The Brown Sisters: 35 Annual Portraits

Brown sisters 1975

The Brown Sisters, Nicholas Nixon, 1975 (popneuf.wordpress.com)

In 1974, Nicholas Nixon photographed his wife together with her three sisters, their ages ranging from 15 to 25.  He published the photo the following year, took a second that year, and then another photo every year after that. In front of Nixon’s 8 x 10 view camera (see the shadow in 1996), usually in New England, the Brown sisters stand outdoors always in the same order.  The photographs capture, in the words of a Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth commentary, “the sisters’ growing familiarity with the camera, as well as the effects of a lifetime of events on their relationships with each other.”

The Brown Sisters, Nicholas Nixon, 1985 (metmuseum.org)

The Brown Sisters, Nicholas Nixon, 1985 (metmuseum.org)

Looking through the portraits, it’s difficult not to become curious about the lives of the women and their relationships to each other. Who seems to be feeling close to whom? Why does one seem to need, or want to give, a hug (1980)? Who seems affectionate, who a bit separate? Is one pregnant (1992)? Why is one sister looking away from the camera (1992, 2004, 2005, 2006)? What did they think of the portraits? Did they look forward to the day each year when the next one would be taken?

Brown sisters 1994

The Brown Sisters, Nicholas Nixon, 1994 (whitmanhansonphoto.wordpress.com)

In a few of the pictures Nixon closes in on the faces (1986, 1994). To me the women looked shoved together in these portraits. I prefer those where we can see their body language and clothes.

If you look through the whole sequence of photos, the camera captures, in addition to their interactions with each other, a second kind of animation . We see the sisters age. Youth gives way to maturity as smiles soften and postures relax. Then the first wrinkles under eyes appear, and looser skin around the mouths. Thinner lips. And a new serenity.

Brown sisters 1999

The Brown Sisters, Nicholas Nixon, 1999 (artblart.com)

As with any great art, we are both pulled in to the work and enticed to look beyond it. We see so much while at the same time imagining much more that we are not seeing. We may think that the moods of the sisters are available to us, yet in reality we are as distant from their consciousnesses as we are from that of the Mona Lisa. No wonder the prevailing emotions of looking at the pictures are, to me, the contradictory ones of empathy and isolation.

I suggest that this duality of engagement and distance is any person’s situation in trying to understand not only other people but any living thing. We see a little, we may think we can see more, but we cannot enter into other heads.

Be that as it may, for now sit back and enjoy these beautiful portraits of four beautiful women. Or scroll steadily through all 35 years and watch life flowing by.

Brown sisters 2010

The Brown Sisters, Nicholas Nixon, 2010

Near-Death Experiences: what they tell us about THIS life

Near-Death Experiences: what they tell us about THIS life

Lots of buzz this week about “Heaven Is Real: A Doctor’s Experience with the Afterlife” by Dr. Eben Alexander, in Newsweek. The Harvard Medical School neurosurgeon changed his mind about the afterlife after getting a taste of it during a week-long coma resulting from a bacterial infection of his cortex. Alexander experienced the sense of floating, the light and the glowing darkness, the angel-like guide reassuring him of love—all the hallmarks of many near-death experiences (NDEs). Seeing and hearing, questions and answers all merged into instant sensation and understanding, he reports.

The brain expert’s testimony in support of an afterlife has been very convincing to many, and not at all to many others.

I don’t believe in an afterlife—not, at least, of the kind that is glimpsed in NDE’s. But that controversy overshadows a different question: does Alexander’s experience tell us anything new about our present life; what does it reveal that is normally obscured by our everyday thoughts and activities? Perhaps, for example, something about the course of the disease? Or an insight about how a verbal narrative is assembled after such a wordless vision, or how Alexander’s Christian upbringing manifested itself during what he felt was a transcendent experience.

One passage that interested me was a claim about the universe.

Modern physics tells us that the universe is a unity—that it is undivided. Though we seem to live in a world of separation and difference, physics tells us that beneath the surface, every object and event in the universe is completely woven up with every other object and event. There is no true separation.

Before my experience these ideas were abstractions. Today they are realities. Not only is the universe defined by unity, it is also—I now know—defined by love. The universe as I experienced it in my coma is—I have come see with both shock and joy—the same one that both Einstein and Jesus were speaking of in their (very) different ways.

The idea here is that the unity of things is also a connection of love. Certainly one of the features of a person’s love for another person (or for a deity or cause) is that our customary sense of boundaries fades away. The separation between the self inside and the world outside dwindles. Loving leads to unity.

But does unity lead to love? Is a feeling of harmony and commonality with other people or with nature conducive to the emotion we call love? It seems to have been so for Alexander. Perhaps with his cortex put aside, older parts of his brain registered a basic level of being alive with light, motion, and warm emotion and without separation and danger. Such a unity would indeed be loving.

We can read any text in a mood to doubt or to believe.  Sometime it’s good to try both.

The Part-of-Something-Larger Experience

Roger Housden’s post about “Secular Spirituality: An Oxymoron?”, on his blog and on Huffington Post, is a rich description of the common perception that one is participating in, and yet is separated from, a wholeness that is greater than oneself. A “fullness of life” that seems “just out of reach,” Housden writes.  “A dimension beyond the separate sense of self, one in which we are one body, one mind, with everything that lives and breathes.” Among the catalysts that trigger such a mood are “a walk in the woods, or being in love.” The cycle of the flow from “longing into an awareness of belonging and back into longing again” may be the original religious impulse, Housden writes. And he allows for the possibility that, even though it may feel cosmic, the impulse may be happening only within the confines of our brain.

Granted that the belonging-separateness experience may be only an illusion, but look nonetheless at how closely it fits reality. We are indeed part of the huge mass of living beings that includes bacteria, plants, insects, and fish whose number is almost beyond measure. Every one of us shares DNA. We—all gazillion of us—are the current crest of the wave of life that began more than three billion years ago. Certainly, we humans are both part of this mass of continuous life and at the same time are painfully separate from it, for we are self-aware and we know we will die. It makes some sense that a walk in the woods as well as being in love might trigger such a mood, for both experiences involve close connection to other living beings along with the inevitable separateness.

I think that looking to the basic information that science provides can clarify and intensify our spiritual experiences. Of course we don’t usually think of science as a spiritual resource, and scientists themselves have no interest in seeing their discipline viewed as a source of religious mumbo-jumbo. Yet the story that science tells about the history and nature of life is a description of my aliveness. As I said, it clarifies and intensifies my sense of how I got here and who I am.