In Cold Blood
A recent viewing of the 2005 movie “Capote” brought back memories of an odd chapter in Dick Avedon’s career. It was in April 1960 that Dick traveled alone to Garden City, Kansas, for a meeting with author Truman Capote (1924-1984), who was there researching material for a fact-based novel about one of the most savage multiple murders in American history. The final result, published in serial form in The New Yorker magazine in September 1965 and as a book in January 1966, was entitled In Cold Blood.
Dick’s connection with Truman Capote went back to their early 1959 collaboration on Observations, a handsome book of photography and prose. I was away in the Army at that time, but upon returning to civilian life at the end of the year was given an autographed copy by Dick as we discussed the possibility of my working for him once again, which I did.
Avedon’s role in this strange 1960 undertaking, a self-imposed assignment, was to do portraits of everyone involved, from the police to the murderers themselves, and to capture the atmosphere of the crime scene. This he did without assistance using just his Rolleiflex TLR and 35mm Pentax cameras. The image to the right is Avedon's portrait of one of the murderers, Richard Hickock, taken in the Kansas jail on April 15, 1960.
How would these strange New Yorkers be received in small town Kansas? Well, Capote was there some four months earlier with fellow writer Harper Lee so the locals were already used to his eccentricities and had come to accept him. Avedon by contrast was so “normal” that he could almost have passed off as a Kansan himself.
Upon Dick's return to New York I developed the film and made prints from the negatives. Those images of the two murderers have haunted me ever since. The story goes like this: Two drifters meet in jail and are soon released on probation; they plan to rob an isolated Kansas farmhouse of a rumored fortune in cash, liquidating the entire family to make sure there are no witnesses. The brutal slaughter of the Clutter family was carried out on November 15, 1959. Ironically, there was little money, and the murderers left almost empty handed. In January of 1960 they were apprehended in Las Vegas and brought back to Kansas for trial.
Capote’s interest begins after reading a small article about the crime in the back pages of the New York Times in November 1959. At first he planned only a short story but after getting to know the jailed murderers decides on a full major work. An agreement with his publisher is reached by April 1960, when he asks his friend Avedon to meet him in Kansas to make a photographic record of the events.
Dick’s involvement only lasted a few days, but Truman lingered on in hopes of getting critical anecdotal information from the accused for his book. The trial was soon held, resulting in a guilty verdict and a sentence of death by hanging. Capote, by now strangely attracted to one of the murderers, Perry Smith (police mug shot, right), funds their appeals — a process that drags on for five years. Finally, all appeals exhausted, on April 14, 1965 both are hanged, with Capote as an official witness at the gallows.
At last, Capote could finish his book.
Quickly completed, the book gave birth to a new style of literature in which the lines between fact and fabrication are blurred. In Cold Blood is neither reportage nor fiction, but a hybrid in which truth is embellished for dramatic effect.
During the interim Capote, who had little or no knowledge of photography, purchased a Rolleiflex camera identical to the ones Dick used and asked him to teach him to use it. This task was given to me, and I spent a few sessions instructing the author.
By September of 1965 the book had been edited and typeset. Capote dropped off the complete set of galley proofs at Avedon’s studio and left them there overnight. Fascinated, I stayed nearly all night reading the text.
In Cold Blood was serialized in The New Yorker magazine beginning on September 25th, printed as a book later that year, and released in early January 1966. It soon became a best seller and has gone through numerous editions ever since. On January 7, 1966, LIFE magazine published a major article entitled “Horror Spawns a Masterpiece,” illustrated with Avedon’s photos from that trip to Kansas in April 1960. Some of these same photos later appeared in various museum exhibitions, and in Avedon’s 1994 book Evidence.
The movie version of In Cold Blood opened in 1967 to critical acclaim, but it could not halt Capote’s downward spiral into drug addiction and alcoholism brought on primarily by the emotional stresses of the whole affair. He died in 1984.
In 2003 Avedon helped coach actor Philip Seymour Hoffman in his portrayal of Truman Capote in the movie Capote, mostly in getting the gestures and voice right. Unfortunately, Dick never saw that film as he died in 2004, months before it was completed.
In this film the brief role of Dick Avedon (screen shot, above) was marred by a serious error involving the camera Dick supposedly used, a Hasselblad (screen shot, right). Dick never used a Hasselblad until much later in his career. His portraits of the murderers and others involved were all taken with a Rolleiflex 2.8E. Also, the Hasselblad in the film lacks a sunshade, a big no-no, and it was a model not even available at that time. His method of softly manipulating the subjects does seem genuine, however.
The following year, 2006, Infamous, another film on the same subject as Capote and covering pretty much the same story, was released. Infamous is somewhat more violent and more explicit in the sexual attraction Truman Capote felt for the condemned murderer Perry. Although the 2006 film does not even mention Avedon, it does have actors playing the roles of some of Dick’s closest friends.
Text copyright © 2009 by Earl Steinbicker.
Photography's Golden Age ended long ago but remains very much alive in my memory. From 1952 through 1965 I was an assistant to Avedon during his most creative period. Do I ever have the stories to tell! Now, near 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 done.
What I need to make this project 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 below and I'll get back to you.