The Family, 1976 | Richard Avedon

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.

John and Yoko

In choosing photos for this blog, I usually shy away from really famous ones (Iwo Jima, the Time Square Kiss) because the chances are that most people not only have seen them but also know the backstories behind them (some probably even better than I do). So much ink have been also spilt for the above photo that I don’t want to add any more, and would let Annie Leibowitz talk about her own image:

The picture of John Lennon and Yoko Ono lying on the floor together a few hours before he was murdered was ten years in the making. The first picture I took of John was my first important assignment from Rolling Stone, in 1970. Jann Wenner was going to New York to interview him, and I persuaded Jann that I should come too, mostly by explaining that I would be cheaper than anyone else. I flew youth fare and stayed with friends. Yoko said later that she and John were impressed that Jann let someone like me photograph people who were so famous. They were used to the best photographers in the world, and this kid showed up. But John didn’t treat me like a kid. He put me at ease. He was honest and straightforward and cooperative. That session set a precedent for my work with well-known people. John, who was a legendary figure, someone I revered, taught me that I could be myself.

I was carrying my three Nikons, with the 105mm lens on the body with a light meter. At one point, while John was talking to Yoko, I was using the 105 to take a reading and John looked up at me. It was a long look. He seemed to be staring at me, and I clicked the shutter.  That was the picture Jann chose for the cover when we got back to San Francisco. (below)

Ten years later, John and Yoko’s album Double Fantasy had just come out, and Jonathan Cott had done an interview with John for Rolling Stone. I photographed them at their apartment in the Dakota early in December, and then a few days later I came back with something specific in mind. John and Yoko were exchanging a kiss on the cover of the new album. It was a simple kiss in a jaded time. I thought about how people curl up together in bed, and I asked them to pose nude in an embrace. They had never been embarrassed about taking their clothes off. There was frontal nudity on die cover of Two Virgins, the first record they did together. They were artists. John had no problem with my idea, but Yoko said she didn’t want to take her pants off for some reason. So I said, “Oh, leave everything on.”

I made a Polaroid of them lying together and John looked at it and said, “You’ve captured our relationship exactly.” He had just spent live years being what he referred to as a house husband, taking care of their young son, Sean, and the new album was his return to a musical career. He took me aside and said that he knew that the magazine wanted just a picture of him. On the cover but that he wanted Yoko on the cover too. He said it was really important.

The photograph was taken in the late afternoon in a room overlooking Central Park. We were going to get together later to go over the transparencies, but that night, as John was returning home from a recording session, a deranged fan shot him. I heard the news from Jann. John had been taken to Roosevelt Hospital, and I went there and took a few pictures of the crowd that had gathered. Around midnight, a doctor came out. I stood on a chair and photographed him announcing that John was dead. Then I went back to the Dakota and stood with the mourners holding candles.

The picture looks like a last kiss now. Jann decided to publish it on the cover with no type on it except for the Rolling Stone logo. When I went to John and Yoko’s apartment to show Yoko a mock-up, she was lying in bed in a dark room. She said she was pleased with what we had done.