— In December 1964, the prestigious New York Review
of Books featured a vitriolic article by the critic and playwright Robert Brustein on Nothing Personal, a work by photographer Richard Avedon and writer James Baldwin. “One is obviously supposed to handle such a volume with unspeakable reverence, similar to that humility of spirit with which Charlton Heston held Cecil B. DeMille’s papier–maché commandments upon descending from his Hollywood Mount Sinai [ … ]” in the biblical epic, The Ten Com
mandments. Brustein is disconcerted by the teaming up of the high–fashion photographer for Harper’s Bazaar and the African–American intellectual, who had become an emblematic spokesman for the civil rights movement, a tandem he felt was not trying to save the world but attempting rather “to capitalise commercially on an increasingly self– critical national atmosphere”. “If you really want to know something about solitude, become famous. That is the turn of the screw. That solitude is practically insurmountable,” Baldwin wrote in 1984, when he was already withdrawing from the public eye, sickened by seeing Medgar Evers (June 1963), Malcolm X ( February 1965 ) and Martin Luther King ( April 1968 ) assassinated one after the other. The three most eminent civil rights figures fought for equality between black and white on American soil, where racial segregation laws were abolished in June 1964, giving way to an intensely violent period of political and social upheaval. Born in Harlem in 1924, James Baldwin was the oldest of nine children, the illegitimate son of a father he would never know. His mother got remarried to a pastor. His career took him from Greenwich Village to bohemian Paris where he stayed for ten years. A homosexual, Baldwin explored identity issues with a ferocious sensitivity, which not only shattered the structural racism of the conservatives, but also the trusting bonhomie of the left–wing humanists: “It took me many years to spit out all the filth I had been taught about myself, and which I half believed, before being able to exist on this earth as if I were authorised to do so.”
Raoul Peck’s documentary, I’m Not Your Negro, the announcement by Barry Jenkins, director of this year’s Oscar–winning Moonlight, that his next film would be an adaptation of Baldwin’s novel, If Beale Street Could
Talk, published in 1974, and the militant turmoil of the Black Lives Matter movement have all contributed to a vast wave of interest in rediscovering the author of The Fire Next Time ( 1963 ). The re–edition of Nothing Personal, the work he co–signed with Avedon, and which has become a legend that the photographer himself thought was one of his finest works, shows how modern their approach was. Neither outshines the other; rather they support each other in the quest for a higher truth mid–way between the glamour of public life and their deepest, innermost wounds. NOTHING PERSONAL ( Taschen ), English edition published in January 2018.