After Richard Avedon, the famous portraitist and New Yorker staff photographer, died on October 1, the owners of the Black Forest Inn in South Minneapolis draped their notorious Avedon print in black chiffon. The colossal photograph—a black and white portrait of eleven members of the Daughters of the American Revolution—covers a wall in their backroom bar. It is a fine counterpoint to the Teutonic woodwork and Bavarian kitsch in the rest of the place.
The piece was given in 1970 to Erich and Joanne Christ, the Inn’s owners, by Avedon himself. The artist frequented their establishment during his exhibit just down the street at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, which was the first museum retrospective of his work in the country. The gift surprised the Christs, as they never got close to Avedon during his brief stay here, despite the many visits he apparently paid to their bar.
Sixteen years later, Ellis Nelson, a regular at the bar, was sitting on his favorite stool when he pulled out a revolver and opened fire on the photograph. “That was a wild day,” remembers Erich, who was walking his wife and infant son through the parking lot when the shooting occurred. “People came running out of every hole in the place shouting ‘He’s got a gun! He’s got a gun!’ and I said to myself, ‘Ellis, this time you really did it.’” When police later questioned the shooter, trying to uncover a motive, Nelson was reported to have answered, “That photo always bugged the hell out of me.”
“It does have an element of satire,” says Joanne, referring to the piece. The subjects—members of a patriotic national women’s organization—range in age from roughly fifty to seventy and, being posed in full formal regalia, look more than a little smug. Avedon was branded by some as an unsympathetic photographer known to sucker-punch a trusting subject—making his sitters appear drugged and burned-out in some instances, coaxing them to expose themselves in others. In this case, the Daughters’ personalities are disparate, but all equally repellent. One looks paralyzingly self-conscious. Another lifts her chin, beaming like a queen in what seems an emphatic assertion of superiority. Another wrinkles her nose as if she’d caught a whiff of something pungent. And another, turned from the camera, showcases the fine satin and lacework decorating her expansive backside.
Popular opinion about the piece varies, but most of the regulars, known to asperse the Daughters once they’ve had a few Hefeweizen, find the piece disagreeable (though many enjoy slipping their fingers into its bullet holes). Unfortunately, the window of opportunity appears to have closed on understanding what pushed Ellis Nelson over the edge. According to the Christs, who are still in contact with him despite a lifelong restraining order preventing him from returning to the Black Forest Inn, he is fragile.
However agitated Nelson might have been back in 1986, his aim was impressive. Sure, he was within fifteen feet of his target, but he did not miss his mark. He fired just two bullets into the Daughters, hitting one in the chest, another right through the temple.
The Christs say Avedon was not pleased by the shooting. To appease him, they researched the costs of repair. But after receiving some frightfully steep estimates, they opted to leave the Daughters of the American Revolution forever wounded. Besides, by then the piece was attracting a new crowd of gawkers and urban folklorists. “Rather than losing a bunch of business on account of it, we got busy,” says Erich. “The damage Ellis did was off-set by the notoriety he established.”—Christy DeSmith