Fred Baldwin is not only a great photojournalist and widely-travelled chronicler, but above all an eloquent and entertaining storyteller. The U.S. photographer has recently published his opulent photo book Dear Mr. Picasso: An illustrated love affair with freedom. Even now, with 90 years of age, he continues to be extremely active: So Much Work Left to Do is the telling title The New York Times recently gave an interview with the photographer. Fortunately, he also found time to speak with us.
How long did you work on the compilation and writing of the book?
The idea of seriously beginning to write my autobiography started in 2006 after visiting a close friend, Pedro Meyer in Mexico City. Wendy Watriss and I were staying at his house and Pedro and I were looking through my computer, trying to settle a heated discussion about some technical matter. Pedro was always up on the very latest gadget and I was always one gadget behind, trying to catch up. Quite by accident, we bumped into some color slides that I had recently discovered of Pablo Picasso, who I had photographed in 1955 – fifty-one years earlier. The Anscochrome film had shifted colors and in some cases strange streaks had given them a surreal quality. Pedro was fascinated: he had recently founded one of the world’s largest websites, Zone Zero, and he wanted to put my pictures on line. At the time I had also rediscovered a long diary description – the how and why I had made these images that became an illustrated Zone Zero online book. It then became the genesis of my autobiography Dear Mr. Picasso: An illustrated love affair with freedom. It grew to be a 700 pages tome that occupied me for the next ten years.
What significance did your diaries have in this process?
My “diary” was an inconsistent process. It combined times when it was necessary to collect a lot of information about a particular picture story, that I was trying to do for a magazine, both to write an article as well as sell the story. Letters to my agent in New York were also full of detail because she also had to sell my work. Letters to my mother and brother have different tones as I revealed different sides of me. Then there were long rambling outpourings scribbled in brown notebooks that I would not share with anybody, but were useful as bits of personal color and mood, that sometimes sprinkled the final narrative. Luckily, I kept all this paper.
Why is your encounter with Pablo Picasso in 1955 so important?
Picasso gave me the incredible gift of allowing me to learn from myself. But Picasso didn’t write the Picasso Mantra, I wrote it:
1. You have to have a dream.
2. Use your imagination.
3. Overcome your fear – and most important
I changed my life in three days. Picasso let me in but I made the key that opened his door.
What advice would you have for young photographers?
It’s possible to take a good photograph by chance, but it’s another matter to be able to make a body of work that has consistent quality. Reach into yourself to find out what it is you want to say. Think what you might try to do to make this happen – then go after it and go after it and go after it, again and again.
What interests you in contemporary photography today?
There is no style, technique, or genre of imaging or photography that I reject. I only ask to be surprised by some special aspect of the work that reveals the image maker’s ability to create a special moment – whatever that may be.
Together with your wife and Ms. Petra Benteler you founded FotoFest Houston. In retrospect, how do you see the conditions and appreciation of photography today?
There are (for me) too many festivals, too many pictures crowding the pages of festival catalogues, too many selfies, too many dots blinking off and on in front of my eyes. In my visits to museums to look at art, I seek a place, a bench, where I can sit and look and look at one piece of good art, so I can become its friend, so that it will teach me and tell me its secrets.
Your work with Leica cameras has always been very important to you. In your book you devote some attention to cameras. What did you consider most important about working with Leica cameras?
My style of photography required that a camera be a quick trigger device, and I associated it with being physically agile and free. It therefore had to be technically efficient, small, light and rugged. Its superior mechanical attributes, and the collaboration that I was given by my friends in Wetzlar, gave me a feeling of confidence that made my passport to the world a Leica.
At the last Leica camera auction, one of your cameras changed hands. What advice would you give the new owner?
Tell the world that the Leica MP 358 belonged to Fred Baldwin, greatly exaggerate my importance as a photographer, and then sell it again. (Also buy two copies of Dear Mr. Picasso – one for the new owner!)
Fred Baldwin was born in Lausanne, Switzerland, in 1929, where his father served as a U.S. Diplomat, then grew up in Savannah, Georgia. After earning his B.A. degree from Columbia College, New York, in 1956, he began a freelance photography career which continued until 1987. Baldwin worked, among many other publications, for Time, LIFE, National Geographic, GEO, Bunte, Stern, Esquire, Sports Illustrated, Natural History, Smithsonian Magazine, Newsweek, The New York Times. Since 1983, Baldwin has been serving as Chairman of what has become one of the most important and biggest photography festivals in the world: FotoFest (Houston, Texas), which he co-founded with his wife Wendy Watriss and Petra Benteler. His book Dear Mr. Picasso: An illustrated love affair with freedom was published 2019.