A BOOK OF AVEDON'S PHOTOGRAPHS
In 1963 we began work on the second of Richard Avedon's dozen books of photographs, this one titled Nothing Personal. It presented, photographically, along with a few exceptions and a text by James Baldwin, his views on the condition of American society circa 1964. Whether he succeeded in this is debatable, but the stunning images remain a powerful reflection of life in the U.S.A. during that time frame.
Although I have copies of all of these photos, I cannot use them here as they are still covered by copyrights. Also, they are too large for my scanner.
One of the first sittings done especially for the book was not in America, and not of an American. This exception was a portrait of the British philosopher Bertrand Russell (1872-1970), who at least had a lot to say about America. For it we traveled, in the beginning of 1963, to the very northwest corner of Wales. Avedon engaged the services of a young Englishman who had connections as well as a luxurious Bentley motorcar. They picked me up at Brown's Hotel in London and made a stop on Fleet Street to load up a few rental studio lights. That night we got as far as Shrewsbury, where we stayed in an old inn. Of course, this was the middle of winter and the Brits had not yet discovered the concept of central heating, so we kept feeding shillings into the electric space heaters in each room.
In the morning we headed into nearby Wales, crossing the Menai Bridge near Bangor, and headed west into a windswept land whose main feature was a huge nuclear generating plant. It was near here that the man who so hated anything nuclear made his home. I wonder if he enjoyed the irony.
When I started to set up the lights, I made a horrible discovery. The lights had no plugs — just bare wires. It seems that in those days Britain had many different plug configurations, so you always had to provide your own. I looked at the wall outlets and noticed that they had three holes each. The cords had two wires in them. Which to stick in where? I just prayed as I shoved the bare wire ends into the holes that yielded 240 volts. It worked! The shot went off fine and I learned, once again, to always check everything before starting out.
Back in New York, the project took a different turn. Instead of just celebrities, Avedon decided to include a cross-section of ordinary Americans. We began by setting up shop in the city's Municipal Building — in its Marriage Bureau to be exact. It was here that couples could get married in a civil ceremony that took only a few minutes and cost only a few dollars. To each couple he offered free wedding photographs in return for their permission to use the results in the book. Over a period of several days there were many who accepted, and seven eventually wound up in the book. The large images are quite striking, and filled with love and respect.
The other photos done in New York included both ordinary folks and celebs. Among the latter were Congessman Adam Clayton Powell, which was done on location at his Harlem office, Evangelist Billy Graham, and Black Nationalist Leader Malcolm X. For this one Avedon purposely jerked the camera to get a blurred, sinister, high-contrast effect. I felt a bit nervous during this sitting, but the subject was actually quite friendly. Another unusual shot was a "portrait" of just the fist of heavyweight boxer Joe Louis.
Avedon also arranged to do a portrait of Dr. Linus Pauling, who had recently won his second Nobel Prize and was active in the anti-war movement. This had to be shot at Idlewild Airport (now J.F.K.) as he was between flights. We arranged for a private room there, and set out to meet him. The problem was, neither of us had any idea of what he looked like. In frustration, we were about to have him paged when I spotted a figure that was the spitting image of a "mad scientist." I approached this man and said "pardon me, are you Dr. Pauling?" He answered yes, so we went to the room and Avedon took the picture. As it turned out, the photo was not up to our standards, so a few weeks later Dr. Pauling was asked to come to the studio for a reshoot. It must be noted that at the time I was still a smoker, and noticing the pipe stuck in my rear pocket he commented jokingly to the effect that instead of lung cancer I'd probably perish of cancer of the tongue. Anyway, the photo of him is stunning, easily one of the best in the book.
One day around this time we made a quick trip to Washington D.C. for two pictures. The first was in nearby Virginia, at the national headquarters of the American Nazi Party. Yes, there really was one! George Lincoln Rockwell (who was later murdered) was its commander. For the photo we had four of his uniformed stormtroopers, complete with swastika armbands, shown giving him the Hitler salute. The whole experience seemed like a very low-budget, bad remake of Chaplin's film, The Great Dictator. The way the picture was used in the book was hilarious — directly opposite a full-page shot of the notorious poet Allen Ginsberg in full frontal nudity (discreetly cropped, of course).
Then we drove into downtown Washington, to the Mayflower Hotel, where the Daughters of the American Revolution (D.A.R.) were having a convention. Now, Avedon had no more love for these people than for the Nazis. While he was busy arranging a group shot of about ten of their generals, I pretended to be adjusting and testing the cameras, all the while actually shooting photos. The one used makes them look like sad, pathetic throwbacks to an earlier time. Dinosaurs, really.
A more serious trip was made to Atlanta, where we met with and Avedon photographed Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. This was later used elsewhere, but for the book a photo of King's young son taken at the same time was considered more interesting. Later that day we gathered members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee together along a closed section of highway for a formal group portrait. Their leader, in the center of the photo, was Julian Bond, who is now Chairman of the Board of the N.A.A.C.P. During the middle of the shot we were visited by the state police, who tried to confiscate our film. What they got were blanks as I had safely hidden the exposed sheets. They then ordered us to leave town, and followed us to the airport. Fortunately, the deed had already been done, and we had the film.
From Atlanta we flew to New Orleans, checked into a hotel and had dinner in the French Quarter. The next day we drove across the Mississippi River to (I think) Algiers, where Avedon photographed a most unusual man, William Casby. Well over a hundred years old and still strong, he was born into slavery before the Civil War.
One last trip deserves mention here. This was to Palm Springs, California, in early 1964. The subject was none other than ex-president Dwight D. Eisenhower. This was delayed by a few days, so we stayed at the Racquet Club in order to impress our Republican hosts. Finally, the photo session was made on the patio of the home that the Eisenhowers were staying at, which was right on a golf course. Both he and his wife Mamie were extremely gracious, and the whole experience enjoyable. The chosen photo shows him in a thoughtful, slightly pensive mood. If you look carefully, you can see a reflection of me in his eyes.
There were other subjects, of course, both famous and unknown.
Besides assisting Avedon on most of the shots, I also made all of the finish prints. Some of these took quite a bit of work, especially the Atlanta group scene described above, which I made look as though it was taken at dusk, and inserted the "Downtown Atlanta" traffic sign from another photo. Artistic license. Today, it would be a cinch with Photoshop, but using chemicals in a darkroom was much trickier. The supreme challenges were the first and next-to-last photos, which Avedon had taken by himself on a California beach (Santa Monica or Venice), using a Pentax 35mm SLR camera, in the last light of day. The developed films had absolutely no visible images on them, they were so badly underexposed. This is why he seldom worked without an assistant. He insisted that there was something there, and if you held the film up to a narrow beam of reflected light you could make out the faintest images. So I spent days in the darkroom using every trick in the book, and finally coaxed those two photos out of hiding. Actually, had they been properly exposed they would not be nearly as effective as the ghostly likenesses they are.
The prints were finished, but where was the text? James Baldwin had agreed to do this, but so far had delivered nothing. He was, in fact, engaged on another project in Helsinki, Finland. Upon hearing this, Avedon dropped everything, grabbed his portable Olivetti typewriter and took the next flight to confront the wayward author. A few days later he was back, manuscript in hand.
The book was laid out by Marvin Israel, formerly the Art Director of Harper's Bazaar, and sent to C.J. Bucher in Luzern, Switzerland for engraving and manufacturing. It was in bookstores in time for Christmas, got mixed reviews, and was remaindered the next year. Still, it was a powerful book, and I am happy to have played a part in its creation.
Photography's Golden Age ended long ago but remains very much alive in my memory. From 1952 through 1965 I assisted Avedon during his most creative period, and do I ever have the stories to tell! Now, at the end of 2015, is the time to reveal all, while I'm still alive and kicking. Tales of personalities, motivations, intrigues, and even the fine details of how it was all done.
What I need to make this a reality is a co-conspirator to aid in getting the whole, true, uncensored story published -- either as a book, an e-book, or even a documentary.
Anyone interested? Leave a comment and I'll get back to you.