A Life Involved (Part II)

A Life Involved (Part II)

Fernando Castro

Part II: A completely foreign country

 After her adventurous African journey in 1970 Wendy Watriss came back to New York to publish her stories and photographs. There she met Frederick Baldwin by chance. She recalls, “We did some assignments together in New York and we had a great time.” Shortly thereafter, Wendy took off again for Europe to do several assignments as both a reporter and photographer for Newsweek, The Smithsonian, and The New York Times. “Even though I had gotten involved with Fred, I left for Vienna thinking that I was not coming back. But Fred prevailed (she laughs gleefully) and a year-and-half later I came back.”

Thus Wendy and Fred began a life as a couple built on shared interests and common projects. Almost immediately they embarked on a project that they called “Back Roads of America.” Wendy describes it this way, “It was a way to get back to the grassroots experience of the United States. Both of us had been socially involved in different ways: he in the Civil Rights Movement, and I, at the level of world and national news. However, neither one of us had necessarily gotten the sense of how people from small towns live the American, or the U.S. experience and history. We decided that we would start in Texas. Fred bought a dinky trailer. He liked to call it a camper but it was more like a trailer —pulled by his hand-made Mercedes Cabriolet. Poor car! They only made about 300 of them!” Wendy makes an effort to hold the laughter caused by that jocund image that is obviously one of her fondest memories thus far. “Texas to me was like a completely foreign country,” she adds.

Driving south through Arkansas and Mississippi Fred and Wendy arrived in Texas in 1971. Wendy reminisces, “Along the way we stayed with migrant workers, farmers, and many other people. I would write every night. Once when we were heading towards Austin we passed through Anderson, Texas. It was three o’clock and school was out. We saw two remarkable things. In this town of three hundred people, there was a very large and imposing late 19th century Victorian-style courthouse at the head of the one main street with western-like architecture on both sides. The buildings were a bit run-down, but the courthouse was in good condition and stood like a great sentinel. On the street where we were driving, there were lines of black students coming out of school. It looked like the old South. No question about it. So Fred and I said to each other, ‘There is something about Texas history that is not being told.’”

Later at a dinner party in Austin that Dave and former Texas governor Anne Richards had given on their behalf, Wendy and Fred confirmed their impression with the notable Texas historian Larry Goodwyn. After doing more research at the University of Texas library they decided to stay in the Lone Star State. Wendy explains why: “Texas cultural frontiers parallel and reflect important cultural, ethnic, and demographic movements in U.S. history.” For a while they chose Austin as their home base.

Fred taught at the Journalism School and Wendy at the American Studies Program of the University of Texas. Wendy remembers that they combined their classes in a hands-on project for students to reconstruct the history of different communities. “By going out and talking to people and politicians, we had identified two Austin neighborhoods that needed historic designations.  One was Clarksville, one of the city’s oldest African-American neighborhoods; the other one, Hyde Park, a predominantly white middle class neighborhood. We sent out our students as teams of writer-reporters and photographers to document these neighborhoods block by block, research their history, and select a subject that was socially significant to be the focus of a written and photographic essay. These students were juniors and seniors of the advanced program of the University of Texas who were obliged to leave the classroom and make personal contact with strangers. It was an experience that changed the lives of at least ten of them.”

 After teaching at UT, Fred and Wendy set off on a two-year research project about Grimes County. “We stayed on a farm owned by an African-American family and we lived in our trailer!” says Wendy amused. “That family was a very unusual one because the father had created their wealth in the late eighteen-hundreds while the older generation had worked as tenant farmers in the big cotton farms along the Navasota-Brazos River.”

During that time Wendy and Fred also worked on a story about the black rodeo in the southwest, but their main focus remained the communities of Grimes County itself where there had been a history of racial tension. Wendy explains, “The county was part of the corn and cotton frontier of Texas first settled by Anglo-American plantation owners from the old South that had brought African-American slaves with them. After the Civil War, there was a lot of racial conflict and violence in the county. African-Americans had gained political power as post-Civil War Republicans. In the late 1890s, the Populist Party became powerful, bringing white and black people together. A white Populist sheriff who had African-American deputies was literally shot out of office by white landowners. For the following seventy years, the county’s politics were dominated by the White Man’s Union. This was true in many Texas counties and throughout the South until the Voting Rights Act of the 1960’s.”

Knowing that their presence in the county was quite conspicuous, Wendy and Fred took steps to preempt any unseemly confrontation. “In Grimes County, we were thoroughly checked out by law officers and the Department of Public Safety because we were outsiders. We were pretty bizarre. Luckily we had very good manners and Georgia license plates. We were very careful. We introduced ourselves to the presidents of the biggest banks, the county sheriff, the chief of police, and two of the county commissioners. We did not know until later how well we were going to be checked out. After two years of talking to people throughout the county and taking pictures of many events, we got to know everybody in the county. In fact, we were asked to do their sesquicentennial memoir. We did it like the English staging of Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood.  We asked students to read scripts of personal histories of people in the county.  Behind them, we projected pictures from family albums. Besides the original settlement, the county’s history included Polish people, German settlers, and Mexican-Americans.”

In 1976, Wendy and Fred showed the Grimes county work at the Menil’s Rice Institute for the Arts. The exhibit had 400 pictures. Wendy describes it, “The idea was to experience American history through the county. The show took you visually from the outside —as if you were driving through—and little by little it brought you to the inside: the black life, the white life, their segregation, and some aspects of integration. In one room we had a projection of the old pictures we had photographed of members of different communities. The opening night was amazing because many people from Grimes county came —both black and white. They hired about eight buses. Dominique de Menil, whom we did not know very well at that time, was beside herself with joy. One of the best things was when the African-American artist John Biggers brought hundreds of black students to the exhibit. He told them: ‘We may not ever have the chance to see this view of black and southern history again.’”

Wendy reflects, “A lot of what I know and understand about the United States now came from having lived that experience and then gone to the German Hill County —which was completely different. To do that second project we were able to get a research grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. We should have stopped and done the Grimes book, but instead we went almost immediately to the Hill country. We stayed there for a little over a year, photographing and doing oral history. The Germans who settled there came as a result of the 1848 upheavals in Europe; the nationalist movements in Germany, Hungary, Poland… These immigrants came to the Central part of Texas when it was still Comanche territory. Many were craftsmen from small towns. The Germans were probably the only ones who could have settled that territory. Due to the harsh conditions they probably lost about a third of their people. They thought they were buying agricultural land but unscrupulous developers had sold them land with very thin topsoil. Nevertheless, they adapted. They learned from the Mexicans how to raise sheep and goats. They lived on relatively small homesteads seventy-five acres or less —compared to the larger plots in East Texas, which were about five hundred acres. They built settlements and limestone houses. But theirs was a completely different political culture. It was what in the book we called “artisanal republicanism” with a small ‘r.’ If you read Robert Caro’s book on Lyndon Johnson, the name of our book about this work, “Coming to Terms,” comes from one of its chapters.”

“In Coming to Terms we include a copy of a remarkable document about the conception of government of these German settlers. If I remember correctly the statement was from 1857. It spelled out what the relationship of civil society and government should be: what government and what individual citizens should be responsible for. Government has to be responsible for infra-structural developments like roads and schools. This was completely antithetical to any southern-democratic government. That there needed to be public schools was unheard-of in the South. There was also an anti-slavery statement in there. You can take that document today and say that it is what Barack Obama is talking about. During the Civil War the German settlers refused to be conscripted. They tried to escape to Mexico and they were massacred a couple of times. All of that history is completely different from the rest of Texas history. I don’t know how it is right now, but up to about ten years ago that county had one of the best hospital systems in the state, the best public school systems, music clubs, dance clubs, …because there was such a strong background of civic interconnection between the individual and society. Until about 1950 it was fairly homogenous. Even when we were there, there were families who just spoke German —fractured and bad German, but German nevertheless.”

After their work on the German Hill country, Wendy and Fred headed to the southern tip of Texas, adjacent to Mexico. Wendy starts off again, “Although we did not do as much work there, the next area that we worked on was a border county that was Spanish-Mexican first and now is a Mexican-American county: Hidalgo. It became one of the major destinations for Mexican farm workers coming into the U.S. around 1910. At the time the border was still pretty open and ruthless land-developers thought they could make citrus farms out of much of this county. So they sold these tracts of land to people from the mid-west who had come down to farm. That is when the big Anglo-American influx into south Texas came; particularly in Cameron, McAllen, Brownsville, and Hidalgo counties —not so much Laredo, which was a little further northwest. One of the big land salesmen was Lloyd Bentsen’s father, that’s were that money came from. We stopped our work there around the time the big Central American influx began. Still the colonias were in pretty bad shape when we were there. It was the last five or six years of La Raza, so Antonio Orendain was still a strong head of the farm workers union. He and Chávez had split because of personal egos. But he was a very strong leader of the farm workers of South of Texas, which may not even exist anymore. La Raza politics were beginning to challenge the Anglo politics that had dominated that area. A school by the name of Antioch College funded four or five grassroots community colleges around the county. They had a progressive curriculum that focused on history, literature, and social studies from a community level as opposed to just national culture. We documented a lot of that part of the Latino Hispanic heritage of Texas; although maybe not enough to do a book just about it. But we actually had some exhibits in the eighties and early nineties of this work. We showed the German and the Latino Southern area work at the Philipps Collection in Washington in 1979.”

In the late seventies Wendy and Fred had to make a decision over whether they should stay in Houston or go back to New York. Wendy recollects their decision, “Our experience here with the Menils was very strong. I think that if Dominique hadn’t been here, we might not have moved here. Houston seemed like the most cosmopolitan, most open, and most interesting city in Texas.” So they stayed in Houston and they got one of the houses in the Menil ‘hood. Fred was asked to come back to teach journalism at the University of Texas and he later taught at the University of Houston. Wendy continued to free-lance and did the story on Agent Orange over a year-and-a-half period. “There were a lot of Vietnam veterans around Austin, so I began doing the story there. Life bought the story and enabled me to finish it. The story ran in Life and it won the World Press Award.”

The Agent Orange work is connected with the history of FotoFest. In 1979 Leica had begun to award the Oskar Barnack Prize and Wendy’s Agent Orange work was its third recipient. She remembers, “When Fred and I went to Amsterdam to receive the award, we were invited to Leica in Germany and several people there persuaded us to go to Arles in the summer. We did and we had a fantastic time. We brought the Texas work and the Agent Orange work. There was no organized portfolio review, but there was a way of meeting a lot of people, many of whom were in French, Belgian, and Scandinavian institutions. As a result, we had a lot of our work published in European magazines. The Agent Orange work was also published in the German magazine Stern. It was a very rich time. Back on the plane, Fred and I were talking about Arles and he said, “Why don’t we try something like that in the United States?” We had seen at Arles work that never got to States. Our idea was to break down the hierarchy, the closed circle of the decisions, and the curatorial power of the existing institutions of the United States, and open up to the world. Just about that same time, Le Mois de la Photo started in Paris; so we went and met with Jean Luc Monterosso. In Houston there was a German gallery at the Rice Village owned by Petra Benteler: Benteler Gallery. A very fine gallery that showed showed predominantly European photography. They had a fine show of Atget. She also showed Hungarian photographer André Kertész, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and some more modern ones too. We got together with Petra and we hatched FotoFest over our breakfast table in 1983.” The first FotoFest was in 1986 and the HYPERLINK “”FotoFest 2012 Biennial will be the Fourteenth International Biennial. Wendy and Fred’s profile as international curators gained along twenty-five years of intense labor has tended to hide their photographic work. That trend has been partially reversed with the recent publication of their book Looking at the US 1957-1987 (2009). In the meantime, Texas for them is no longer the “foreign country” that it once was.

Posted: June 10, 2012 at 1:29 am

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