Author: Fred Baldwin
Schilt Publishing, The Netherlands
Judging by the reviews, it has been a pleasure for many, but for me, it was a tear-jerking struggle to get through photographer Fred Baldwin’s endless autobiography. Almost 700 pages, nothing less could do it, and if it’s Baldwin’s images you are fascinated by, then it’s not Dear Mr. Picasso. An illustrated love affair with freedom you must seize.
Without being able to count, it seems to me that the number of photos is unreasonably exceeded by, for example, the number of descriptions of Baldwin’s encounters with «girls» that he found, more or less, interesting and beautiful.
Baldwin is – or became over time – a gifted photographer, according to his own making because he was too dyslexic to become a writer. Even without spell check and proofreading, however, dyslexia would be his smallest problem. The biggest thing is that he doesn’t find any details in his life too small to overshadow the big events he’s been in.
Look at me, Mom
Fred Baldwin grew up in a white upper-class family in the southern states, lost his diplomatic father at the age of five, and never really managed to live up to his female-dominated family’s expectations. He was just as unable to concentrate on studies as he was to socialize in the finer circles.
The autobiography opens with the description of a meeting Fred Baldwin had with his mother – after finding his photographic calling. Finally, he had to show her that he was due something. To say the least, that meeting did not go as the prodigal son had hoped.
In contrast to many other parts of the book, this drama is actually quite intriguing, albeit sometimes difficult to find: Is Fred Baldwin’s meticulous review of his own family tree intended as a backdrop to understanding his role as the family’s black sheep? Or is it also a kind of (perhaps unconscious, but certainly bizarre) boast about the distinguished blood in his veins?
From here, we are drawn through the large and small that have happened to Fred Baldwin through a very long life. When he reached the Korean War, where he took amateur photographs not freezing in the foxholes of the Korean winter – or failed to intervene when fellow soldiers burned civilian villages – I realized what the text’s big problem is: Fred Baldwin is a man who knows how to get a little out of a lot. At least when he has to convey it in words.
Of course, one should never make judgments about the lives of others and what has been of value and importance to them. But purely narratively, it seems somewhat comical to build the memoirs – and their titles – around a «meeting» between Fred Baldwin and Pablo Picasso.
After camping for a few days outside Picasso’s house, a young Baldwin was allowed to come in with a large group of other guests – in a classic Baldwinian way, it doesn’t matter who these others were and what they are doing there – and exchange a few sentences with Picasso that allow him to photograph in the house.
It is understood that there is a kinship between Baldwin and Picasso, which Baldwin honestly describes as utterly one-sided: Baldwin seeks a father figure and inspiration and finds it in the notion of Picasso, a performance that, to his luck, remains intact after «MODET».
Windows like mirrors
But in fact, the two have something very obvious in common: their (for) use of girls/women as windows they mirror, rather than trying to spot what’s behind them. Where this feature of Picasso is expressed in his art (which curators have supported with exhibitions such as «Picasso’s women», surpassed only by the tiring clamour of «Picasso’s horses»), Baldwin’s expression is in his written account.
Fred Baldwin is a man who knows how to get a little out of a lot.
«I loved the girls, I loved each and every one of them,» as Baldwin writes about himself and meeting people. He also finds it appropriate to inform the reader that he doesn’t even remember the names (until he meets his life partner, journalist Wendy Watriss, who we are first introduced to at the very end of the memoirs).
After experiencing 700 pages, Baldwin uses not just women, but everything and everyone – including the Korean War and the Ku Klux Klan – as a window into which to look, it’s hard to detach his reading of his photos from this new insight into the photographer’s understanding of the relationship between himself and the world.
It is, in many ways, a sympathetic person who has written his memories. A man who is aware of the civil assaults he committed on his fellow soldiers Korea should not have occurred. A man who, despite his whiteness and upper-class upbringing, realized early that racism was killing and that black Americans were in their good right to take up the fight. A person who also looked at how, for example, the KKK‘s recruiting mechanisms were also linked to the brutality of class.
A man who will do good to others and especially to those who are outside in different ways, as he himself felt. That’s not to say what might have come out of Baldwin’s photography if he had been able to see the world to a greater extent without ever having to see himself. Yet one must note that in a marvellous way, Baldwin – through his camera, not his text – still manages to express something significant about others.
Translated from the original via NY TID.
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