Why Richard Avedon’s Work Has Never Been More Relevant

Baldwin’s essay begins with a withering description of the television ads he is forced to endure while watching the news — ads that aim to sanitize, brighten, straighten, tame and tweak the skin, hair, teeth and bodies of viewers into an impossible standard of perfection that positions the enemy to be, well, nature itself.

The portraits in “Nothing Personal” present a stark yet authentic counterpoint to the American image of eternal youth and anodyne good cheer. The book’s most resonant chords hover at a frequency detected in the balance of Avedon’s austere minimalism and Baldwin’s mournful jeremiad.

Only one portrait in “Nothing Personal” bears a date: “Maj. Claude Eatherly, Pilot at Hiroshima, August 6, 1945.” It refers not to when the photograph was made but to when Major Eatherly flew weather reconnaissance over Hiroshima and then gave the O.K. to drop the first atomic bomb, code-named “Little Boy.” Avedon first contacted Eatherly to photograph him in early 1963. “For a long, long time I have felt a connection with you, as have my wife and many of my friends,” Avedon wrote to him in Galveston, Tex., “because what happened to you is almost like a metaphor of what many Americans feel has happened to them.” Avedon flew to Galveston to make his tightly cropped portrait of Eatherly, brow furrowed and hand cupped over his eye as if to scrutinize the distant horizon.


“Major Claude Eartherly, Pilot at Hiroshima, August 6, 1945” (1963), from Richard Avedon’s book “Nothing Personal,” which will be reissued in early December.

Richard Avedon

In a series of museum talks, Colin Westerbeck, the eminent photography historian, argued that Major Eatherly is the central portrait in “Nothing Personal,” perhaps even in Avedon’s entire career. He pointed out the absence of shadow…

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