Richard Avedon, classic American portrait photographer, was born on this day, May 15, in 1923 (he died in October of 2004). We take the occasion of the current major select retrospective at the Gagosian Gallery to salute him and salute the Ginsberg-Avedon relationship.
“A photograph of Ginsberg naked, his left hand covering his groin and arranged in a Buddhist gesture signifying contemplation, his right hand raised palm out in the abhaya mudra, a gesture of reassurance, was published in Nothing Personal, a collaboration between Avedon and James Baldwin, in 1964, opposite an image of George Lincoln Rockwell “stormtrooper” youths in Nazi salute. Another photograph of Ginsberg by Avedon – one of Ginsberg and Orlovsky, his life partner, in naked embrace – was the cover of the August 197o issue of Evergreen Review.”
“To the extent possible in that pre-Internet age, these images, particularly the one of Ginsberg and Orlovsky – were circulated virally within The Movement, especially within the gay underground. Ginsberg would later refer to the Evergreen image as having “wide use as a sort of pinup”. Avedon gave him several copies of the photograph which he distributed with missionary zeal – though he was careful always to ask the photographer’s permission for any formal publication.
In 1971 Ginsberg asked Avedon if he could use the image to accompany an interview to be published in Gay Sunshine Collective, and required a new print “without the genitals darkened out” (Whether or not Avedon ever saw the cropped version of his photo from Nothing Personal on the cover of Gay Sunshine is not known). A year later Ginsberg asked Avedon for images again, for possible publication “in other papers affiliated with Gay Liberation movement”. In 1980 Ginsberg asked Avedon’s permission to use the photo of him and Orlovsky as the frontispiece of his forthcoming book Straight Hearts Delight, an anthology of letters and poems between the two men: “Your photo is straight. That’s why it’s good. It has the aura of 1890’s Tennysonian or Whitman photos, so it would be appropriate as an old-fashioned frontispiece to such literary memoir book (which is) both anthology of our sexual poetries and compilation of unselfconscious letters of ’50’s and early ’60’s about love and literature”. He also told Avedon he felt that the photo had been defaced on the Evergreen cover, the “dark shadowed at bottom obliterating some portions of body clearer in your prints”. Ginsberg’s modesty is evident, as always, when he asks for permission to use the photo for his own purposes: “I realize you’ve been very generous to us over the decades and I don’t want to cause you anxiety of decision. If you have very clear plans for an exclusive single shape for your picture don’t let my explanation dissuade you”. Avedon agreed to Ginsberg’s request and the poet sent him a touching bread-and-butter note in the form of a picture postcard of himself and Orlovsky with a handwritten note also scribbled on by Orlovsky…”
Rubin goes on
“Avedon was happily complicit in Ginsberg’s shit-stirring. In May 1967, the image of Ginsberg from Nothing Personal figured prominently in a flap over a proposed poetry reading by Ginsberg at Portland State College. Just before the event, the student newspaper published an article claiming that “the school requested and (Ginsberg) complied with a request to behave… with some especial “propriety”. The article was accompanied by Avedon’s photograph, which so outraged the college’s president that he seized the day’s run of the paper and suspended the editor. Ginsberg defended the image to the editor of the Portland Oregonian: “There is nothing in the picture to offend, unless one is offended by the sight of a not-quite-naked person, in which case any slick magazine or local newspaper carrying bathing suit or shower soap advertisement might be found offensive but they are not…I am not one to be insulted by my own physical image, especially photographed in the act of making religious hand signs”. He denied that his appearance at the school was “an un-American attempt to subvert our tender youth who should be in training to die in Vietnam rather than listen to filthy poetry-readings”.
“The following August, Dick Bakken, editor of the magazine Salted Feathers, wrote to Avedon, asking for permission to use the Nothing Personal photo as well as images from the Ginsberg/Orlovsky photo shoot. A far cry from Harpers Bazaar, Salted Feathers was one of those mimeoed “little” magazines that are midwifed on a shoe-string and disappear after a few issues. Bakken decided to go out with a bang after publishing a last issue Ginsberg/Portland, in the form of a book, to include contributions by Ken Kesey (whose bus Ginsberg would shortly board) and to be distributed by poet-publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Press. In his letter Bakken quotes Ginsberg as saying that Robert Frank thought it one of Avedon’s best photos – an encomium Ginsberg would himself repeat on many later occasions. Bakken also mentioned a radio talk show on which Ginsberg and “several old ladies” had discussed the Portland incident” [“Ginsberg/Portland never came to pass. A few issues of Salted Feathers were published between 1964 and 1967, and one final issue in 1975, before the magazine expired definitively”].”