. There’s a photo with all this sunlight and strong legs. We think about the kinds of power youth and beauty can impart. We think about how the Brown sisters seem both aware and not aware of their power when younger women. We look at photographs of the sisters as older women and see our own discomfort with and curiosity about the sisters as they age and what kinds of beauty and power age might bring, or not. We think how the women’s stances towards the camera seem to have a more complex relationship to their own self-presentation as they age. We veer back and forth between looking at the photos when they are younger, and then older, and back again.

As we veer back and forth looking at the women when they are younger, and then when they are older, we start to notice that sometimes one sister will look “older” one year and then “younger” the next; that the way age shows up, or the way we tend to think about age, doesn’t seem to progress in a strictly chronological sense. The photographs are helping us see the ways we’ve received and internalized some ideas about “older” women, about “younger” women. These fluctuations feel comforting, like one way out of the problem of women’s bodies being always cast as one thing or another, as being young or old, and everything that means in the culture, being hot or being a hag. Then we see how other things fluctuate in the images, go back and forth over time. The sisters’ openness or guardedness; their availability as objects; their insistence as subjects.

While we were writing this, we spent most of our time looking at the photographs on the internet. We clicked and gazed. We were mostly in our individual offices, looking at our individual screens. The day we went to the museum to look at the photographs together, Stephanie realized she had been imagining them as very large, perhaps ten feet tall and ten feet across. She didn’t know why she thought/wished this. Maybe she wanted the women to be bigger than a photograph, “life size,” to imagine the women’s representation somehow larger than or overtaking the photographer. Well, you probably already know this, but the photographs are not in fact ten feet tall and ten feet across. They are eight inches by ten inches. They run across the wall in three long rows, and one reads them as one would a book, each long row from left to right, in chronological order. This presentation also generates many sets of three — a photograph on the top, middle, and bottom row — a set that one reads vertically but also chronologically. These read roughly as younger, middle-er, older. The photographs are thus somewhat relentless in their narrative progression. We found ourselves, at the museum, longing for the more disjunctive narrative that the internet partly allows, with the clickings, the forwards, the backs, the skipping around in time, the getting confused about age and how it does not always track from year to year in the photographs.

What we really want, of course, what we are longing for when we long for a more disjunctive narrative in these photographs’ arrangement, is a more disjunctive cultural narrative about women’s bodies everywhere. In the largest sense. In the galleries but also on the train. In the payscale. At the border. What we’re longing for is to see various entrenched narratives about women’s bodies disrupted relentlessly. Ruptured. Which is to say we long for the rupture of economic systems that bolster and generate and re-generate those relentless narratives about women’s bodies.

At the museum we both paid some attention to other people in the room. We said laughingly to each other that the men did not seem to be staring open-mouthed at the hot chicks and the women did not seem to be clustering around images of the women when they are older. At the museum we saw mostly pairs of people looking at the photographs, mostly male/female pairs who seemed to be heterosexual couples of the same class as the Brown sisters. The pairs mostly stayed together in their viewing, progressing from left to right, reading the photos in narrative order, walking back and forth together across the room three times so as to read in the order of younger, middle-er, older. We wish we had thought to stay in the room for a day and ask people questions about how they looked at the photographs. “What do you think: hot chicks or long-standing intimacy?” That sounds dumb, but you get the idea. We also wondered what the security guard might have to say about how people look at these photographs. We were too shy to ask.


Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young co-edited A MEGAPHONE (forthcoming, fall 2010), which collects responses about feminism, writing, and working conditions from writers around the globe, along with essays and enactments Spahr and Young performed together between 2005 and 2007.

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