Everybody Knows His Name: James Baldwin and Richard Avedon’s “Nothing Personal”
By Carmen MerportApril 7, 2018
Nothing Personal by Richard Avedon and James Baldwin
For Harper’s, Baldwin was photographed by Richard Avedon, an old friend but also a celebrity photographer of the rich, famous, and infamous. In fact, it seems that it was at the Harper’s shoot that Avedon first floated the idea of the collaboration that would become 1964’s Nothing Personal, recently reissued by Taschen. The fashionable context of this encounter seems to have left its mark on the opulent volume of images and text that Baldwin and Avedon eventually created together. Nothing Personal strikes a glamorous pose — its pristine white covers house glossy pages full of dazzling photos and lyrical language — even as it simultaneously poses serious questions about the relation between American mass culture, white supremacy, love, and solidarity.
Over half a century has elapsed since the work of this celebrity duo was first published, and we find ourselves still looking at Baldwin. In the last few years, he has reemerged as a cultural mainstay, serving as the keystone of numerous essays, books, exhibitions, and festivals, not to mention the award-winning documentary by Raoul Peck that took Baldwin as its subject. It is fitting, then, that Nothing Personal — a project that came from the period in which Baldwin was forced to seriously reckon with his fame for the first time — is being reprinted now, as his star rises again. Its reappearance calls for reflection. Just what is it that we are looking for when we look at Baldwin now? Or, more precisely, when we look to him?
A great deal depends, of course, on who “we” speaks for. No good reader of Baldwin would forget that. Like his mentor Richard Wright, Baldwin wielded the pronoun with purpose. Recall that heart-rending qualification at the end of “Down at the Cross”: “If we — and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others…” Recall the “we” that appears in “Everybody’s Protest Novel”: it is unadorned and emphatic, an insistent occupation of the neutral voice.
At the dawn of 2018, it seems that the main reason “we” look to Baldwin is that we — and here I write as a Latina finding my footing in the coalition of conscious lovers — are trying to figure out what to do as the horrors of American white supremacy continue to unfold in the present tense, or better yet, the tense present. There’s a tendency to use the assemblage of photos, novels, essays, films, interviews, anecdotes, and articles that has come to stand for Baldwin as a kind of gold standard for socially engaged artistic practice. However, reference to this standard can often get a bit contentious, as it did immediately after Toni Morrison suggested that Ta-Nehisi Coates was something like Our New James Baldwin. It’s difficult to nail down, to reach any consensus about, what it is exactly that Baldwin’s work teaches us about cultural politics in the present day. The answer might have to do with author’s unabashedly lyrical voice in the face of devastating structural oppression, or it could stem primarily from his thoughtful relation to the work of his black radical contemporaries. What about his undeniable capacity to bring to life the experiences of characters inhabiting intersections of race, sex, class, and gender that would otherwise be absent from the mainstream? What about Baldwin’s insistence, as an artist and a public intellectual, on reaching “relatively conscious” white and black audiences alike — on his ability to speak across difference?
Of course, the heterogeneity and complexity of Baldwin’s oeuvre defies any simple answer. There is, nonetheless, an understandable inclination to isolate certain admirable elements of the Baldwin persona in order to set the artist up as a model. To some extent, this is inevitable. It is necessary to build on the hard-won wisdom of those who have previously led the fight for justice, and thoughtful analysis is a step in this direction. In the process of turning the artist into a model or standard-bearer, though, I fear we run the risk of losing sight of the art, of the variability that makes Baldwin so vital. I find him inspiring, in part, because of how he was changed by his work, by the times, and I am continuously astounded by how his work changes with us.
The reissue of Nothing Personal gives us a chance to look at the artist in transition, to side-step familiar narratives that would circumscribe what might be felt or thought in the encounter with his writings. It is an opportunity to consider the art with fresh eyes. Until now, Nothing Personal has been largely neglected by critics and so has been slow to take its place in the Baldwin canon. This is, at least in part, because when it was first released, just before Christmas in 1964, outraged reviewers lambasted it as “disgusting, unnecessary,” and “vulgar.” These critics did more than just dismiss the book; they performed their revulsion. Take the piece Robert Brustein wrote for the December 17, 1964 edition of the New York Review of Books, “Everybody Knows My Name” (a play on the title of Baldwin’s 1961 collection of essays). In it, Brustein suggests Nothing Personal is the work of two celebrity artists who sold out, creating a marketable book just in time for the holidays. He claims that while Baldwin was “[o]nce direct and biting in his criticism of American life,” his writing “has now become a reflex mannerism that curls his fingers around his pen and squeezes out empty rhetoric.”
Baldwin has either adapted his ideas to the intellectual chic of the women’s magazines, or he is putting his readers on. How else is one to explain such Norman Vincent Pealisms as “I have always felt a human being could only be saved by another human being” — and “One must say Yes to life and embrace it wherever it is found” — and, again, “All that God can do, and all that I expect Him to do, is lend one courage to continue one’s journey and face one’s end, like a man.”
Lincoln Kirstein, writing for The Nation, went even further in his searing review, calling it:
the coffee-table horror supreme […] this album is the work of two great American artists, James Baldwin, the author of The Fire Next Time and Blues for Mister Charlie, and Richard Avedon, a skillful photographer of luxury products […] An odd combination? Ah no gentle reader (looker?) […] Employing the slick Vogue-Playboy technique of double-page coverage, it is a Shocker. […] James Baldwin adds these words to show How Beautiful Life Can Be …
The Taschen edition of Nothing Personal also appeared (serendipitously?) during the holiday season. In addition to a facsimile of the 1964 volume, it comes with a booklet containing an essay by Hilton Als, which is artfully printed among truly striking reproductions of contact sheets, letters, and other archival materials associated with the project. The essay, entitled “The Way We Live Now,” seeks to overcome these initial negative evaluations of the collaboration by situating the photo book within Avedon’s and Baldwin’s respective and highly respected practices, as well as by offering a moving account of Als’s own experience with the work. His essay looks inward and outward; it is intensely personal but also takes care to carve out a place for Nothing Personal in the known Baldwin universe. The writing in Nothing Personal is said to represent an outgrowth of the same “black and queer moral vision” (original emphasis) that produced Giovanni’s Room. Als also implies that Nothing Personal’s meditation on love is something like the one so many of us have admired in Another Country. Other reviewers of the 2017 edition take similar stances. The Guardian’s Steven Thrasher finds that the Nothing Personal essay is not full of empty rhetoric at all. Rather, its prose reflects the best of Baldwin: “Nothing Personal is a work of enormous style and proves, once again, that Baldwin is unparalleled in his construction of American sentences.” Philip Gefter, whose New York Times article focuses primarily on Avedon’s contribution to the project, likewise characterizes Baldwin’s essay in very familiar terms. He calls the text a “cri de coeur of astonishing eloquence,” a “mournful jeremiad.”
All this is a far cry from the responses of the ’60s critics. How might we account for that? Now that Nothing Personal is back in print, readers can decide for themselves whether the tome evokes experiences that resonate with those found in the pages of such esteemed texts as Another Country and Giovanni’s Room. When and if you happen upon Avedon and Baldwin’s book in a shop, or on a coffee table, or in a library, I would ask you to resist looking for the artist whose name you already know and consider the art itself — consider whether it is possible that the original reviewers might have been on to something. I’m not suggesting that Nothing Personal is a bad book. Quite the opposite — I think it is brilliant. I wonder though, about the frosty reception the project received at midcentury. Could it be that critics were reacting to a sense of difference — a violation of expectations? What if their condemnations were phobic responses to the perception of difficulty, of suddenly being on unfamiliar ground without recourse to the usual critical tools or aesthetic standards?
Fortunately, the archival material reproduced in the booklet of the Taschen reissue encourages thoughtful looking and reading, with well-designed pages that graphically provide commentary without jumping to conclusions. The booklet also gives us a literal glimpse into moments shared by Avedon and Baldwin over the years, building a case for the agelessness and depth of their bond. For instance, there are photos of Baldwin’s mother looking at pictures of her son taken by his friend Dick; there’s a double self-portrait of Baldwin and Avedon in a mirror that looks eerily like a selfie any artful twentysomething might post to Instagram. The booklet includes images of alternate page layouts and often fascinating photographs that didn’t make the final cut, such as a group portrait of William Casby and his family on a porch. In Nothing Personal, one finds a tightly cropped, monumental portrait of Casby. It is given the briefest of captions: “William Casby, born in slavery.” You might know this picture from other contexts; Roland Barthes famously references it in Camera Lucida as he describes the manner in which a skillful photographer can sometimes transform the human face into a mask, can make it appear as if it were a signifier carved into flesh by history.
In Nothing Personal, however, Casby’s portrait is more than an illustration of artistic ability. As Baldwin’s text and Avedon’s images tell their respective stories about American society — narratives that wind toward and away from each other — it seems clear that it is not simply the prerogative of the artist to decide who is and who is not a “marked man,” so to speak. Avedon’s outsized portrait of Casby highlights the complicity of the viewer in the reproduction of white supremacist culture — it brings her in so close that it verges on confrontation. Will she have the gall to collapse Casby’s face, depicted in such careful detail, into a three-word phrase: “born in slavery”? Avedon’s photo of Casby with his family, reprinted in the new booklet, challenges the viewer in a different, but related, way. In the archival photo, Casby is seated, holding a peacefully sleeping infant. Behind them stands a group of family members, and behind this group is Avedon’s famous white seamless. It is taped onto clapboard in an improvised fashion, as if to abstract the family from their surroundings. And yet, in the foreground, intruding into the scene from the bottom of the frame, there is a chain-link fence that announces itself with a sign — “Amco Fence.” The absurdity of the sign makes a mockery of the viewer who would take the bait of the taped-up backdrop and try to separate the photograph’s subjects from their surroundings, buying into the dangerous fantasy of the camera as an impartial witness to human life. The camera, the Casby family portrait seems to suggest, is not capable of lifting subjects out of history or of overcoming white supremacist ideology. That’s up to you and me.
The new booklet also contains contact prints that provide tantalizing clues about Nothing Personal’s perplexing closing section. In it, Baldwin’s text becomes sparser and sparser on the page, consisting mostly of hopeful abstractions like the ones decried in Robert Brustein’s review. Accompanying these somewhat cloying passages are photographs of children and adults at the beach in Santa Monica. The first is an almost shockingly conventional image of an attractive, white heterosexual couple standing knee-deep in the ocean. There is a blonde woman and she is pregnant. She grins prettily; her bathing suit has a little bow that celebrates the fact of her growing belly. Her male partner has demonstratively placed a hand on her stomach and gazes there in happy contemplation of his incipient paternity. If statements like, “One must say Yes to life and embrace it wherever it is found,” strike one as belonging in a mass magazine, surely this image is no different. In fact, it is reminiscent of images produced at other beach shoots Avedon had previously undertaken for Harper’s. “The Way We Live Now” booklet provides readers for the first time with alternate shots of this magazine-ready heteronormative couple, ones that weren’t selected. In these frames, the faces of the couple look less happy. They stare past each other; they forget to reflect on their future as a family. Nothing Personal begins with Baldwin’s fiery condemnation of the mass media. The first section of his essay describes two mass cultural consumers, a so-called “virile male” and an “aluminum-and-cellophane girl,” who are doomed to a life without real physical pleasure. So why would the book offer readers such a stereotypical image of white coupledom, and such clichéd text, in its final moments?
Richard Avedon once suggested that in creating Nothing Personal, he and Baldwin were purposefully exploiting the coffee-table book format in order to reach Avedon’s fashion-oriented audience. I think it is possible that what early reviewers saw as mannerisms and magazine clichés were part of this exploitation of a privileged white audience who could afford to buy the very expensive and ostentatious book that resulted from the collaboration, an audience accustomed to Baldwin’s passionate lyricism. Perhaps the text targeted the people who could afford — figuratively and literally — to turn back to the excoriations of “Letter from a Region in My Mind” for a thrill, and go on to contemplate whether or not to buy the luxury cars and goods that The New Yorker advertised around thin columns of Baldwin’s fiery prose.
Baldwin was well aware of the commodification of his labors by the time he declared himself “technically and legally a celebrity” in Life. In the very short piece he wrote to accompany the portrait Avedon took for Harper’s at that fateful photo-shoot in 1963, we hear his frustration with this dynamic:
After all, Americans like a steadily changing diet of self-reproach, just enough for each day’s indigestion […] their flashy books on their own money-sickness, comfort-sickness, dope-sickness, almost convince me of what Myrdal said that I most like to remember: “America is constantly struggling for her soul.”
Nothing Personal is many things, but it is also a commentary on the marketability of social commentary, a critique of the “flashy book” that documents the American sickness and makes the big bucks doing so. As such, it could give us a new way to think about the commodification of anti-racism and the role that “business art” — to borrow a phrase from Andy Warhol — can play in contemporary struggles.
Each time I revisit Nothing Personal and come to the strangeness of its final section, it makes me wonder if I have been looking at things all wrong, despite my credentials as a professional looker. Maybe that is part of the point. We, all of us living in the 21st century, have been so well trained by the mass media to take in images and text, it is easy to assume that we know how to handle mass cultural spectacles. Always with a grain of salt. But, just like Baldwin’s audience in 1963, it is always possible that we are looking — at the artist, at the devastating violence of white supremacy, at ourselves and the ways in which we are complicit — but not seeing.
Carmen Merport is a PhD candidate in the Department of English at the University of Chicago.
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