Pace Gallery and Pace/MacGill Gallery are currently holding an exhibition of Richard Avedon’s photographs and extensive archival materials drawn from Nothing Personal, Avedon’s 1964 collaboration with James Baldwin. Avedon and Baldwin met as students at DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx in the late 1930s. They became friends while writing for and editing The Magpie, the school’s literary magazine. Even as teenagers, they, in their writing, dealt with profound issues of race, mortality, and, as Avedon wrote, “the future of humanity” as World War II closed in on them.
In January of 1963, Avedon photographed Baldwin for a magazine assignment and suggested that they work on a book about life in America. Baldwin readily agreed. “This book,” said Baldwin at the time, “examines some national and contemporary phenomena in an attempt to discover why we live the way we do. We are afflicted by an ignorance of our natures vaster and more dangerous than our ignorance of life on Mars.”
Corresponding frequently with Baldwin, Avedon traveled extensively in 1963 and 1964 photographing portraits for the book while Baldwin wrote the essay. They met up periodically to share and discuss their progress. The collaboration resulted in some of Avedon’s most pivotal portraiture of his middle career, from civil rights icons (Malcolm X) to staunch segregationists (George Wallace); to aging stars (Joe Louis) and young fame seekers (Fabian); to powerful politicians (Adam Clayton Powell) and ordinary citizens; to young idealists (Julian Bond) and elderly pacifists (Norman Thomas); to patients committed to a mental institution who seek love, comfort, and some semblance of consideration.
At the core of the photographs – almost all of which will be on view at Pace Gallery – is the question of how Americans understand race relations and their own identities, and, by extension, the identities and civil rights of others.
To coorespond with the occasion, TASCHEN has republished a facsimile edition of Nothing Personal with an accompanying booklet containing a new introduction by Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Hilton Als and rare and unpublished Avedon photographs.
“Both Avedon and Baldwin cared deeply about what was (or was not) going on in America in the early 1960s. It was an explosive time, not unlike the one we live in today. The events enveloping our country provoked Avedon’s careful reflection and examination of the place and its people. There is a lot to learn from looking at this prophetic work and considering the very profound statement it makes.”—Peter MacGill