Looking at the U.S. 1957-1986 Photographs by Frederick Baldwin and Wendy Watriss
By Jim Casper
Looking at the U.S. 1957-1986 Photographs by Frederick Baldwin and Wendy Watriss Mets & Schilt uitgevers, 2009. 207 pp., $65
Thousands of contemporary photographers and art collectors know Fred Baldwin and Wendy Watriss as the high-energy couple who curate, organize and host FotoFest, the world's best international photo festival that takes place every two years in Houston.
What comes as a pleasant surprise, however, is to discover the tremendous photographic output that the two have generated themselves over the past 40 years, working both individually and collaboratively as photographers, journalists and activists for human rights and social justice.
An excellent retrospective book, Looking at the U.S. 1957-1986, offers an extended look at nearly three decades of cultural and political life in the United States. The work touches on some of the most important U.S. historical moments of the last half century such as the Civil Rights Movement, the Ku Klux Klan, Agent Orange, the Vietnam War Memorial, and more. They traveled with and photographed well-known figures from that era, including Martin Luther King Jr., John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy.
They have also immersed themselves in local issues in various parts of the South. Over an extended period of 13 years of self-initiated investigations, they have documented rural life, poverty and the struggles for survival and dignity in small communities throughout Texas. The photos are rich in humanity and very quiet in drama. They are not typical news photographs. Instead, they reveal complex stories in a matter-of-fact way that is quite refreshing. The long-term personal involvement in their subject matter allowed them to photograph in a very intimate manner. And that close-up, relaxed reality keeps these photos alive and stimulating today.
Xavier Canonne, who organized this retrospective, writes in his introduction: "They worked in concentric circles, discovering and recording moments of daily life, the evidences of social class, and the
ceremonies - religious, scholarly, social and sportive - that shape collective existence and reflect its origins. Everything in this work has informative value: people's dress, their hair, their food, their way of standing in front of the lens or ignoring it... "
Each photo series is introduced by short, concise, insightful text written by the photographers themselves. In an excellent interview at the end of the book, Fred Baldwin and Wendy Watriss talk of many issues; they speak articulately and passionately about their personal beliefs. At one point, Wendy discusses their work in the context of the U.S. today:
What is depicted in these works is still relevant today. One of the young African American men who assisted Fred in working with the Civil Rights Movement in Savannah was the first black student to integrate Armstrong Junior College in Savannah. This man is now Mayor of Savannah. This story is very relevant to the current U.S. president, and what Barack Obama says he stands for.
The realities and results of the Vietnam War interconnect with much of what is happening to U.S. soldiers in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars -and certainly the official treatment of veterans' health and psychological problems related to these wars and the first Gulf War.
Certainly, the histories and ways of life we photographed in Texas 2030 years ago continue to be relevant to contemporary political and social developments in Texas and the United States.
This book is an important reminder of the power of photography (and personal activism) and how it can affect positive change, directly or indirectly. Anyone who is interested in the history of the United States, human rights and documentary photography will find value in this work. t"
-Jim Casper, editor and publisher