“We have, it seems to me, a very curious sense of reality-or rather perhaps, I should say, a striking addiction to irreality.” James Baldwin, Nothing Personal, 1964.
The book “Nothing Personal”, a collaboration between writer James Baldwin and photographer Richard Avedon, had an instrumental impact on a young Hilton Als growing up in Brooklyn. The book became a portal into a bifurcated country with exposed faults that its citizens were not ready to confront in 1964-ironically, these are faults that we are still not ready to address today. The book was conceived in 1964 with Avedon taking portraits across a wide swath of America including MLK, Malcolm X, George Wallace, Marilyn Monroe, beachcombers, and mental patients. The images are arresting and Baldwin’s unflinching look at his subjects is raw and confrontational. It also leaves more questions than it answers, which makes the work painstakingly brilliant. The accompanying essay by Baldwin is a personal synthesis of his observations documented during his travels across the country; they expose consistent patterns of bias and racism found in Chicago, San Francisco, New York and Birmingham.
The book has been reissued by Taschen with a separate insert of unpublished photos that accompany Hilton Als’ essay, “the Way We Live Now”, is a personal account of the strong impression “Nothing Personal” made on him.
“I am about 13 years old and my body and mind are carried along by the energy thinking engenders in me—the nearly phosphorescent ideas and possibilities I find in books, looking at pictures, and whenever I visit a museum. In libraries and galleries, the more arresting ideas tend to glow; and they light my way to more worlds, more thinking…”
My first introduction to Nothing Personal wasn’t until 2017 when it caught my attention after learning more about Malcolm X’s portrait in the book. Malcolm’s photo in Nothing Personal continues to confound me as both an ardent fan of Avedon’s photography and a student of Malcolm X’s legacy. The ambiguousness of the image was not only deliberate but it was brilliantly effective because it exposes more about the viewer than the subject.
Nothing Personal’s title alone echoes the current schisms taking place in online discourse today. When Black Lives Matter becomes a trigger for All Lives/Blue Lives Matter, discussions on DACA devolve into debates over good immigrants and bad immigrants, and a day can’t go by without someone resorting to reducing people to “snowflakes” who “can’t take a joke” and need a safe space, the cultural divide continues to deepen. Nothing Personal reminds us that this divide is nothing new.