Richard Avedon and James Baldwin’s Joint Examination of American Identity
In 1964, the two artists published “Nothing Personal.” This fall, a reissue will include this image of one of the last living Americans born into slavery.
Avedon and Baldwin were two of the late twentieth century’s more self-exposed creators. The two met in high school—at DeWitt Clinton, in the Bronx. They worked on The Magpie, the school’s literary magazine, together, but fell out of touch as adults. “Nothing Personal” was Dick’s idea. He’d been assigned to shoot his old friend for a magazine; that’s how they got reacquainted. At the time, Baldwin’s fame was at its apex. His “Down at the Cross” had appeared in The New Yorker, in 1962, as an astonishing “Letter from a Region in My Mind,” in which he criticized the Christian religion as a disfiguring phenomenon among the poor blacks he had grown up with. Baldwin agreed to do a book with Dick immediately, the photographer recalled, and he was in line with Dick’s idea that the book should reflect America now. Baldwin worked on the first bits in Paris and Puerto Rico before finally finishing the twenty-thousand-plus-word essay as the book was about to go to press. (David Baldwin, the writer’s younger brother, helped with research, as did Dick’s friend Marguerite Lamkin.)