“Nothing Personal”: Richard Avedon’s cult book that dissects America

Nothing Personal, the celebrated book by Richard Avedon and activist-novelist James Baldwin is being reissued 53 years after its initial publication. Striking photographs and acerbic texts together form a controversial portrait of America.

By Alexis Thibault

  • Richard Avedon, James Baldwin. “Nothing Personal” (Taschen)
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Published by Taschen this extraordinary book looks at human relationships and questions the notion of identity. Accompanying this reedition is a 72-page booklet of previously censored images, letters, archives and an essay by Hilton Als, winner of this year’s Pulitzer Prize for Criticism. Originally laid out by Marvin Israel (1924-1984), long time art director at Harper’s Bazaar magazine, this resolutely subversive book is back with a bang along with an exhibition at the Pace/MacGill Gallery in New York. On until January 13th 2018, the gallery will be showing the Avedon photos from the book.

 

 

From the depths of a psychiatric hospital to the round tables of the American nationalist party, from the militant fervour of Malcolm X to the disappointment of Eisenhower who laid down his arms, Nothing Personal, like an ultimate glimmer of lucidity, is an identikit portrait of a breathless America long before Trump started rocking the Twittersphere. A veritable odyssey through the United States, Nothing Personal led Avedon and his friend James Baldwin, the activist/novelist with an acerbic turn of phrase, to the icons in the struggle for civil rights. But the two men also met politicians, intellectuals, Bob Dylan and screen goddess Marilyn Monroe. Over 160 pages the authors interlace opinions and observations, daringly contrasting on the same double page a photo of white supremacists in full Nazi salute with an image of the gay Jewish poet Allen Ginsberg, in an incising view of American society.  

 

 

A polemic work of the counter-culture, Nothing Personal confronted ideologies yet according to its detractors stood out as a work by the “moralising liberal elite”.

 

 

Richard Avedon, James Baldwin. Nothing Personal (Taschen)

Born in Harlem in 1924, James Baldwin roamed 128th Street that led to his school P.S. 24 where he wrote the school anthem. An Afro-American militant, in Nothing Personal he recounts his own experience of police brutality in a four-part essay. The novelist and playwright questioned the role of social pressure and raised his fist for the LGBT community with his flaming pamphlets. Avedon was born in New York in 1923. Aged 10 he received his first camera and immortalised a next-door neighbour who was none other than composer Sergei Rachmaninov. Enlisted in the merchant navy in the 1940s, he joined the American marines after Pearl Harbour as the official crew photographer. As director of photography at Harper’s Bazaar twenty years later Avedon sailed the stores of luxurious eroticism and escaped towards a measured eccentricity. His aesthetic choices led him to American Vogue where he was responsible for most of the covers between 1973 and 1988.

 

Despite everything, their incandescent Nothing Personal was unsettling. Not least because Avedon and Baldwin gave it a spirit of confrontation during the crisis linked to the struggle for civil rights and the rejection of the Vietnam War. A polemic work of the counter-culture, Nothing Personal confronted ideologies yet according to its detractors stood out as a work by the “moralising liberal elite”. Today the oversized work re-edited 53 years after its original release is proudly displayed in a huge white box. 

 

Richard Avedon exhibition, Nothing Personal, at the Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York until January 13th 2018.
Richard Avedon, James Baldwin: Nothing Personal. Hardcover in box with booklet 27 x 36 cm, 160 pages.