BY Brian Dillon in Opinion | 09 JUN 23
Featured in
Issue 236

Richard Avedon’s Photograph of an Unfinished History

On the centenary of the photographer’s birth, an outtake of his iconic portrait of William Casby, a self-conscious image captured alongside five generations of his family

BY Brian Dillon in Opinion | 09 JUN 23

In 1964, Richard Avedon and James Baldwin published Nothing Personal – a lavish collection of Avedon’s photographs, accompanied by Baldwin’s essay of the same title. Some of the photographer’s most famous non-fashion work is there: ravaged Dorothy Parker, downcast Marilyn Monroe, sidelong looks among the aged Generals of the Daughters of the American Revolution. But also: American Nazis in uniform, civil-rights marchers, the grained and blurry face of Malcolm X. Baldwin’s essay (which Avedon had to coax from his childhood friend in a Helsinki hotel room) diagnoses an America staring in the wrong direction: ‘We have, as it seems to me, a very curious sense of reality – or, rather, perhaps, I should say, a striking addiction to irreality.’

Richard Avedon, William Casby, former enslaved person and his descendants, Algiers, Louisiana, March 24, 1963. Courtesy: © The Richard Avedon Foundation

Avedon travelled to the South in the spring of 1963. Langston Hughes had provided him with a list of potential Black subjects, and southern-born socialite Marguerite Lamkin furnished introductions. On 24 March, Avedon took many pictures of William Casby, born into slavery in 1857. The full-bleed image in Nothing Personal is close-up and high-contrast, Casby’s hair almost whited-out, inseparable from Avedon’s customary isolating background. Look closely at a modern print: the photographer is a tiny reflection in the old man’s eyes. But you may well know the portrait from its less exacting reproduction in Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida (1980), where Casby’s totemic face is made to stand for an idea of photographic evidence and essence: ‘he certifies that slavery has existed, not so far from us.’

Three magazines opened in the middle.
Richard Avedon and James Baldwin, Nothing Personal, 2017. Courtesy: Abel Uribe/Chicago Tribune/TNS/Alamy Live News

Nothing Personal was reissued in 2017 with a second volume of photographs, including outtakes or alternatives: the grinning Daughters, a relaxed Monroe with Arthur Miller, Parker and her little dog. The camera retreats, the world intrudes. And so it is with Casby, photographed on his veranda in Algiers, Louisiana, with a baby in his arms and five generations of his family arrayed against a back-drop taped to the house behind. In some ways, it’s a supremely self-conscious image, bristling with frames and borders: a low wall, overhanging veranda, fence in the foreground, the white expanse of backdrop that risks flattening this family to two dimensions. On the opposite page: five Nazis at another clapboard house in the South. In Avedon’s chosen image for Nothing Personal, the face of Casby is a monument. Here, he lives in a history far from finished.

Avedon 100’ is on view at the Gagosian, New York, until 7 July

This article first appeared in frieze issue 236 with the headline ‘Evidence and Essence’

Main image: Patrons at the opening of the Richard Avedon photography exhibit at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1976. Courtesy: Todd Strand / Alamy Stock Photo

Brian Dillon is a writer. His latest book Affinities: On Art and Fascination will be published in spring 2023 by the New York Review of Books and Fitzcarraldo Editions, London. He is working on a book about Kate Bush’s Hounds of Love.