Richard Avedon and James Baldwin’s Nothing Personal
Richard Avedon and James Baldwin’s collaborative book, Nothing Personal (1964), challenges the way that we, as both a society and as individuals, view others, and how this same behavior affects the way we look within ourselves, or rather, refuse to look within. Baldwin’s claims of a universally shared crisis of identity are supported by Avedon’s photographs, which confront us with the faces and bodies of others so up close and personal that, when seen in context of Baldwin’s writing, we can’t help but try to find the crisis within them—and this in itself may paradoxically prove Baldwin’s implication that we busy ourselves finding ways to avoid our own crises.
Baldwin consistently reveals a hypocritical cycle within the humans of our society: We tend to project our subconscious fears onto others, forging a wall between us, but in turn we stray further from our own selves. In the first section of the book Baldwin asserts,
It has always been much easier (because it 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, and the terror is constant. And this terror has something to do with that irreducible gap between the self one invents—the self one takes oneself as being—and the undiscoverable self which always has the power to blow the provisional self to bits.1
One of Avedon’s black and white photographs that resonates greatly with this statement is one of the cultural icon Marilyn Monroe. The camera captures her portrait from the waist up, its focus on her face and the center of her body, and a mid-tone, gray backdrop is behind her. She is adorned with a flashy sequined halter-top as well as her signature makeup and hairstyle, its perfect swoops and curls frozen in time and place to frame her face. One would immediately notice that this is the Marilyn Monroe, glamor and all. However, what calls the viewer to look twice at this image, what disrupts our flow of looking past one photo to the next, is the realization that the woman presented in this photo is in fact not the celebrity that we all know. The sultry pout and narrowing of the eyes, the pearly white molars exposed by an open smile, an innocent yet suggestive aura, all of which we associate with Monroe’s visage is absent, replaced by an empty stare. Her gaze points downward and slightly to her left, past the camera, past anything and anyone else in the room with her, past even the walls and all that follows. Her lips are parted in a manner that cannot exactly be described as disgust nor sadness, and her shoulders and arms are stiffened; one could say that she seems to be retracting into herself. Marilyn serves as a clear example of someone with an “invented” self that is far separated from her “undiscoverable” self, her invented self being the Marilyn that we all know her to be, the one she takes herself to be in front of the eyes of the media and the camera. The uncomfortable sight that we see in this photograph could be described as a glance into the terror within her. We can assume that she has just finished up a photoshoot or anything else of the sort that will soon be made public (or that she is about to partake in such activities), as she is still in her glamorous costume. It would be these kinds of moments in which she had to switch into a character that the stark gap between her two selves, private and public, was most pronounced. One can’t help but imagine that what ran through her mind during these moments would have paralleled the words of Baldwin:
It is perfectly possible—indeed, it is far from uncommon—to go to bed at night, or wake up in the morning, or simply walk through a door one has known all one’s life, and discover, between inhaling and exhaling, that the self one has sewn together with such effort is all dirty rags, is unusable, is gone: and out of what raw material will one build a self again?2
And now that this Marilyn has been captured—not as an idol but rather a human, one we may end up more reluctant to project our terror onto—in a photograph for all to see, what do we make of it?
Society has riddled the invented Marilyn—the one made for the public—with labels, predominantly those that break her down into a mere sexual object. This is how we ourselves avoid our own internal terror, by finding something or someone else to point at and distract us from facing the same discovery that we may have created a self that is useless and unsatisfying. Baldwin explains that humans live by lies, lies regarding everything down to the very human nature; and in order to cope with the identity crisis that inevitably follows, he claims that in search of a reason behind our pain, we invent a stranger that we place all blame on—a stranger that can be defeated in exchange for our relief. He continues,
Of course, those questions never go, but it has always seemed much easier to murder than to change.3
By giving labels to someone like Marilyn Monroe—a woman who was unashamed of her sexuality in an industry and a society that had not known how to respect such figures—we turn her into a stranger and project our insecurities and violence onto her. Perhaps we even convince ourselves that our own sexualities are something purer, and that anything we feel that is any less than pure is not a result of our own natures but rather a result of her influence. We do not want to face our own guilt and shame that stems from the way our society has come about. What Avedon’s photograph does is break this cycle of self-deception. When the stranger that we are used to blaming essentially disappears before our eyes, leaving behind someone who seems no different from ourselves, we are forced to think twice before choosing to murder over change.
Another of Avedon’s photographs that resonates with Baldwin’s examination of human ignorance is one that portrays the founder of the American Nazi Party, George Lincoln Rockwell, standing along with members of the American Nazi Party. On an empty, infinite field of white, the commander stands to the left of the photograph, his body turned to fully face four members of his party standing in a square formation (two in the front row, two in the back), who in turn are facing him. Rockwell stands completely straight with his arms resting at his sides, his hands sitting in their natural curves. The four members stand in a similar, straight manner while performing the Nazi salute in unison. All five subjects wear the same Nazi uniform. What separates Rockwell from the members, aside from their positioning in the photo, are his dress shoes and pant legs that fall in a straight cut right down to his ankles, as opposed to the members, who are wearing combat boots with their pants tucked into them. Every face in this photo rests in the same expression, in an emptiness that differs from Monroe’s. It is a stern emptiness, one that demands recognition as power, one that lacks any sympathy or humanity. This expression, replicated multiple times in one image, along with the atrocious acts of the Nazi party, creates the sense of a surreal dystopia where all individuality is lost. After finding this image, we are reminded of Baldwin’s reiteration that we are surrounded by lovelessness in this society. Nazism is clearly centered on separating oneself from a group of “strangers” and “barbarians,” quite literally taking this idea to an extreme by murdering scapegoats over identifying and changing a deeper rooted issue within their society. As Baldwin states,
it is reassuring to feel that the evil came from without and is in no way connected with the moral climate of America; reassuring to feel that the enemy sent the assassin from far away, and that we, ourselves, could never have nourished so monstrous a personality or be in any way whatever responsible for such a cowardly and bloody act.4
In his broader context, we are pushed to once again face the less appealing truths about ourselves. While we may easily relate the Nazis to their atrocities, as a result we turn our gaze away from our own deep rooted racism and systems of racial supremacy in America. Our ironic patriotism condemns the faults of outsiders while we enforce the like onto ourselves. Thus, the walls that we build between us and other humans grow taller, and we continue to grow further from ourselves.
This image of the members of the Nazi party also supports Baldwin’s idea that the human individuality and self becomes more and more difficult to hold on to in our state of the world. He writes,
Where all human connections are distrusted, the human being is very quickly lost.5
It can be said that this photo is full of distrust: Even outside of the fact that the Nazism is premised on distrust of outsiders, in particular antisemetic distrust of Jews, there is also distrust between the figures in the image. The unity that is depicted in this photo seems solely based on power and selfishness. Each member, eyes forward, seems to be in their own world, fighting for their place to be acknowledged as worthy by the commander, the one with the most power. This tension is heightened by the fact that two of the members’ faces are hidden behind the outstretched arms of their comrades standing closer to the camera, both symbolic to the distrust of human connection even within a unified group as well as the surrender of their unique identities due to this distrust. The commander is arguably the most distrustful, not only of the members but of the camera, of the viewer, and of himself, all at once. His intense sideways glare at the camera and simultaneous stubbornness that prevents him from turning toward us even the slightest bit creates an air of almost pitiful childishness. We can imagine Rockwell to have gone through the process described by Baldwin in which he creates a mask, a uniform, in an attempt to control or even pacify the way others perceive him.
Then one selects the uniform which one will wear. This uniform is designed to telegraph to others what to see so that they will not be made uncomfortable and probably hostile by being forced to look on another human being. The uniform must suggest a certain setting and it must dictate a certain air and it must also convey, however subtly, a dormant aggressiveness, like the power of a sleeping lion.6
Rockwell seems to be hyper-focused on his uniform and how he may appear to us and the camera. He wants to prove his place as commander and come off as the source of power in relation to his comrades. At the same time, he is trying to limit the amount of hatred and violence within himself that the camera would catch in order to convince the public that he does not need to be distrusted. However, his efforts are so evident, even in such a simple glare, that the only thing he ends up conveying is the existence of his insecurity regarding such things. Behind his struggle to keep the reputation of his invented self, he seems to have forgotten his undiscoverable self– he has lost who he is when the uniform is off. Furthermore, his regard for the men in front of him is long out of the question:
And so we go under, victims of that universal cruelty which lives in the heart and in the world, victims of the universal indifference to the fate of another, victims of the universal fear of love, proof of the absolute impossibility of achieving a life without love.7
Although it may feel like Baldwin expresses an overshadowing pessimism toward our society, it is important to remember that he is pushing us to face our own unpleasantness, so that we are given the chance to choose “change” over “murder.” Avedon, by separating his subjects from the environment that we are used to seeing them in and presenting them in an unconventional manner, guides us to ask our own questions about who we are and what we see others to be. When our habit of overlooking the real issues ingrained in our developed behavior is confronted through these images and words, we are brought a step closer to the hope that Baldwin ends off with, a hope for the miracle of love in our loveless city. We are given a chance to change our reality.
- James Baldwin and Richard Avedon, Nothing Personal (Taschen, 2017), 17.
- Baldwin and Avedon, Nothing Personal, 17.
- Baldwin and Avedon, Nothing Personal, 33.
- Baldwin and Avedon, Nothing Personal, 33.
- Baldwin and Avedon, Nothing Personal, 61.
- Baldwin and Avedon, Nothing Personal, 62.
- Baldwin, Nothing Personal, 64.