Context Notes: Nothing Personal

One writes out of one thing only–one’s own experience. Everything depends on how relentlessly one forces from this experience the last drop, sweet or bitter, it can possibly give. This is the only real concern of the artist, to recreate out of the disorder of life that order which is art. The difficulty then, for me, of being a Negro writer was the fact that I was, in effect, prohibited from examining my own experience too closely by the tremendous demands and the very real dangers of my social situation.

-James Baldwin

Nothing Personal is a series of essays from 1964, both photographic and literary, by childhood friends Richard Avedon and James Baldwin. Baldwin and Avedon attended DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx together, and worked there on the school’s literary magazine. Over twenty years later, the two again joined forces on a project that functions as a snapshot time capture of the mid-1960s (Avedon’s photographs are mostly sleek portraits, many in extreme close-up, of key intellectuals, politicians, civil rights activists and artists; or grainy documentary shots of patients in a mental institution; or children and parents playing in the ocean), and a searing personal statement of a bleak America full of loneliness, despair and violence (Baldwin’s contribution being a series of four brief, untitled essays interspersed throughout, appearing in sections between pages of Avedon’s black and white photographs).

The book immediately brings to mind an earlier renowned collaboration of photographer and writer in American documentary photojournalism and non-fiction writing, that of James Agee and Walker Evans, and their 1941 volume Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, capturing the plight of sharecroppers during the Dust Bowl. Avedon would later explore this form of photographing working class culture further in the 1970s, with In the American West, in the tradition of both Evans and Dorothea Lange’s documentation of the Great Depression. In addition, Avedon’s photographs (and perhaps to an extent Baldwin’s writing) certainly seem to be in conversation with Robert Frank’s seminal book The Americans, which was published in 1959, a quiet, subtly critical exposure of race, politics and consumption across the United States. It is not, then, difficult to imagine Nothing Personal as Avedon and Baldwin’s contribution to an artistic and literary tradition of cultural critique by the creative class, a pointed look into the face of an America that was increasingly hostile to anything but capitalist pursuits (Baldwin writes: “the relevant truth is that the country was settled by a desperate, divided, and rapacious horde of people who were determined to forget their pasts and determined to make money”).

Much of Baldwin’s writing focuses on the notion of past and present, “the romanticized, that is, the maligned past, and the denied and dishonored present”, and what our nation’s collective and wretched history has done to its people (“death for the Indians, enslavement for the blacks, and spiritual disaster for those homeless Europeans who now call themselves Americans and who have never been able to resolve their relationship either to the continent they fled or to the continent they conquered”). In his opening essay, Baldwin states:

“To be locked in the past means, in effect, that one has no past, since one can never assess it, or use it; and if one cannot use the past, one cannot function in the present, and so one can never be free. I take this to be, as I say, the American situation in relief, the root of our unadmitted sorrow, and the very key to our crisis.”

This is a crisis of justice and freedom, certainly and inevitably informed by race. Baldwin presents an experience of living as a black male, facing the unkind, unloving city of New York, one in which he must don a daily uniform of psychological armor in his fight for survival and self-protection (“the America of my experience has worshipped and nourished violence for as long as I have been on earth”), depicting a country that is both metaphorically frozen and depressingly sad, exposing and criticizing American culture and the moral complacency of its population (“a sunlit, optimistic land, lulled for so long, and into such an euphoria, by prosperity”). The second essay begins: “A European friend of mine and myself were arrested on Broadway, in broad daylight, while looking for a taxi.”  After being released (the policeman “seemed extremely disappointed that I carried no weapons, that my veins were not punctured [from dope]”), one of the officers “[gave] my friend a helpful tip: if he wanted to make it in America, it would be better for him not to be seen with niggers. My friend…has since made something of a point of avoiding white Americans.” Here and everywhere, Baldwin’s anguish is palpable. His writing hums with the frustrated disillusionment of racial equality, the dispiritingly empty promises of a country founded on supposed universal human rights.

Only in the very last paragraphs of the final essay do the words and images mingle on the same pages, in which Baldwin talks of light, trust and love, and Avedon shows us moments of simple human contact at the beach: a man touches his wife’s pregnant belly, both of them hugely smiling, her body full of potential life; a small child hugs a woman; a man holds a baby high in the air over his head, the toddler balanced precariously in the palm of his right hand. Baldwin ends with a shift toward the possibility of finding love (“It is a mighty heritage, it is the human heritage, and it is all there is to trust…this is why one must say Yes to life and embrace it wherever it is found–and it is found in terrible places; nevertheless, there it is”), and though it is fragile, and as a society we may yet fail to realize the importance of Baldwin’s crucial human morality, it is a hopeful cautionary tale: “The sea rises, the light fails, lovers cling to each other, and children cling to us. The moment we cease to hold each other, the moment we break faith with one another, the sea engulfs us and the light goes out.”  Baldwin’s parting message is a beautiful and simple one: in love we can, if we so choose, survive.

-Aaron Mattocks