In 1975 Nicholas Nixon set up his large-format camera to photograph his wife, Bebe, and her three sisters. The Boston photographer has made a portrait of the four women posed in the same order every year since. This fall the Museum of Modern Art will publish a book of all the pictures. Last year he published “Close Far,” which includes self-portraits and images of Boston.
BOOKS: What do you like to read?
NIXON: I read mostly fiction. I’ve read most of Trollope, all of Dickens, all of Faulkner, all of Hemingway, and all of Willa Cather.
BOOKS: All in one straight shot?
NIXON: Not usually. With Proust, you have to. Faulkner I did in one shot. I read Trollope’s Palliser series, all six books, one right after the other.
BOOKS: Which was your favorite reading-them-all experience?
NIXON: Faulkner, because its our country and it’s our shame in a way. The way he deals with black slavery is wonderful.
‘I also go to bed at 10. People think I’m going to go to sleep but I like to read for an hour. I read about a book a week.’
BOOKS: Anybody else you aim to do this with?
NIXON: I’ve read most of Cormac McCarthy, but I don’t want to read all of them. The ones I read after “Blood Meridian” I didn’t like as well. I like to be taken away. The idea of a hypertext where you make your own ending, that’s the farthest away from what I want. I want the writer to put me in the palm of his hand and take me way.
BOOKS: Who does that best for you?
NIXON: Willa Cather is my hero. My favorites are “My Antonia,” then “Death Comes for the Archbishop,” then “O Pioneers!” I also love Sara Orne Jewett’s “The Country of the Pointed Firs.”
BOOKS: Are you a fast reader?
NIXON: Yeah. I’m pretty fast, but I also go to bed at 10. People think I’m going to go to sleep but I like to read for an hour. I read about a book a week. I write down the books I read every year, and I put a dot on the ones I love. Last year those were John O’Hara’s “Appointment in Samarra,” Edith Wharton’s “Ethan Frome,” Cather’s “Song of the Lark” and “My Antonia,” Jean STAFFORD’S “Boston Adventure,” and “Blood Meridian.” I’m just finishing “A House for Mr. Biswas” by V.S. Naipaul.
BOOKS: How do you pick books?
NIXON: The photographer Lee Friedlander is a good friend of mine, and he’s a big reader. We exchange titles. He told me about the book by Joyce Carol Oates “Blonde,” her novel about Marilyn Monroe. I’m a little cool on Oates, but it’s really terrific. He also told me about “Paris Trout” by Pete Dexter, which is a wonderful, odd, small-town book.
BOOKS: What makes you put a book down?
NIXON: If it’s predictable, if there is no surprise, but the words are graceful and beautiful, I don’t care. If there’s no poetry and no surprise then I’m gone.
BOOKS: Why did you major in English at the University of Michigan?
NIXON: I was going to be a university professor. Then I discovered photography between my junior and senior years. This was 1969. I couldn’t change my major without taking an extra year and getting drafted. So I kept my English major. The poet Donald Hall was my English teacher there. He taught Joyce and Yeats. He read them out loud to us. After I graduated he gave up his tenure and moved to New Hampshire to be a poet full time. His poem “Names of Horses” still makes me cry when I read it.
BOOKS: Does your art influence your reading?
NIXON: I’m sure it does. “Boston Adventure” is about a young girl from Revere who goes to work for an old Yankee. The descriptions of Boston strike me as really photographic.
BOOKS: Are there any characters from fiction that you have identified with?
NIXON: When I was young I identified with Proust’s narrator in “Remembrance of Things Past” because he tends to be fussy. I was well-dressed in high school. I was fussy about the cut of my pants. Fortunately I transferred all that energy into my photography.