Wednesday, September 26, 2012

James Baldwin

I was still living in London in the late 1970s when Robert Priest rang me from Esquire in New York to ask if I would photograph James Baldwin. I knew that he lived in France and it is always a thrill to be asked to go somewhere else to photograph a writer besides a cold house in Hampstead or a cluttered flat in Earl's Court. This was particularly nice because Baldwin lived in Saint-Paul-de-Vence where I had  been once before and dined at La Colombe D'Or, one of the most attractive restaurants anywhere. 

I drove into the main square of Saint-Paul-de-Vence the evening before I was due to take his picture. As I past a café I noticed sitting at a table facing the street a black man. He was surrounded by five white young ladies all leaning forward towards him wide eyed as he spoke. I recognized the man almost at once as James Baldwin. The girls were young enough to be college students. When I saw him the next day I asked him about it and he said that yes indeed they were American college students. He said he liked that particular café and went there often. The group spotted him and he invited them to sit with him.

We spoke little during my time with him as is often the case when I photograph people. I concentrate on how to arrange the scene beside and behind my subject and where to place the camera. Mostly I allow people to compose themselves, with an occasional, "Just a little to your left...yes, that's it, there." And if the sitter looks too fixed I move away from the camera or ask a question which usually causes people to re-arrange themselves.

I remember James Baldwin saying that when the revolution came he would be out there in the streets with his carving knife. When Occupy Wall Street takes hold I wonder if it will be like that.


  1. The colors and textures on this are luxurious to the eye. In something mostly accidental (unless you told him to change his shoes) the light reflective qualities of his face are remarkably in harmony with that of his leather boots creating a powerful compositional balance, with the texture of mold or worn paint on the wall creating a bubbling bed of rich visual stimuli. It's a very still image but there is a sense of pent-up motion waiting to happen.

    My one regret in life is that I will never be found by anyone on the streets of France surrounded by five adoring college girls.

  2. This is quite simply one of the most beautiful portraits--if not THE most beautiful portrait--of James Baldwin I have ever seen!


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