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Exhibition at Museum of Fine Arts Features Acclaimed Series, The Brown Sisters
Nicholas Nixon, Bebe, Cambridge, 1980.

BOSTON, MA.- Themes such as the passage of time and the enduring nature of close family relationships are brought into focus in the exhibition Nicholas Nixon: Family Album at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA). The show, on view from July 28, 2010, through May 1, 2011, in the MFA’s Herb Ritts Gallery, features more than 70 black and white portrait photographs by Nicholas Nixon, one of the most celebrated American photographers of this generation. Among them are pictures of Nixon’s wife, Beverly (Bebe) Brown Nixon, and their two children, Clementine and Sam. Nicholas Nixon also includes The Brown Sisters, the ongoing annual series of portraits of Bebe and her sisters taken each summer for the past 35 years. Nixon will take another photograph of the sisters this summer, which will be hung in the gallery during the course of the exhibition.

The promised gift to the MFA of The Brown Sisters series is the impetus for Nicholas Nixon. The group of photographs has been lent to the Museum for the exhibition from the collection of James Krebs, a Distinguished Benefactor of the MFA, and his late wife, Margie. Also included are works by Nixon purchased by the Museum, and a number that were given and lent to the MFA by the artist. Nicholas Nixon is presented with support from the Shelly and Michael Kassen Fund.

“Nicholas Nixon rose to prominence in the mid 1970s for his large-format black-and-white views of Boston and New York. Since then, he has turned almost exclusively to portraiture, and has produced many celebrated series of pictures—of the elderly, people with AIDS, and couples— but his portrayals of his family are particularly evocative and beloved. Nick has been a friend of the MFA for a long time and has generously given the Museum many of his photographs,” said Malcolm Rogers, Ann and Graham Gund Director of the MFA.

Nicholas Nixon’s photographs of family are both personal in nature and have a universality with which observers can connect. These pictures, a number of which have never been publicly displayed, celebrate the bonds of close family relationships, especially as they grow over time. Included in the exhibition is the luminous image that Nixon took of his wife in the bathtub, Bebe, Cambridge (MFA, Boston, 1980). The beautiful glowing light on her face suggests her interior state, as well as the depth of their long relationship. There are also many photographs in the show that highlight the richness and warmth of daily life with children. In an image from 1985, a cropped view of Bebe pictures her gazing downward, as Clementine’s fist emerges from the bottom of the frame, evoking the power of a new life. A close-up of Clementine’s face made the following year, with her wide eyes gazing upward, captures the toddler’s impression of wonder. The latest photograph of Clementine in the exhibition dates to 2003 and depicts her as a young woman, embracing her mother. Images of Nixon’s son, Sam, are also included, showing him in different stages over the years and in portraits with his sister.

The most recognized images in the exhibition are those that Nixon has taken of the Brown sisters each summer since 1975. The four women—Heather, Mimi, Bebe, and Laurie—always appear in the same order in the portraits, from left to right. These compelling photographs reveal the evolving nature of the sisters’ relationship over time. The serial portraits begin with The Brown Sisters, 1975 (James and Margie Krebs Collection, 1975), which captures them as young women, ranging in age from 15 to 25. With each passing year, observers can note changes in appearance, stance, and demeanor. In several of the portraits, the presence of the photographer is suggested through the shadow of himself and his camera projected across the figures, which makes reference to his role in the family dynamic. The series unfolds in a grid display on the central wall of the Ritts Gallery.

“In his serial pictures of family, 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,” said Anne Havinga, the MFA’s Estrellita and Yousuf Karsh Senior Curator of Photographs, who curated the show with Emily Voelker, the MFA’s Estrellita and Yousuf Karsh Assistant Curator of Photographs.

Born in Detroit in 1947, Nixon graduated from the University of Michigan in 1969 with a bachelor’s degree in English, and from the University of New Mexico in 1974 with a Masters of Fine Arts degree. Later that year, he moved to Boston, where he teaches at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design. Nixon is known for his documentary photography, especially city views and portraits rooted in the snapshot tradition. He works primarily in black and white, creating gelatin silver prints with a 8 x 10-inch view camera as did many of the great photographers who influenced him, including Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Weston, and Walker Evans. Working in large format and making contact prints enables him to create images of crisp detail and subtle tone. In recent years, Nixon has also begun to experiment with color, although the photographs in the exhibition are all black-and-white, for which he is best known. He is the recipient of three National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships and two Guggenheim Fellowships, and, in addition to the MFA, his work is included in numerous museum collections, among them, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Boston | Museum of Fine Arts | Nicholas Nixon: Family Album | Malcolm Rogers |

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