THE FIRST IMAGE in Nothing Personal, a collaboration between Richard Avedon and James Baldwin first published in 1964, fills two pages. A man kneels on the beach, both his hands scooping sand; five sand-dripped towers rise from mounds, the ocean a sky filling the background. On the pages that follow, almost all of the photographs are of people emblematic of the era, the famous and the infamous: a sequined Marilyn Monroe looking like she’s just come to; patients at the East Louisiana State Hospital all but forgotten in their suffering; members of the American Nazi Party saluting George Lincoln Rockwell, opposite of which a naked Allen Ginsberg stands, his right hand raised as if taking an oath, his left hand cupped just above his pubic hair.
A facsimile edition of this long out-of-print masterpiece has recently been published. It includes a booklet that features a touching essay by Hilton Als, who suggests that Avedon’s real talent as a photographer was coaxing out and capturing the moment when his “subject undermines the idea of his own greatness.” So, what to make of this sand castle? It is so close to the water that its destruction is inevitable, which is true of all human life. Existence is just as precarious as the leaning taper of wet sand, standing only by virtue of support provided by squeezing together so many separate grains of sand, unified by nothing more than circumstances.
Nothing Personal is a book of Avedon’s photographs, edited to correspond with Baldwin’s four texts, making it, as Als sees it, “about remembrance and the Other,” as evoked by subjects inhabiting the realms of civil rights, celebrity, and mental health. The large-format pages brim with black-and-white close-ups so intimate that the eyes of these figures can be seen reflecting all that exists outside the worlds that have been created for them. This is the tension, this is what shimmers and quakes in eyes as seen by Avedon: the knowledge that no one knows you as you know yourself, and not because of a personal shortcoming but because the system is rigged so as to make it damn near impossible to know each other, to really and truly see one another. Als writes:
What Avedon and Baldwin shared from the start, as creators, long before Nothing Personal was conceived, was an imagination that was not so much informed by reality as inseparable from it: they saw the exceptional in the real. Not the “sublime” or transcendent, but the brutality, theatre, innocence, and confusion that made up their racist, sexist, sexy, and impossible city of love and lovelessness.
When Harper’s Bazaar assigned Avedon to shoot Baldwin in 1963, it was a high school reunion. The two had become close friends in the early 1940s at DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, where they both worked on The Magpie, the school magazine. As close friends do, Avedon and Baldwin picked up right where they left off: after concluding the shoot, the two caught up over lunch in Avedon’s studio. Observations, Avedon’s first collection of portraits published in 1959, was a collaboration with Truman Capote, and he was now in the process of putting together a second book of his work. It was decided right then and there that Baldwin would write the text for what would become Nothing Personal.
In The Furious Passage of James Baldwin, Fern Marja Eckman reports that Avedon said to himself, regarding the alacrity with which his friend had agreed to write this book, “He can’t possibly do this, but I’ll go ahead as though he could.” Time passed and Avedon worked on his own, with no input from Baldwin. The two finally had their chance to discuss the project face to face in June 1963, in Puerto Rico. As reported by Baldwin biographer W. J. Weatherby, “They discussed a theme — the alienation of people, what keeps them apart.”
No further progress was made until the two were in Paris together. As Avedon’s time there was coming to a close, the photographer cornered his elusive collaborator. Baldwin admitted to not having written word one. Avedon asked if he intended to. Baldwin said he would, immediately. Avedon escorted Baldwin to a friend’s guest room and 48 hours later Baldwin emerged with the first part of Nothing Personal. Avedon recalled, “I thought what he’d written was a miracle […] It was a beautiful, beautiful passionate piece of writing. It recharged me.”
In “The Way We Live Now,” the essay Als has written to accompany this new edition of Nothing Personal, he recounts how he first discovered the book when he was 13, whiling away hours at the Grand Army Plaza branch of the Brooklyn Public Library, and in Nothing Personal he first realized “that current events can be art, that being humane is an art.” Als read Baldwin’s words and studied Avedon’s images, musing on a father, like Baldwin’s, who was present but distant. Years later, when Als was, like Avedon, on the staff of The New Yorker, he was invited to lunch at the studio of that great artist who had ignited in that junior high kid a curiosity, a hunger, to know that what is known is not all there is to know.
As Baldwin observes: “It has always been much easier (because it has always seemed much safer) to give a name to the evil without than to locate the terror within. And yet, the terror within is far truer and far more powerful than any of our labels: the labels change, the terror is constant.”
One of the few texts with which Nothing Personal will stand comparison is Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Like Avedon and Baldwin’s, James Agee and Walker Evans’s book emerged from a magazine assignment. First published in 1941, it went out of print in 1948. But the revived 1960 edition became an instant classic of hybrid reportage. Evans’s photographs and Agee’s words do not interact as intimately on the page compared to Nothing Personal; part of the reason for this is that it is Agee’s book, complemented by the photographs. Nonetheless, together they compose a rhapsodic rendering of the poor white people and the terror that Avedon and Baldwin also knew bound together all Americans. Take the intricately granular description of what Agee sees as he follows — at first at an easy stroll but then at a trot — a young black couple to ask them a question. He witnesses how the sound of his quickened step tenses their bodies with fear, and then he understands what they think they are seeing and he begs forgiveness, though the episode leaves him rattled: “I could not bear that they should receive from me any added reflection of the shattering of their grace and dignity, and of the nakedness and depth and meaning of their fear, and of my horror and pity and self-hatred.”
The subject of Nothing Personal is America, and Americans, and how, in Baldwin’s insightful view, “we are afraid to reveal ourselves because we trust ourselves so little.” The reason for this distrust of ourselves? As Baldwin saw it, from its inception America has been about diminishing the individual in order to make it easier to inculcate lies believed to be true:
The poor white was enslaved almost from the instant he arrived on these shores, and he is still enslaved by a brutal and cynical oligarchy. The utility of the poor white was to make slavery both profitable and safe, and, therefore, the germ of white supremacy […] Two world wars and a world-wide depression have failed to reveal to this poor man that he has far more in common with the ex-slaves whom he fears than he has with the masters who oppress them both for profit. […] To be locked in the past means, in effect, that one has no past, since one can never assess it, or use it: and if one cannot use the past one cannot function in the present, and so one can never be free.
Avedon’s subjects are all victims of the same culture, no matter whether they have been lionized or vilified. His camera captures the delicate, almost feminine, features of a young Martin Luther King III, years before he is robbed of his father but looking more solemnly burdened than any child should; the pores and stubble on the face of Hiroshima pilot Major Claude Eatherly, whose joylessness is accentuated by a nebulous light in the corner of his left eye that seems a reflection of a universe made up of nothing but ghosts; the incarcerated black and white men and women, examples of how, in Als’s words, “the madness outside was not so very different from the madness that had been locked away.”
In “The Discovery of What It Means to Be an American,” Baldwin writes: “The time has come, God knows, for us to examine ourselves, but we can only do this if we are willing to free ourselves of the myth of America and try to find out what is really happening here.” Both Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and Nothing Personal attempt to do this by virtue of all four of these artists revealing truths that hide in plain sight, which is why they are so readily ignored, and why they are so dangerous. “Lying is powerful; some people try to fit the lies, or break out of them,” observes Als. “As an artist Avedon told the truth about lies, and why we need them or metaphors to survive, and how people fit into their self-mythologizing like body bags, and die in them if they’re not careful.”
In Nothing Personal, Baldwin’s words are charged with that music of the pulpit. He is sermonizing, trying to help save us from ourselves. The book’s third breathless sentence, close to 400 words long, emulates the blurred, constant sales pitch one absorbs while channel surfing, Baldwin’s preferred way to watch television: “fingernails forbidden to break by superbly smooth enamels, teeth forbidden to decay by mysterious chemical formulas, all conceivable body odor, under no matter what contingency, prevented for twenty-four hours of every day, forever and forever and forever.” There is no holding back here, and the only false promises are the ones Avedon and Baldwin want readers to see, hear, and understand. But in the fourth and final section of the book a glimmer of hope is found, in the form of love. A recurring theme in all of Baldwin’s writing is the need to empower the individual, and just how difficult that can be, especially in America. But we are back on the beach, being reminded to celebrate the human communion of life, of touch, of holding one another as the sea rises, for none of those ointments or celluloid heroes can save us.