In 1964, six years after Robert Frank published his iconic photobook, The Americans, Richard Avedon came out with his own take on the state of American society. A collaboration with James Baldwin, who wrote four essays to go with the photographs, Nothing Personal was largely dismissed when it first came out, gathering a loyal following only years later. Now, for the first time, an exhibition brings together a majority of the original photographs with rarely seen archival materials from the book’s formation. And over 50 years after it was first released (and immediately went out of print for lack of interest), the book is being published once again, with a special introduction by Hilton Als.
Avedon and Baldwin first met in the 1930s while students at DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx. They were friends and both contributed to the school’s literary magazine, The Magpie. They lost touch over the years, but in 1963, while Avedon was photographing Baldwin for a magazine assignment, they got to talking about a collaborative book about life in the US. Later that year, Avedon — like Frank before him — started traveling around the country to shoot his subjects, which ranged from Civil Rights leaders to aging Hollywood stars to patients at a mental institution. Meanwhile, Baldwin wrote essays exploring the American psyche, recounting stories of the ubiquitous influence of TV culture and racism and contemplating the changing role of the American family. Baldwin’s profoundly poetic last line of the book sums it up: “The sea rises, the light fails, lovers cling to each other, and children cling to us. The moment we cease to hold each other, the moment we break faith with one another, the sea engulfs us and the light goes out.”
It’s always difficult to condense the soul of a photobook into a gallery show, and while some galleries opt to essentially transcribe individual pages of photographs and text onto their walls, Pace Gallery cleverly avoided the trope, instead opting for several glass cases filled with archival documents to explain the Avedon works on the walls surrounding them. Copies of The Magpie open to pages of Baldwin’s and Avedon’s reported writings and poems, contact sheets from photoshoots of town hall weddings and Marilyn Monroe, and letters of correspondence fill the glass cases, providing visitors with a glimpse into the whole process. Particularly memorable are the documents pertaining to William Casby, the last man still alive at the time who was born into slavery, but perhaps the most interesting documents are the most seemingly banal — namely, the datebooks, revealing things like back-to-back appointments with Civil Rights leaders and Nazi groups.
In his introduction to the newly reprinted Nothing Personal, Hilton Als identifies the book’s importance in portraying the zeitgeist of the 1960s. “One of the points of the volume is that morality had become a carny show in a permanently Cold War America,” he writes, “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; 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.” Reading these words, one can’t help but think of the hypocrisies that have reincarnated in today’s America. As it turns out, we could all learn a thing or two from Nothing Personal, not just about history, but about who we are as Americans, as uncomfortable as that reality may be.
Richard Avedon: Nothing Personal continues through January 13 at Pace Gallery (537 West 24th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan).
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