Fotofest Co-Founder Fred Baldwin Reveals His Extraordinary Career Was Inspired by Encounter With Picasso

© Fred Baldwin

During Fred Baldwin’s last year in college in 1955 he took a leap of a faith and delivered a letter to Pablo Picasso of his own drawings in hopes to trigger his sense of humor.

At this point Baldwin had no pre-existing knowledge in art training and photography. However, Picasso found his drawings humorous and allowed Baldwin to enter freely in his studio and in his Villa La Californie. This defining moment changed Baldwin’s life forever. Any barrier generated by fear had been crushed and a new skill had been discovered.

Shortly after he finished college, Baldwin commenced a new career as a photojournalist. He was persistent and used his wit and charm to acquire friends in positions of power who would assist him with gaining access to locations where few or no photographers had gone before. 

Dear Mr. Picasso: An Illustrated Love Affair with Freedom provides a versatile archive including hundreds of astonishing black-and-white and color photographs capturing integral moments of his career. From capturing a day and a night with the Ku Klux Klan, southern poverty, coverage of a star-studded Nobel Prize ceremony, cod fishing in the Arctic Norway, polar bear expeditions near the North Pole, and much more.” data-reactid=”19″>Dear Mr. Picasso: An Illustrated Love Affair with Freedom provides a versatile archive including hundreds of astonishing black-and-white and color photographs capturing integral moments of his career. From capturing a day and a night with the Ku Klux Klan, southern poverty, coverage of a star-studded Nobel Prize ceremony, cod fishing in the Arctic Norway, polar bear expeditions near the North Pole, and much more.

Fred Baldwin sits down with The Daily Beast and shares some of his most exhilarating moments throughout his extensive career. 

Dear Mr. Picasso: An Illustrated Love Affair with Freedom by Fred Baldwin and is published by Schilt Publishing.” data-reactid=”22″>All photographs are from Dear Mr. Picasso: An Illustrated Love Affair with Freedom by Fred Baldwin and is published by Schilt Publishing.

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Fred Baldwin (center) with Pablo Picasso, at the painter’s home in Cannes, July 1955.

© Fred Baldwin

I bought my first camera, an Argus C-3, prior to going to Korea in 1950. I took nine rolls of film when I was serving as a Marine combat rifleman, but I didn’t continue the process seriously after I returned to civilian life. My photographs of Picasso taken five years later were made with a friend’s Rolleiflex. The Anscochrome color film in combination with the camera were sufficiently forgiving to allow me to get pictures on July 28, 1955, which was a miracle as I had no light meter and had never used the camera. The pictures proved that I was there but my passion was ignited, not by this miracle but by the combination of events that I call the Picasso Mantra: I had a dream—to meet Picasso; I used my imagination—to write him an illustrated letter with my own drawings; I overcame my fear—I was scared to death of making a fool of myself, but more important than anything else – I acted. Over four days I changed from being a college student terrified about finding a job and figuring out how to survive in the real world to a person who could do anything they wanted to do. I decided after graduating from Columbia in 1956 to become a photographer.   

Lofoten Islands, Norway, March 1959. Curious cod fish in a net swim up to Baldwin’s underwater camera.

© Fred Baldwin

The answer is no. When I arrived in the remote Arctic islands of Lofoten in January 1959, I did what was now routine behavior for me: I checked in with the local officials, police and newspaper. It turned out that one of the reporters at the Lofotposten, Kare Skevik, who had been a radio operator in the Norwegian underground during World War II, loved to tease young foreigners like me.  When I asked Skevik about the well-known annual cod fishing season in the Lofotens he said as a joke: “You should do something different. Photograph the fish from their point of view.” I asked him if the water was clear.  He said: “Yes, and very cold.”  With help from the Norwegian Navy, among others, what started as a joke ended in a series of images of cod fish that I photographed in nets underwater. They were later purchased by National Geographic. 

Lofoten Islands, Norway, March 1959 – Baldwin holding an underwater camera in preparation for a dive in freezing waters to photograph cod fish.

© Fred Baldwin

The learning consisted of doing what I was told to do. For deep dives down to 50 meters I had a rope that was tied around my waist and after 13 minutes there were three jerks on the line and I would start up to the surface in order not to have to go into a decompression cycle. Apart from that the suits were warm in the almost freezing water and I dove alone most of the time but a frogman would always be suited up and ready to come in for an assist. But luckily this was never necessary.  

Ku Klux Klan, Reidsville, Georgia, 1957 – A Klan member, the Chief of Police and the Sheriff wait for the decorated KKK cars on their way to a ceremony to pass by.

© Fred Baldwin