One senses mortality throughout “The Serial Portrait: Photograph and Identity in the Last One Hundred Years.” The National Gallery of Art exhibition traces a practice mostly peculiar to photography: the creation of multiple images of the same person, often self-portraits, tracing changes in identity that occur naturally over time or through manipulation of self-expression. In the first room of the show, male photographers focus on the female form, often their wives or paramours, producing visual essays that inevitably track the effects of aging. In later rooms, the serial photography project grows more experimental, more a question of identity, manipulations of gender and class. But death is always around the corner.
Nicholas Nixon’s “The Brown Sisters” dominates an entire wall, and, although full of life, the work leaves one with a shudder. An ongoing project, this collection of 37 prints documents the photographer’s wife and her three sisters in photographs made each year since 1975. Displayed in a grid of four rows, the photographs offer without comment what seems a miracle: a sustained communion among four sisters over almost four decades. But the lowest row, only seven photographs long, is terrifying. Will it be completed? When will this group of four be a group of three, then two, then one? What is the end of this project?