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Richard Avedon and James Baldwin’s Nothing Personal
Allen Ginsberg, poet, December 1963Photograph(s) by Richard Avedon. © The Richard Avedon Foundation

That time Richard Avedon & James Baldwin exposed America

A controversial examination of a disconnected America juxtaposed Allen Ginsburg with the founder of the American Nazi Party, Marilyn Monroe, and a man who was born into slavery, with essays

In 1964, photographer Richard Avedon and writer James Baldwin released a book called Nothing Personal. It was, in fact, extremely personal – a body of work that hit close to the bone of American sensitivities of the time. A collection of black and white portraits of people such as actress Marilyn Monroe, writer Allen Ginsburg, founder of the American Nazi party, George Lincoln Rockwell, and William Casby, who was born into slavery. The portraits were paired alongside essays that gave insight into Baldwin’s thoughts and critiqued the country's “existential crisis” and a growing sense of “depersonalisation”. Overall, Nothing Personal examined America at the time, alongside the rise of Black nationalism and the mental-health system, and its fascination with film and rock stars.

In one prose, Baldwin proves very little has evolved with regards to the country’s race relations, recalling being stopped by a policeman who “seemed extremely disappointed that I carried no weapons, that my veins were not punctured – disappointed, and there, more truculent than ever”.

With this insight, it’s not surprising that when the former high-school-friends-turned-two-of-the-world’s-most-influential-artists initially released the book in the mid 60s, they were met with intense criticism. Labelled “Hollywood moralists”, Avedon and Baldwin were accused of being unrepresentative of “the true feelings of ‘real’ Americans”. But they couldn’t have been more on point – both then and now. 

Fascinatingly, Baldwin opens his four-part essay with the revelation that he used to distract himself “before I got out of bed” by flicking through channels on his TV. “I certainly saw remarkable sights”, he observed, describing the ads he saw. More than 50 years on, the book has been re-released by Taschen and its message remains as pertinent as before. Only now, Baldwin wouldn’t have to turn on his TV to see the absurd – reality has become stranger than fiction.

Nothing Personal – published by Taschen – is available now