Frederick C. Baldwin, the Houston-based photojournalist, educator, and co-founder of FotoFest, died Wednesday, December 15, 2021 at the age of 92.
As a photojournalist, Mr. Baldwin’s work spanned decades and documented people and places around the world, including significant moments in United States history, like the Civil Rights movement. Through his work photographing activist meetings and protests, Mr. Baldwin realized the power of photography as a tool for social change. Later in life, when Mr. Baldwin along with his wife Wendy Watriss and European gallery director Petra Benteler founded FotoFest, the Houston-based photography-centric institution, in 1983, equity would be at the heart of the organization. From intentionally showcasing lesser-known photographers and promoting cross-cultural exchange to providing educational opportunities and resources for Houston students, it is clear that Mr. Baldwin’s earlier experiences shaped the organization’s mission.
Born in 1929 in Switzerland, Mr. Baldwin spent much of his youth traveling. While this was initially due to his father’s position as a diplomat, Mr. Baldwin’s father died when he was five years old. Following his father’s death, Mr. Baldwin and his mother continued to travel from country to country, living with relatives and friends. Eventually Mr. Baldwin made his way back to the U.S., where he attended and subsequently dropped out of the University of Virginia. Soon after, he joined the Marines and saw combat in the Korean War. His practice of using photography to document the world around him began while serving in Korea. He was wounded in combat and earned two Purple Hearts. After the war, Mr. Baldwin returned to university and graduated from Columbia College in New York in 1956.
In the summer of 1955, while spending time in the south of France, Mr. Baldwin orchestrated an opportunity to meet and photograph Pablo Picasso. He learned the artist’s address from a saleswoman in a nearby town and appealed to the artist through a letter. “Dear Mr. Picasso, 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.”
Photographing Picasso was a turning point for Mr. Baldwin — it gave him the confidence he needed for continued success. In the years to come Mr. Baldwin photographed in Central Europe, the Arctic, and Latin America for Sports Illustrated, Esquire, and National Geographic. In his memoir, Mr. Baldwin admitted that early in his career he was guided by ego. However, it was his time documenting events of the Civil Rights movement that caused a shift in his focus. Following that experience, Mr. Baldwin served in the Peace Corps from 1964 to 1966. When he returned to the U.S., he continued to use his camera to document social issues.
In 1970, Mr. Baldwin met Wendy Watriss, and a year later they embarked on a photojournalistic endeavor of traveling and documenting the U.S. They were focused on making their way to Texas because of the mythology that surrounded the state. Eager to discover how the realities of experiences in Texas compared to the recorded tales and stories, the couple researched the state’s history prior to their departure. Ms. Watriss told Glasstire about one of their first experiences in Texas, when they came across a large, imposing Victorian courthouse and saw around twenty young Black students walking home from school. This was an eye-opening moment, because in the Texas history books they read in preparation for their journey, there was barely a mention of African-Americans in the state. They realized the significance of the undocumented stories and experiences of Black communities in Texas, and spent the next two and half years living on a Black-owned farm in Grimes County, near College Station. This began a lifetime of Mr. Baldwin and Ms. Watriss working alongside one another as photographers, journalists, and activists.
Mr. Baldwin and Ms. Watriss went on to embed themselves in and document other communities across Texas — everywhere from Fredericksburg, to the Valley, to Big Bend, and beyond. In 2019, the pair entrusted their archives to the Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas at Austin. Earlier that same year, Mr. Baldwin published his memoir, Dear Mr. Picasso: An Illustrated Love Affair with Freedom, which chronicles his life from early childhood to the founding of FotoFest.
Mr. Baldwin and his FotoFest co-founders, Ms. Watriss and Ms. Bentler, were inspired by an annual photography festival held in southern France. Les Rencontres d’Arles was established in 1970, and played a part in shifting public opinion about photography, which was still considered a “minor” art at the time. In the early years, FotoFest was a platform for art and ideas. In 1985, Mr. Baldwin and Ms. Watriss invited four of the world’s most famous, non-U.S., photographers — Ikkō Narahara, Franco Fontana, William Klein, and Helmut Newton — to come to Houston and photograph the city’s Livestock Show and Rodeo. This brought a wealth of media attention and support to FotoFest, and helped prepare the organization to hold its inaugural festival the following year. The biennial festival continues to this day, and the organization has grown it’s endeavors over the years. While Ms. Watriss and Mr. Baldwin worked instinctively as a collaborative team, Mr. Baldwin took on the public role of President of the organization from 1984 until 2002, when he became its chairman.
In 1990, FotoFest launched its year-round education program, Literacy Through Photography, in collaboration with Wendy Ewald. The program uses photography as the base for creative writing and visual literacy activities and is geared toward K-12 students and educators. Also in 1990, the organization began a program of hosting traveling photography shows, international programs, and creating publications during the “off” years between biennials. FotoFest also now features a film and video series, conferences, multi-media installations, a Gala Fine Print Auction, and scholarly, full-color hardcover publications, and perhaps is best known for its portfolio review program, The Meeting Place.
Steven Evans, Executive Director of FotoFest, told Glasstire, “Fred’s death is an especially difficult loss for FotoFest, the world of photography, and to all those who knew and loved him. Fred was a visionary leader in the arts, a gifted storyteller, an irrepressible personality, a devoted educator, a great humanitarian, and so much more. He was one of those rare figures capable of inspiring others to harness their energy and potential to achieve and to do good things in the world. We will miss him greatly.”
Frederick C. Baldwin is survived by his wife, Wendy Watriss, his sons, Charles Grattan Baldwin and Fredrick Breckinridge Baldwin, his granddaughter Annika Adams Baldwin, and his sister-in-law, Judith M. Baldwin.