“Have a dream, use your imagination, overcome your fear, and then the real secret to the whole thing: You have to act.” -Fred Baldwin
Photo career starts with Pablo Picasso
Fred Baldwin was only 26 and a student at Columbia College when he talked his way into Picasso’s home, Villa le Californie in the South of France carrying a borrowed camera. He got the villa’s address from a saleswoman in the town nearby. He knocked on Picasso’s door and was turned away again and again over four days. He slept in his car outside the villa.
Baldwin came up with a novel idea. He would write a humorous letter in French thinking if he could get Picasso to laugh, he would get to meet the artist.
“Dear Mr. Picasso,” said the letter dated July 28, 1955, “I am a student at Columbia University and this summer I am a freelance journalist. I know that you are very busy but I am here in my car and each day that you won’t see me, my beard grows longer and longer. I will soon look like Moses. If you would let me take some color photographs then I could go to Florence where I have some money and cut off my beard. With hope, I am, Fred Baldwin.”
A few minutes after he delivered his missive, Picasso’s daughter Maya invited him in. Baldwin’s 3-day old beard was hardly what Picasso expected. Picasso said, “You don’t have a beard.” Baldwin replied, “I have an imaginary beard.”
The photographs he made of Picasso launched his career that had started as an interest in photographing the life he lived during the Korean War where he earned two Purple Hearts (opening photo, top two left side photos.)
“After I met Picasso, I wasn’t afraid anymore. I knew I could do anything I put my mind to,” Baldwin said in his book, “Dear Mr. Picasso: An illustrated love affair with freedom.”
“I completely reconfigured my ego, and that kicked off all the adventures I describe in this book — following the reindeer herders, traveling with the polar bears, going underwater with the marlin — all the crazy things I did as a photojournalist.”
He bought a Leica MP camera on July 10, 1958, and with it, he made documentary photographs from arctic Norway to Borneo, Afghanistan and India.
Civil rights movement and the KKK
He photographed the Ku Klux Klan in Reidsville, GA and in 1963 began photographing the civil rights movement working with Hosea Williams, a member of Dr. Martin Luther King’s inner circle. Baldwin volunteered his photography for the Chatham County Crusade for Voters in Savannah, Georgia. He gave photos for its publications and joining meetings. He understood and wanted to be a part of what was happening to Black people in the 1960s.
“Economic discrimination was not news to me, nor was segregation or class division, but the difference lay in my becoming intimate with these realities in a totally new way,” he wrote. “And I was making photographs in a new way — for a cause, a cause that I knew was right. I found myself working in a spirit that drew on conditions that I had observed and experienced in my family’s factory, but now I was surrendering my secret God-given white self importance; that was new.”
Fred Baldwin and his wife, Wendy Waltriss founded Houston FotoFest a biennial photography festival held in Houston, TX in 1983. Their purpose was to get photographer’s work shown. Up to that time, the only place to see photography was in the two or three galleries at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City.
Baldwin remembers, “It was accepted that the curators at MoMA knew all the important photographers in the world. We had seen too much, and we knew that wasn’t correct. We decided to start something in Houston that would open up the world for photographers to be seen.”
“Could we have done that in New York, Philadelphia, Boston?” Baldwin said. “No way … this city provided us with a backdrop of opportunity that probably didn’t exist anywhere else.”
Fred Baldwin video
Clockwise from top left: Korea, 1951-2 photos, Savannah, GA, 1963-2 photos, students standing in line to register to vote in Chatham County, GA, 1963, KKK car Pooler, GA, 1957, Polish tenant farmers, Grimes County, TX, 1972 and Black Rodeo, Grimes County TX, 1982. The last two photos are credited to Fred Baldwin and his wife Wendy Waltriss, Reindeer Roundup, Lapland region, 1958.