By: David Schonauer
Publish Date: Oct. 30, 2017, 11:39 a.m.
It was an unexpected and, as it turned out, unwelcome collaboration.
In the early 1960s, photographer Richard Avedon and writer James Baldwin joined to produce the book Nothing Personal, which explored in words and pictures the contradictions of American identity and society, juxtaposing subjects from Marilyn Monroe and Allen Ginsberg to mental asylum patients and the American Nazi party.
The book was not well received when it was published in 1964. Writing in The New York Review of Books, Robert Brustein wrote, “Nothing Personal pretends to be a ruthless indictment of contemporary America, but the people likely to buy this extravagant volume are the subscribers to fashion magazines, while the moralistic authors of the work are themselves pretty fashionable, affluent, and chic.”
Now the largely forgotten work is on view again. This month, New York’s Pace/MacGill Gallery will mount an exhibition of works from Nothing Personal, while Taschen is reissuing the book with a new introduction by the Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Hilton Als. The once-panned collaboration could find a new resonance in the current political climate, declares The Art Newspaper.
As The Art Newspaper noted recently, the collaboration between Avedon, best known as a fashion photographer, and Baldwin, who wrote about social issues related to race in searing works like Notes from a Native Son, was not as unlikely as it might at first seem: They were long-time friends, having attended DeWitt High School in the Bronx in the 1930s and co-edited the school’s literary journal.
“Shortly after Avedon photographed Baldwin for a magazine in 1963, the two began to plan a book of photographs and texts, which Baldwin would ultimately characterize as an examination of ‘some national and contemporary phenomena in an attempt to discover why we live the way we do,’” notes TAN.
The new exhibition, “Richard Avedon: Nothing Personal" (November 12 through January 13, 2018) charts the formation of the project with archival materials including letters and pages from Avedon’s diaries. Pace/MacGill director Peter MacGill tells TAN that critics had a hostile reaction to the book when it was first published because “they resented the fact that here was a well-known fashion photographer out there photographing the stuff of life.”
The book’s critique of American society must be seen in context: Baldwin’s contribution, a four-part essay, was written in the aftermath of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. He describes a disconnected, unjust, divided and “loveless” nation.
Avedon, for his part, was more than what Brustein termed a “show-biz moralist.” MacGill compared his collection of portraits — which included images of President Dwight Eisenhower, Bob Dylan, patients of a mental institution, a group portrait of the Daughters of the American Revolution, and former slave William Casby — to a fugue. “It’s not a simple melody that you can whistle down the street,” he tells TAN.
The new book from Taschen is a “meticulous” reprint of the original, with its minimalistic design and surprising juxtaposition of personalities. In Donald Trump’s America, Nothing Personal has finally found its place in history.