Watching Ourselves Age With the Brown Sisters

Visit the Museum of Modern Art to learn more about the exhibit.

Visit the Museum of Modern Art to learn more about the exhibit.

Those of us with elder parents spend a lot of time thinking about age and change. As adult children, we observe the aging of our parents, but not infrequently we wonder aloud how they got so old. At the same time we don’t always notice how we, too, are growing older.

In October 2014 the New York Times Magazine published a feature by Susan Minot, Forty Portraits in Forty Years, that described the remarkable photographs of the Brown sisters. The photos, shot with the four women in the same order and with somewhat similar poses over 40 years, demonstrate with singular clarity how we grow older. Photographer Nicholas Nixon took the pictures, which were recently displayed at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City.                      

Although the Brown Sisters exhibit at MoMA is closed, the catalog about the exhibit (see below) is still available.

The MOMA exhibition catalog.

The MoMA exhibition catalog.

Time passes incrementally for me, and perhaps for all of us. The slowness of time often dulls my perception of aging for myself and for my  loved ones and friends. I’ll go for a long time without thinking about change, and then suddenly I’ll sit up and take notice. Or after a longer separation, I may observe when reunited that a person has changed in some way, but even those perceptions fade the longer we are together.

Interestingly, our somewhat blunted perception of time passing, change, and aging is not just a factor of growing into elderhood and gaining wrinkles. I’ve heard the following comments from people I know — of all ages — just in the past week.

  • I was sitting at the high school graduation and could not remember the time between his sixth grade year and senior year.
  • I looked at the photograph of my mom and realized that I am the same age as she was in the picture.
  • The baby years pass so quickly that I cannot remember them very well.
  • How did I change so much without knowing it?

The photos of the Brown sisters offers us 40 years — and 40 images — to measure and perhaps better understand just how much we all grow older and change.

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