The Sixties

by Richard Avedon and Doon Arbus

Published by Random House/Kodak Professional

240 pages, 1999

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The Best of Times, the Worst of Times

Reviewed by David Middleton


The 60s were without a doubt -- and well recorded as -- a troubled, exciting and rebellious time in American history. It was a time of protest and transformation. Gone was the postwar boom time of the safe and naive 1950s. The Ozzie and Harriet lifestyle, picket-fence wishes and brush-cut attitudes were now dinosaurs and a new breed of animal was evolving and threatening to bury them.

These new rebels were rising up, speaking out and expounding the virtues of Transcendental Meditation, flower power, civil rights, LSD, peace, equality, free love. On the other side of the same coin was a different kind of rebel, one who believed in segregation, white supremacy, hate mongering, violence and retaliation, repression, and intolerance.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way -- in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being relieved, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

Charles Dickens, 1859

So begins Richard Avedon's stunning photographic book, The Sixties. And as if to mirror Dickens' point, the first two pictures are of Twiggy -- the waifish supermodel of the 1960s in wispy, solarized hues of red and blue -- and Abbie Hoffman, Yippie; "fuck " written bold on his forehead, rifle in one hand, giving us the finger with the other, in sharp black and white.

And so it is throughout the book: we indeed see the best of times and the worst of times, and often the two are rendered together in a single photo. An extraordinary photographic record of the best people and the worst people that era had to offer. But who is to say who is which? Certainly not Avedon. His camera sees them all with unblinking, non-judgmental clarity. But his crisp black and white photos are more than mere renderings of human beings -- either famous, infamous or completely unknown -- but glimpses into human character. Bold and simply lit, we see people as they are, often in their street or working clothes, sometimes naked, but for the most part unadorned against a plain, often white, background. Some mugging for the camera, some making no effort to smile at all, some unaware the camera is there, some all too aware of the unblinking eye staring them down. The overlords and the underdogs; winners and losers; oppressors and oppressed; victors and victims; the beautiful and the ugly. All submitted for our approval.

The text in the book is provided by writer Doon Arbus, daughter of legendary photographer Diane Arbus. Accompanying the photos are interviews Arbus conducted with many of the subjects themselves. Arbus lets the subject hold our focus here. Where Avedon gives them a face, Arbus gives them their own voice. Each sounding forthright and -- for the most part -- very unabridged, with all of the person's ums, ahs and ya knows left right where they said 'em. This personal style of narrative gives the reader the feeling that you are right there talking with Leonard Cohen about drugs and sex, or Dr. Benjamin Spock about happiness, or listening to the unadulterated honesty and anguish of Janis Joplin's thoughts. You can almost hear that ragged edge she had in her voice:

I have like what anyone would call like, say, a loneliness, a loneliness of my own. But it's just a private trip and probably shouldn't be forced on other people that much, you know what I mean? God, fuck it. Who cares how lonely you feel. You just have to learn to deal with it like everybody else does. Everybody has that, I think. Everybody. Even Christians.

I remember, I used to think, goddam it, it's because I'm a chick or it's because I haven't figured it out yet. It's because I'm not twenty-one. It's because I haven't read this or haven't tried that.... Well, I've done every fucking thing and now I know better. There is no "because." And it's not going to get any better.

The realization that there isn't going to be any turning point.... There isn't going to be any next-month-it'll-be-better, next fucking year, next fucking life. You don't have any time to wait for. You just got to look around you and say, So this is it. This is really all there is to it.

Avedon's pictures coupled with Arbus' words makes The Sixties a poignant but somehow not overtly nostalgic look at a decade some of us grew up in and remember fondly. The Sixties brings the decade back with a sort of "this is just the way it was" attitude, without embellishment or misty-eyed remembrances. It's a scrapbook from our past that does a remarkable turnaround and sees the time more through the eyes of the subject than through the lens of the photographer. Avedon and his camera become the instrument through which his subjects are able to express themselves. You fall into the picture sharing with them their hopes and desires; identifying with them. And Avedon, for all his technical brilliance and ability, becomes an omnipresent but invisible conduit between viewer and viewed.

The Sixties reads like a roll call of everyone who influenced the decade. The prerequisite musicians are all here: a somber Bob Dylan, an impossibly young Simon and Garfunkel, a vital but used up looking Janice Joplin, Frank Zappa giving us a playful evil eye, and of course John, Paul, George and Ringo in all their psychedelic glory. The artists, the writers, the politicians, the visionaries, the rebels.

Perhaps the strongest image in the entire book -- and there are so many powerful images -- is of Malcolm X. Almost twice life-size -- grainy and blurry and looking like a deeply shadowed charcoal drawing -- the power of the image more than conjures up the violent and determined life that this man must have led: it immerses you in it. Defiant and completely in your face, the photo is an impressionist's view, painted with just a few bold strokes but utterly capturing the moment. The picture has a calm all its own but it is one of the most forceful portraits I have seen. I could write an entire essay on this photo alone on how neophyte photographers should study it. It veers away in sharp contrast to Avedon's usually crisp photo technique and creates a portrait in true black and white with almost no mid tones. Forget about recording every detail with razor-edge sharpness: this is essence captured.

An incredible portfolio from a photographer who already has incredible credentials. In the 50s and 60s with his work in Harpers Bazaar to Vogue in the 60s, 70s and 80s and through to his present work, Avedon has been an instrumental force in fashion and journalistic photography and has influenced generations of shutterbugs who thought that they could make a living looking at life through a lens. This book will no doubt continue to influence generations of photographers to come. | December 1999

David Middleton is the art director of January Magazine.