by NANCY MADLIN
This is the story of how this extraordinary book was created. This is how it began...
In 1969, photographer Richard Avedon and writer Doon Arbus set out together on a quest, a kind of creative mission that, loosely formulated, defined and refined itself over time:
"We had no plan," recalls Avedon, "just my feeling that I wanted in some way to respond to the demands of the time."
"You were clear on what you wanted to do," says Arbus, expanding and clarifying Avedon's memory in the way of long-time working partners. "I mean, as clear as things like that can be before you actually start them. It was an emotional thing and also something political. You said to me, when we first met to discuss working on this, kind of apologetically, as I suppose one must. You said you wanted to photograph people who were putting themselves on the line. As it evolved, it got less and less structured by that. But that was the initial thought."
"So much time has passed," Avedon interjects, "that whatever we told ourselves it was about is now buried deep inside what it became--the process of making anything is so, sort of loony."
If this is lunacy, it is surely of the inspired variety; the way of all artists. Following their journalistic radar and the call of their artistic souls, Avedon and Arbus thus respectively photographed and interviewed quite an assortment of characters, now revealed to us in the book called AVEDON: The SIXTIES. The personal collection is a sort of grab-bag of the era; turn the page and you never know who'll turn up to surprise you. Twiggy, Dorothy Day of The Catholic Worker Mission, Sly Stone, Malcolm X, Rudolph Nureyev, A Vietnamese leper, The Chicago 7, Janis Joplin, Edward Albee.
Arbus' interviews were conducted in conjunction with the photo sessions; before, during or after the pictures were taken. They are startling in their intensity and immediacy. The edited versions she created for the book crystallize for the reader something really powerful about each subject's experience. We are transported back, as though in a time capsule, to an era we suddenly realize was defined by all kinds of intensity: violence, a longing for community, a reckless belief in justice, and political theater played to the hilt on a world stage.
The pictures, too, are absolutely intense and immediate, marking an important change in the way Avedon made pictures. "I had worked with a Rolleiflex, doing portraits for so many years," says Avedon. "It was my way of seeing. I had begun to feel that the camera was taking the pictures. I was looking down into the Rolleiflex and my relationship to the sitter was gone. They were left confronting the blank neutrality of a lens. I wanted the interaction of myself and the person I was photographing. So I began to work with the 8 x 10 view camera, standing beside it, face to face with my subject. I also liked the size of the larger negative."
Thus, Avedon stepped out from behind the camera, created what was to become his signature portrait style, and began this project, all at the same significant moment. He also began working with Doon Arbus, a creative collaboration now thirty years long.
"The nature of collaboration is such a mysterious thing," he continues. "We meet to work as two totally different people, and with the participation of our subjects, create something that seems to be the product of a single intelligence."
That mysterious synergy is made perfectly visible in this book, the layout of which grew organically out of Avedon and Arbus re-discovering and reorganizing the source material--the photographs and interviews. The process of editing the material kept revealing hidden connections between disparate faces and voices.
The result is a book showing an extraordinary relationship between text and images. "It just flows; it flows so magically," says Avedon. "It's unlike any other book. No picture is there without a structural link to the text, and no text is there without advancing the narrative. It's not a book of pictures and interviews. It's like discovering a new form."
But you don't have to take our word for it.
You can see for yourself.