1964. Richard Avedon and James Baldwin publish their spare yet radical treatise shot through to the arrow’s heart of America and much-adored Americana. Their collection, perhaps even more radically, was titled Nothing Personal, and nothing at the time could have been further from the blood-slaked truth. One can only imagine how so very personal, and how lacerating, these images must have been in the high epoch of Jim Crow, where the unsilenced shot of pistol, the swift stroke of knife, the snap of rope, the strike of skin-crackling fire were the unmitigated and unmediated means of cage-keeping of the day. This fall Taschen will republish a facsimile edition of Nothing Personal, with unpublished photographs and a new introduction by Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Hilton Als. Als’ introduction is excerpted below. An exhibition of images from Nothing Personal will be on view at Pace Gallery, NYC, from 17 November through 13 January, 2018.
by Richard Avedon and James Baldwin
Introduced by Hilton Als
I am about thirteen years old and my body and mind are carried along by the energy that thinking engenders in me—the nearly phosphorescent ideas and possibilities I find in books, looking at pictures, and whenever I visit a museum. Some of the photo books I covet the most can’t be checked out from the Brooklyn Public Library, so, day after day, I duck out of my junior high school, in Crown Heights, and, walking past the Brooklyn Museum, then through the Botanic Garden, I go to look at them in the stacks.
I do and do not know the world Richard Avedon and James Baldwin put together in their 1964 collaboration, Nothing Personal, which brought together four aspects of American life and culture—civil rights, the rise of black nationalism, our mental-health system, and the old Hollywood guard giving way to rock and roll—in a collection of Avedon’s photographs accompanied by Baldwin’s text. But I look at the images and read the book’s elegiac, crystal-clear essay in those library stacks because it’s the first time I see and realize that current events can be art, that being humane is an art. As to current events: my father reads newspapers. Flat facts. He is suspicious of interpretation—the very spine of Avedon and Baldwin’s book, which I admired, in part, because it took what Daddy loved or held on to in a confusing world—facts—and said that it was all open to interpretation precisely because it was a confusing world: art was a different and in many ways more profound evocation of the truth of the times rather than Daddy saying, Here’s what the news says. You can’t be a black man in the city. There are rats in Borough Hall. I was just there. Daddy’s stories are meant to instill fear—to cut one off from the rest of the world so you’d live in Daddy’s world, with his panic and distance.
Avedon and Baldwin were two of the late twentieth century’s more self-exposed creators. The two met in high school—at DeWitt Clinton, in the Bronx. They worked on The Magpie, the school’s literary magazine, together, but fell out of touch as adults. Nothing Personal was Dick’s idea. He’d been assigned to shoot his old friend for a magazine; that’s how they got reacquainted. At the time, Baldwin’s fame was at its apex. His “Down at the Cross” had appeared in The New Yorker, in 1962, as an astonishing “Letter from a Region in My Mind,” in which he criticized the Christian religion as a disfiguring phenomenon among the poor blacks he had grown up with. Baldwin agreed to do a book with Dick immediately, the photographer recalled, and he was in line with Dick’s idea that the book should reflect America now. Baldwin worked on the first bits in Paris and Puerto Rico before finally finishing the twenty-thousand-plus-word essay as the book was about to go to press. (David Baldwin, the writer’s younger brother, helped with research, as did Dick’s friend Marguerite Lamkin.)
What Avedon and Baldwin shared from the start, as creators, long before Nothing Personal was conceived, was an imagination that was not so much informed by reality as inseparable from it: they saw the exceptional in the real. Not the “sublime” or transcendent, but the brutality, theatre, innocence, and confusion that made up their racist, sexist, sexy, and impossible city of love and lovelessness. New York was Baldwin’s blackness and hatred of that blackness. It was Avedon’s Jewishness and old Wasp dislike of that Jewishness, with its perceived cultural power despite its Otherness. They were both outsiders, menaced and so, therefore, perceived as menacing despite their commercial and critical success; they knew power could be positive and effective but was ultimately illusory, fake.
I found lots of menace early on in my experience of Nothing Personal, something sexually menacing and aggressive. What is it that I recognize—or don’t want to recognize—in Avedon’s portrait of Fabian? The pop star—a second-generation Elvis, or a pre–Robin Thicke Robin Thicke—flashes his cuffs; his mouth is partly open; he’s a come-on waiting to be come on to. This extraordinary picture of youthful bravado and male arrogance filled my eyes and filled my head with thought. About the male body. About show-biz shamelessness (or not being ashamed, as I was ashamed of my sissy ways), about the great power that came with throwing, so to speak, your dick on the table and daring the Other to make a move, grab it. Fabian, his hair perfectly coiffed, appears a number of pages after Nothing Personal opens with photographs of people getting married at City Hall. Avedon’s famous white seamlessly catches every detail in this ceremony of public love and commitment. Is love itself, or a ritual, in this book about American rituals, including racism and hate? Turning a page, we see what Baldwin has been looking at in the privacy of his own mind:
I used to distract myself, some mornings before I got out of bed, by pressing the television remote control gadget from one channel to another. This may be the only way to watch TV: I certainly saw some remarkable sights. Blondes and brunettes and, possibly, redheads—my screen was colorless—washing their hair, relentlessly smiling, teeth gleaming like the grillwork of automobiles, breasts firmly, chillingly encased—packaged, as it were—and brilliantly uplifted, forever, all sagging corrected, forever, all middle age bulge—middle age bulge!—defeated, eyes as sensuous and mysterious as jelly beans, lips covered with cellophane, hair sprayed to the consistency of aluminum. . . . In the longer and less explicit commercials in which these images are encased, the male certainly doesn’t seem to have a tongue—perhaps one may say that the cat’s got it; father knows best, these days, only in politics, which is the only place we ever find him, and where he proves to be—alas!—absolutely indistinguishable from the American boy. He doesn’t even seem much closer to the grave—which fact, in the case of most of our most influential politicians, fills a great many people, all over the world, with despair.
As I read and reread those sentences—sentences that described looking and time and the loneliness endemic to both—Baldwin’s strong rhythm burrowed its way into my bones. And while politics was discussed constantly in my father’s house with a passion and vociferousness I rarely heard him exercise with his children unless they were “wrong” (bad grades, bad boyfriends), his politics were filled with abstractions: who was “us” and “them”? America and the rest of the world? We were Americans and lived in a ghetto: Was that America? Nothing added up. In their book, Avedon and Baldwin gave politics a face, a language I could grasp.
Avedon’s portrait of the Daughters of the American Revolution, for instance, showed me something about the power of caricature. In the picture we see several of the group’s generals, their faces set in self-importance, a smug self-regard. But in the middle of that assembly one of the subjects stands facing her sisters, away from Avedon. Her most prominent feature is her wide backside. The photographer doesn’t look down at white supremacists such as George Wallace, Alabama’s forty-fifth governor, or George Lincoln Rockwell, who founded the American Nazi Party. Instead, his pictures emphasize the Boy Scout mentality that Baldwin speaks of in his text—a mentality gone horribly wrong. Avedon’s camera looks up at Wallace; if he wants to be monumental, so be it. The subject undermines the idea of his own greatness, though, by letting his bitterness show—it’s all in his taut chin, his ugly mouth. His paranoid, sidelong glance reminds one of a boy in a play, wondering if he’s getting his part “right.” How do you get hatred right?
As an artist, Avedon told the truth about lies, and why we need them or metaphors to survive, and how people fit into their self-mythologizing like body bags, and die in them if they’re not careful. Look at his portrait of Marilyn Monroe in Nothing Personal, perhaps one of the most difficult pictures in the book. In an interview, Dick said Monroe had given a performance as Marilyn Monroe earlier in the shoot, laughing and giggling and dancing. But then the shoot was over, and where was she? Who was she? Nothing Personal is riddled with these questions of identity—what makes a self?—a question that gave a certain thirteen-year-old ideas about the questions he might ask in this world: Who are we? To each other? And why? If Avedon’s 1959 book, Observations (with text by Truman Capote), was, by and large, about the certainty of the self and that self’s show-business finish or fake but felt truthfulness, Avedon’s work in Nothing Personal was about the breakdown of that certainty; indeed, it was about the breakdown of the social structure Americans like Avedon had grown up in along with all those borrowed dogs. Nothing Personal was his chance to move beyond what he had made his name as—a fashion photographer, a theatre portraitist—and to show what he didn’t know but felt.
Baldwin once said that he knew how power worked because for most of his life it had worked on him. His knowledge of it bookends the pictures in Nothing Personal; the fierceness of his distinctly black and queer moral vision listens to the pictures, lights on them, and then sends a poem out to the world based on what he has seen, what he and Avedon discussed. Part of Baldwin’s genius was based on his ability to be moral without moralizing. He saw what was wrong, and hoped for something more because he knew what wrong felt like, especially when it came to love. (It’s no mistake that he used Walt Whitman’s “I am the man, I suffered, I was there” as the epigraph to Giovanni’s Room, his 1956 novel about conflicted “queer” love, both gay and straight.) In Nothing Personal, quoting the lyrics to an old Bessie Smith tune (“It’s a long road . . . I picked up my bag, baby, and tried again . . . / You can’t trust nobody, you might as well be alone / Found my long-lost friend, and I might as well have stayed home!”), Baldwin goes on to say, “I have always felt that a human being could only be saved by another human being. I am aware that we do not save each other very often. But I am also aware that we save each other some of the time.”
I think it was exactly that kind of sentiment—a statement of fact filled with sentiment as opposed to sentimentality—that got on some of the reviewers’ nerves when Nothing Personal was published. In The New York Review of Books, Robert Brustein called the authors “show-biz moralists,” and wrote that in order to achieve his pictures, Avedon had “distorted reality.” But how could he have distorted the violence and racism of the time? The Christian and Jewish patriarchy the authors had come from, survived, and analyzed? Didn’t Baldwin address the slippery notion of truth when he wrote, near the close of Nothing Personal, “We have, it seems to me, a very curious sense of reality—or, rather, perhaps, I should say, a striking addiction to irreality. . . . Children can survive without money or security or safety or things: but they are lost if they cannot find a loving example, for only this example can give them a touchstone for their lives. Thus far and no further: this is what the father must say to the child”?
One of the points of the volume is that morality had become a carny show in a permanently Cold War America, a world where the idea of love was cheap but violence wasn’t; a world where institutionalized care was a freak show, but George Wallace wasn’t [see videos below]; a world where Baldwin’s hope for a new Jerusalem sounded like a faggot joke next to the shrill bitterness of the segregationist judge Leander Perez, his face still but not silenced by his fat cigar. In short, the dichotomies and juxtapositions Avedon and Baldwin sought to achieve in Nothing Personal triumphed because it promoted a response like Brustein’s but also one like that of my thirteen-year-old self, who could not turn the light from Avedon’s pictures off in his head once he had seen them, and who found in them, and in Baldwin’s words, the love and criticism that can frame images, and produce words . . .
Feature image: “William Casby, Born in Slavery, Algiers, Louisiana” (1963).
Hilton Als is staff writer and theater critic at The New Yorker. He is an associate professor of writing at Columbia University’s School of the Arts and has taught at Yale University, Wesleyan, and Smith College. He lives in New York City.
Alabama Governor George Wallace and his defiant stand for segregation:
Speaking to his southern constituents, George Wallace, in an excerpt from his renowned speech below, says, “In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the seat of tyranny, and I say ‘segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever.’”
“Yes, Negros are inherently immoral; Yes, I think it’s the brain capacity . . . I know that to be a fact. Why should I try to hide it?” — Judge Leander Perez, who goes on to state in this simmering interview with William F. Buckley, “I advocate segregation . . . The educational opportunities of our white youth is being destroyed [as result of forced racial integration]. I can see the future of this country — with our white youth being driven out the public schools, being unable to get any standard of education — our great industrial empire will practically die on the vine for lack of high school graduates.”