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Richard Avedon and James Baldwin on America Then (and Now)

It’s hard to imagine a more appropriate time for a rerelease of “Nothing Personal,” the collaborative book by Richard Avedon and James Baldwin, first published in 1964. Combining Avedon’s images of civil rights activists and white supremacists, politicians, artists and patients at a Louisiana mental hospital, and a 20,000-word essay by Baldwin, the book ruminated on American identity. The new Taschen edition is a reprint of the original, slip-cased with a 72-page booklet that includes an essay by critic Hilton Als. In it, Als covers the artists’ relationship and relates his own discovery of the book in the Brooklyn Public Library as a 13-year-old child who’d been branded a “sissy” by his peers. “It’s the first time I see and realize that current events can be art, that being humane is an art,” Als writes. The booklet includes historic photographs of Baldwin and his family, of Baldwin and Avedon, outtakes from the book, some of Avedon’s correspondence, and reproductions of one of Avedon’s original maquettes.

Avedon and Baldwin met as teenagers at DeWitt-Clinton high school in Bronx, New York, where they worked together on the public school’s literary magazine. By the time they decided to create their book, 
both men had become well known.
In addition to being a writer, Baldwin was a prominent activist in the civil rights movement. Avedon had begun to make socially concerned photographs, including portraits of civil rights activists and the mentally ill. “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,” Als writes. This was 20 years before Avedon published In the American West, and a decade prior to his 1976 Rolling Stone essay “The Family,” which depicted America’s political elite.

The book, and Baldwin’s essay in particular, offers a troubling portrait of the American identity. Als notes that the project was controversial at the time of its release, recalling that one critic in particular labeled the men “show-biz moralists.” Baldwin writes about an American identity crisis that makes it “indispensable to discover, or invent…the stranger, the barbarian who is responsible for our confusion and our pain”; about an America that has “worshipped and nourished violence for as long as I have been on earth”; and that American “opulence is so pervasive that people who are afraid to lose whatever they think they have persuade themselves of the truth of a lie, and help disseminate it.” Avedon shows us the founder of the American Nazi Party and segregationist Alabama Governor George Wallace; civil rights activists Joe Louis and Malcolm X; and Cheryl Crane, who murdered her mother Lana Turner’s abusive boyfriend. Revisiting this book, we can’t help but relate to what Baldwin and Avedon felt in their time and lament, even if we’re unsurprised, how little has changed.

—Conor Risch

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