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His life was rich with stories – many captured in a magnificent photo book, Dear Mr. Picasso – An illustrated love affair with freedom (Schilt Publishing), that was published on the occasion of his 90th birthday. With 34 chapters and around 700 pages, it offers a comprehensive look back over Baldwin's exciting life. The title was inspired by a decisive encounter with Pablo Picasso: in 1955, during a holiday in southern France, he managed to gain admittance into the world-famous artist's home. He had sent Picasso a letter including a few sketches beforehand, but even so had to wait outside the painter's villa in Cannes for three days before the door was opened to him. In fact, Picasso not only took the time to receive him, but also allowed Baldwin complete freedom to take photographs in his atelier. It was those portraits of Picasso that were to mark the beginning of a long photographic career, because one thing became clear after that decisive meeting: Baldwin wanted to be a photographer.

The son of an American diplomat, Frederick C. Baldwin was born in Switzerland in 1929 and grew up in privileged circumstances. However, he had an unsettled and difficult childhood and youth, moving constantly from one place to another. At first this was with his family, but later – after the death of his father when he was just five years old –  he had to find his place in family homes, with friends, and in new schools he had to attend – and from which he was quickly expelled. The restlessness during his younger years led to rebellion against prevailing conventions, and he initially failed in his studies. He signed up with the US Marines and was sent into the Korean War – which is when his earliest photographs were taken.

Following his experience with Picasso, Baldwin became a successful photographer, with reportages appearing in all the most important, international magazines. “What was magical for me was that a little tiny camera could serve as a passport to the world, as a key to opening every lock and every cupboard of investigation and curiosity,” he wrote after discovering the power of photography. He travelled the whole world, taking pictures in the Arctic, Afghanistan and India, among other places. Documenting the Civil Rights movement in the southern states of the US, had particular meaning for him.

Baldwin always understood his work with a Leica as having social relevance – a task that was to have an impact beyond his own personal experience. In the early seventies he began to work and live with Wendy Watriss, who was also a renowned Leica photographer. Together they founded FotoFest in Houston in 1986, three years after they had attended the Rencontres d´Arles in southern France for the first time. Over the following years, they developed FotoFest to the point that it has become one of the most important photography platforms in America: “FotoFest’s founding mission, from its creation to this day, was 'to bring together a global vision of art and cross-cultural exchange with a commitment to social issues',” he once explained. With the festival, Baldwin had found yet another new challenge.

Fred Baldwin was one-of-a-kind. In his obituary, his publisher Maarten Schilt describes him as larger than life: “Fred was huge, smart, funny, intellectual, kind, a gentleman, a great free spirit, a wonderful storyteller.” The photographer's death on December 15 came as a surprise; his body of work and his initiatives will remain. (Ulrich Rüter)

Further reading: Find a Leica Blog entry about Dear Mr. Picasso here.
Fred Baldwin with his book at the Ernst Leitz Hotel in Wetzlar. June 2019 (Photo: © Maarten Schildt)
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