Early in 1976, with both the post-Watergate political atmosphere and the approaching bicentennial celebration in mind, Rolling Stone asked Richard Avedon to cover the presidential primaries and the campaign trail. Avedon counter-proposed a grander idea — he had always wanted to photograph the men and women he believed to have constituted political, media and corporate elite of the United States.
For the next several months, Avedon traversed the country from migrant grape fields of California to NFL headquarters in Park Avenue and returned with an amazing portfolio of soldiers, spooks, potentates, and ambassadors that was too late for the bicentennial but published in Rolling Stone’s Oct. 21, 1976, just in time for the November elections.
Sixty-nine black-and-white portraits (seen all together in an Met exhibit here) were in Avedon’s signature style — formal, intimate, bold, and minimalistic. Appearing in them are President Ford and his three immediate successors — Carter, Reagan, and Bush. Other familiars of the American polity such as Kennedys and Rockefellers are here, and as are giants who held up the nation’s Fourth Pillar during that challenging decade: A. M. Rosenthal of the New York Times who decided to publish the Pentagon Papers, and Katharine Graham who led Woodward and Bernstein at Washington Post.
Their source, Deep Throat, is here too: W. Mark Felt, the former associate director of the FBI, although he didn’t reveal that fact until 2005 — the year after Avedon himself died. It is also clear here that apart from a few civil rights leaders and eminent wives, the pantheon of 1976 was mostly white, mostly male, mostly besuited, and mostly elderly. Yet, some familiar contemporary names amongst its younger members — the activist Ralph Nadar, 42; Jerry Brown, 38, then as now the governor of California; Donald Rumsfeld, 44, then and future Secretary of Defense — also suggest this group’s political endurance and Zeligian relevance.
Consciously or otherwise, absent were the supreme court justices and the man whose resignation made this portfolio possible. Instead, Avedon convinced Nixon’s secretary, Rose Mary Woods to pose for him.
If we assemble a project like this today, what will be its composition? There’ll definitely be more ‘celebrities’ I guess, but weigh-in here in comments or tweet to @aalholmes.