Though the sisters are now scattered-one in Dallas, one in Vermont, one in Massachusetts not far from Brookline, where the Nixons live-the photo has become a tradition, something that happens whether there's a wedding, a funeral, or a holiday to bring them together or not. Over the years, one or another of the sisters has suggested that the order of the group be changed, and Nixon says he has tried it their way, "but it's been my strong instinct that it stay the same," and in the end it has. "They all see the pictures and they all vote," he says. "Unlike photos of other people, where I make the rules, I mean for these to be more fair to what I think they would feel. They do have the power to say no, as long as it's not just about vanity. I also ask not only them but all my other friends for opinions, because I really don't have any distance from this, but after a week or so, I just want to get it over with and move on."
In The Model Wife, Arthur Ollman's book about photographers whose wives are a frequent subject, Nixon says, "I'd like to go deeper, get closer, know more, be more intense and more intimate." Those impulses are all at work in his pictures of the sisters, but they're tempered by a respectful distance, a reserve on both sides of the camera that allows for the subtlest sorts of emotional spill. The women regard the photographer and us with the same tender gravity I suspect Nixon brings to the project. What started as a family ritual has become an art project, an investigation of family and individuality, an occasion of some seriousness. (Virginia Zabriskie says there are collectors who buy the sisters' photo-which was printed in an edition of 50 before 1992 and in an edition of 25 since then-every year.) They rarely smile. There are flashes of resentment and sudden rushes of affection, smothered rage, anxiety, suspicion, boredom, exhaustion. No matter their individual feelings, they huddle close to one another, sometimes hugging, sometimes aloof, and surrender to Nixon's loving, probing gaze. Four strong women growing old together: Even after 25 years, we can't pretend to know or understand them, but it's hard not to love them, too.