Avedon at the Met: the Chicago Seven and the Sixties

Looking at Richard Avedon’s black-and-white photos of the Chicago Seven which peered out at me in a recent issue of The New Yorker felt like seeing the dead. That’s not surprising. With the exception of Lee Weiner, the seven are all dead. Abbie Hoffman is dead, and so are Tom Hayden, Jerry Rubin, Dave Dellinger, Rennie Davis and John Froines, a chemist and anti-war activist, who died July 13, 2022 at the age of 83 in Santa Monica, California. The photos in The New Yorker and the article about them coincide with an exhibit titled “Richard Avedon: Murals” which opened on January 19, 2023 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York where he was born to a middle class Jewish family. The exhibit runs until October 1, 2023.

“I wanted to see if I could reinvent what a group photo is,” Avedon observed in 2002, two years before he died at the age of 81 and after a long career as a photographer for Elle, Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. He certainly succeeded with his portraits of the Chicago Seven, who were more than a group, less than a tribe and a kind of family that made its way into American living rooms via television.

No stranger to groups, politics and culture, Avedon published his own photos, some of the civil rights movement in 1964, in a book titled Nothing Personal, with a text by James Baldwin, whom he knew well from DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx.

If Abbie, Tom and Rennie were alive today they would be in their 80s and Dellinger, who was the oldest of the Chicago 7, would be over 100. Bobby Seale, the co-founder with Huey Newton of the Black Panther Party, and a member of the original Chicago 8, is still alive at 86.

Gagged and bound in Judge Julius Hoffman’s federal courtroom in 1969, Seale’s case was severed from the seven others who had been indicted on charges of conspiracy and crossing state lines for the purpose of rioting.

In an existential sense, Seale was probably the most guilty of the 8. As the author, with Newton of the Panther Ten Point Program—which called for “an immediate end to police brutality,” “the power to determine the destiny of our Black community” and “land, bread, housing, education, clothing justice and peace”— Seale served as a beacon of light in a time of darkness. The Ten Point program inspired young white men and women to join the Yippies, the movement to end the war in Vietnam, and the cause of women’s liberation. It propelled young Black men and women into the ranks of the Black Panther Party. The Ten Point Program is relevant today.

Seale was also probably the least guilty of the Chicago 8. He didn’t take part in the planning for the protests that occurred in August 1968 when the police rioted and he only spent two days in the Windy City, hardly enough time to cause trouble. Perhaps the Justice Department pulled his name out of a hat. The prosecution needed at least one Black defendant

Avedon’s larger-than-life images of the Chicago Seven—which are on exhibit in the Metropolitan Museum of Art—are a testament to the enduring legacy of the 1960s, the Conspiracy Trial, and the legendary defendants, as well as the artistry and prescience of the photographer himself. Did he know that his pictures would be viewed more than 50-years after he took them? He probably did.

After all, in 1968, he had the wisdom, the energy, the gumption and the grit to gather Abbie, Jerry and company, to have them pose in their street clothes and to look “natural,” as one might call it. Not everyone at that time, some of them in the movement and the counterculture, realized that the trial, which began in September 1969 and came to a close in February 1970, and that blurred the line that divided the Sixties from the Seventies, marked a crescendo in the annals of American jurisprudence.

I read about the trial in the press, and watched and listened to news about it on radio and TV. Without a doubt it was the most turbulent time in my life and I was not yet 30, a kid really who demonstrated in the streets of New York and Washington D.C. against the war, aided and abetted the Panthers, ran with the Weathermen, rendezvoused with Abbie, smoked dope, dropped acid, blasted rock ‘n’ roll, wrote for underground papers, experimented with sex and my own gender, and learned heaps about empires and their rise and fall. I also erred on the side of excess, though like Abbie I don’t have regrets. Still, I’m sorry I wasn’t as kind as I would like to have been.

Avedon’s photos of the Chicago 7 took me back to the Sixties, a time and place and a state of mind which went on trial in Judge Julius Hoffman’s courtroom; the testimony of Allen Ginsberg, who read from Howl, was critical. The guerrilla theater as performed by Jerry and Abbie, who wore Chicago policemen’s garb beneath black judicial robes, set a standard for defiance in courtrooms, while the lawyers for the defendants, Bill Kunstler and Lenny Weinglass, showed that attorneys didn’t have to be on the side of the judge, but rather in solidarity with those on trial.

Avedon’s photos don’t speak directly to those interwoven stories and the underlying text, but looking at them can’t help but stir up memories of that time and that place when the world seemed unhinged, and the contradictions of the society at large emerged in a courtroom that Abbie called “a neon oven” and meant to evoke an image of fascism.

I probably won’t fly to New York to see the exhibit. From California it’s a long way to go. But I might. I haven’t ruled out the possibility. I would like to see the life-sized images of the seven while I can still hear and see and when my memories of the Sixties serve me well.

Jonah Raskin is the author of Beat Blues, San Francisco, 1955.