FotoFest founder Fred Baldwin trumpeted the importance of photography


Fred Baldwin’s career began almost by accident with a lucky meeting with Pablo Picasso in 1955, giving the young photographer the opportunity to take pictures of the famous artist. Baldwin’s documentary photography has spanned decades and continents, notably covering the civil rights movement. But perhaps his most enduring legacy in Houston will be the co-creation of FotoFest, an arts organization dedicated to promoting photography in the city.

Baldwin died on Friday at the age of 92. He leaves a long and rich legacy as a photographer and educator that predates FotoFest, a part of his life that he documented in his 2019 memoir, “Dear Mr. Picasso: An Illustrated Love Story with Freedom” . And he also leaves behind a city deeply indebted to him and his partner / fellow photographer Wendy Watriss. There is certainly a huge debt for FotoFest, which they started in 1983 after observing Rencontres Photographiques d’Arles, a French photography festival that was launched two decades earlier.

FotoFest director Steven Evans called Baldwin “unstoppable, visionary. An incredible storyteller.

“And he was incredibly full of life, full of adventure and achievement,” says Evans. “But I don’t think Fred was trying to be successful. It was a by-product of his willingness to do good things and bring people together. Along with Wendy, he brought recognition to artistic corners of the world that were previously overlooked. And they did it before the Internet. They brought the concept of globalism to the work of photography.

The declared mission of FotoFest was and is to “bring together a global vision of art and intercultural exchange with a commitment to social issues, community engagement and the enrichment of cultural resources”.

Although FotoFest enjoys fame in Houston and around the world, its genesis grew out of the frustration of a system where photographic exhibitions were rigid and small-scale. Baldwin told The Chronicle in 2019, “We wanted to give back because we knew things. But it was also an act of anger.

The organization has achieved these goals early and often. FotoFest achieved international recognition for its biennial, the first of which was held in Houston in 1986. The event that gained momentum and fame over the next 35 years.

The growth of FotoFest has been outrageously rapid, suggesting an artistic need that is under-represented in a large urban center. Four years after the start of the biennial, FotoFest has taken to traveling shows. Also in 1990, the organization pioneered Literacy Through Photography, which introduced the art form to classrooms and community centers.

Baldwin told The Chronicle that he lived in 22 homes by the age of 11, starting with his birth in Switzerland. The itinerant youth was, initially, the result of his father’s work as a diplomat. Baldwin’s father died when the boy was 5, but the movement continued as his mother moved from place to place, country to country, spending time with her family and his friends.

Formal schooling was a failure for the rebellious young man, whose winding path through several high schools took him to the University of Virginia, where he failed to complete his freshman year. He joined the Marines and fought in the Korean War.

After meeting and photographing Picasso, he returned to the United States, settled in Georgia, where he began to make family portraits, while launching globetrotting adventures conducive to photography.

“My early adventures for magazine stories were all ego trips, there’s no question about it,” he said.

But being based in the South in the 1950s and 1960s, Baldwin saw history that required documentation. He photographed a Ku Klux Klan rally in Alabama in 1957, then photographed civil rights protests and Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.

He met Watriss in 1970, a life-changing event. He told The Chronicle that what ensued was “a love affair with life but also with someone who might share a concern about how to give back something you have learned to the world.”

They worked side by side from that point on. Their work has been archived by the Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas at Austin.

On the acquisition, Don Carleton, executive director of the Briscoe Center, praised the two for working “tirelessly to capture the changing character of American life. They did so with remarkable dexterity, elegance and patience.

But their patience waned in the 1970s with the way photography was viewed by local, regional, national and international art institutions. Baldwin was teaching photojournalism at the University of Houston when he and Watriss started FotoFest, which served as a large umbrella platform for various artistic activities: education, celebration, conservation. They regularly worked with renowned photographers, while also helping young aspiring photographers find some of their first breaks.

“Fred was someone who was able to create energy,” Evans said. “And inspire others to harness their energy and potential to achieve and do good things in the world.”

Baldwin is survived by Watriss; sons Grattan Baldwin and Breck Baldwin; her granddaughter Anika Baldwin and her sister-in-law Judith M. Baldwin.

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