Frederick C. Baldwin, a Photographer Who Reveled in Storytelling, Dead at 92

Frederick Baldwin, a photographer who documented wildlife, the civil rights movement and American poverty and helped promote fellow photographers from Latin America, Africa and Asia, died on Dec. 15 in Houston. He was 92.

His wife and collaborator, Wendy Watriss, said the cause was heart failure.

Mr. Baldwin displayed extraordinary physical courage as a photographer and a deep empathy that allowed him to get inside the lives of the people he documented. He carried a camera while serving as a Marine rifleman in the Korean War, received two Purple Hearts and survived the brutal 17-day Battle of Chosin Reservoir in 1950. His unit was photographed by David Douglas Duncan of Life magazine, which influenced Mr. Baldwin in his career path.

In the 1950s and early ’60s, he photographed Sami reindeer herders in Sweden and Norway, polar bears near the North Pole and marlin in the waters off Mexico for Sports Illustrated, Esquire and National Geographic.

“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,” Mr. Baldwin said in an interview with The New York Times in 2019. “It was also a way of taking me to places and situations that would provide me good stories to tell.”

Mr. Baldwin was known as a master raconteur, but he came to realize that his early work was done mainly for the purpose of satisfying his ego, as he noted in “Dear Mr. Picasso: An Illustrated Love Affair With Freedom,” a memoir published in 2019. That approach changed in 1963 after a chance encounter with a local civil rights march in Savannah, Ga. Witnessing the march led him to volunteer to work with the Chatham County Crusade for Voters, led by Hosea Williams, a close associate of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

“I found myself acting not just as a recorder, but as someone bound up in events to be useful far beyond my past existence or immediate experience,” he wrote. “For the first time, I documented simply and directly what I saw, irrespective of its value as a career boost.”

After photographing Dr. King in Savannah, Mr. Baldwin served as the Peace Corps director in Sarawak, on Borneo Island in Malaysia, from 1964 to 1966. Returning to Savannah, he documented hunger and malnutrition among poor white people in Georgia and South Carolina; those images were presented to Senator George S. McGovern’s Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs in 1968.

Some of Mr. Baldwin’s most prominent work was done in partnership with Ms. Watriss, a photographer and writer who has received awards for her own photography and whose books include “Image and Memory: Photography From Latin America, 1866-1994,” which she edited with Lois Parkinson Zamor. In a 2012 interview with The Times, Mr. Baldwin and Ms. Watriss recounted meeting in 1970 at a cocktail party given by an Italian duchess in her Manhattan apartment, beginning what he called “a torrid affair.” (She shrugged her shoulders and said, “It was the end of the ’60s.”)

After five months, she went off to Europe to work as a freelance journalist. He took up yoga. The next year, she said, he wooed her back, and the two have worked and lived together ever since — although they did not get married until 2002, and then only in response to a dying wish from his brother, Robert Gamble Baldwin.

In 1971, Mr. Baldwin and Ms. Watriss set off across the country, pulling a tiny trailer, to photograph and write about rural America. They parked their trailer on the land of Willie Buchanan, a Black farmer in Grimes County, Texas; lived there for a year and a half; and became part of the fabric of the community. Together they took photographs there, as well as recording hundreds of hours of oral history, which now reside at the Briscoe Center for the Study of American History at the University of Texas, Austin.

Each photo carried both of their credits, “making no distinction to who pushed the button,” noted Anne Tucker, a former photography curator at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. “They did everything together.”

Over the next few years, they also photographed German American and Polish American farmers, Spanish-speaking ranchers and a Black rodeo, all in Texas.

Mr. Baldwin and Ms. Watriss were co-founders of FotoFest in Houston, an arts organization dedicated to photography that held its first biennial exhibition in 1986. At the time, most museum curators in the United States and Europe believed there were few photographers doing important work in Latin America, Africa and Asia. For three decades, the couple traveled more than 100,000 miles a year to find and connect photographers, curators, editors and collectors, while helping to launch scores of photo festivals around the world. They brought many of the photographers and their work back to Houston for FotoFest.

As the exhibitions and accompanying portfolio review grew in size and international stature, FotoFest became “an extension of the values and the attitudes we had brought to our photography,” Ms. Watriss said.

Frederick Colburn Baldwin was born on Jan. 25, 1929, in Lausanne, Switzerland, to Margaret (Gamble) Baldwin and Frederick William Baldwin, who was stationed there as a career foreign service officer with the U.S. State Department. After becoming consul general in Havana, the elder Mr. Baldwin died and his son, then 5 years old, was shipped off to the first of a series of boarding schools, several of which he was expelled from.

After dropping out of the University of Virginia following his freshman year, Mr. Baldwin worked at an ice factory owned by his mother’s family, alongside poorly paid workers both Black and white. It was there, he said, that he began to understand the “privilege that my race and class had provided me.”

Mr. Baldwin graduated from Columbia University in 1956. He married Monica Lagerstedt in 1961. They had two sons, Frederick and Charles, and divorced in 1969.

In addition to Ms. Watriss, Mr. Baldwin is survived by his sons and a granddaughter. He lived in Houston.

In his memoir, Mr. Baldwin recounted how, as a student at Columbia, he decided that he must meet, photograph and interview his favorite artist and “imaginary father figure,” Pablo Picasso. He knocked on the door of the artist’s villa in the South of France and was turned down several times. After two nights of sleeping in his car, he wrote a whimsical note with his own illustrations and hand-delivered it to Picasso’s house. This time he was invited to come in.

The meeting led Mr. Baldwin to a “Picasso mantra” as a road map for future success.

“I had a dream,” he wrote, “used my imagination, overcame my fear and acted.”

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