Of all the superfluous non-books being published this winter for the Christmas luxury trade, there is none more demoralizingly significant than a monster volume called Nothing Personal. Manufactured in Switzerland by a special process, boxed and unpaginated, set between snow-white covers with sterling silver titles, and measuring eleven by fourteen inches in size, this tome consists of enormous photographs by Richard Avedon and alternating commentary by James Baldwin, the text set in huge type with about an inch of space between each of the lines. I stress the physical makeup of the book because it reveals the book’s ambitions: no expense has been spared to induce an awe-inspiring effect. 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. But for all the money that went into both productions, the revelations of both are equally synthetic. Nothing Personal pretends to be a ruthless indictment of contemporary America, but the people likely to buy this extravagant volume are the subscribers to fashion magazines, while the moralistic authors of the work are themselves pretty fashionable, affluent, and chic.
Such show-biz moralists have for some time now been a fixture of our cultural life, ever since it became apparent that Americans were eager to reward certain critics who abused them (the reception of Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, not to mention its publication in The New Yorker, did a lot to make this apparent). Vance Packard’s muckraking bestsellers, television’s That Was the Week That Was, Paddy Chayefsky’s The Americanization of Emily (to name just a few such commodities of pop criticism) are all attempts to capitalize commercially on an increasingly self-critical national atmosphere, where even Barry Goldwater can run a campaign complaining about the weakness in the American moral fiber. Now comes Richard Avedon, high fashion photographer for Harper’s Bazaar, to join these other outrage exploiters, giving the suburban clubwoman a titillating peek into the obscene and ugly faces of the mad, the dispossessed, and the great and neargreat—with James Baldwin interrupting from time to time, like a punchy and pugnacious drunk awakening from a boozy doze during a stag movie, to introduce his garrulous, irrelevant, and by now predictable comments on how to live, how to love, and how to build Jerusalem.
The book, however, is mainly Avedon’s, and the really curious thing is why a photographer, who spends much of his career flattering celebrities with soft lights and blurred effects, should also wish to transform these same subjects into repulsive knaves, fools, and lunatics. This has been done with a rush of fury and spite that belies the book’s title. Except for a few sanctified figures like Norman Thomas and John L. Lewis who, along with most of the Negro subjects in the book, enjoy a relative normality, everyone present is seen with a hideously jaundiced …