By Fred Baldwin
Fred Baldwin has had an extensive career in photography as a professional photographer and professor of photography. He has worked for Audubon, LIFE, National Geographic, Smithsonian Magazine, Newsweek, and the New York Times among others. In 1983, he co-founded FotoFest, the first international Biennial of Photography and Photo-related Art in the United States. Fred Baldwin met Vaclav Havel during the Velvet Revolution in 1989 and bellow is his memory of the occasion.
The story began in the 1980s when Wendy Watriss and I were invited to Bulgaria to see how FotoFest could facilitate connections with the U.S. On the midnight train from Belgrade, we met a group of Czech photographers also traveling to the Plovdiv Photo Festival in Bulgaria in 1986. Well-known Czech photographers, Pavel Banka and Pavel Stecha, were among them. Wendy had a longstanding involvement with Czechoslovakia having worked as a free-lance photojournalist and writer, covering the Prague Spring and the Warsaw Pact invasion in 1968.
The meeting in Bulgaria stimulated new interest and we made several trips to Czechoslovakia beginning in the spring of 1986 to look at contemporary Czech photography. Good luck provided us with wonderful accommodations in Prague at the official residence of a close friend of Wendy’s, Wendy Luers, wife of the U.S. Ambassador, William Luers.
We were often chauffeured downtown by “Shorty,” the ambassador’s towering driver, who we all assumed was ‘looking out’ for the interests of the Communist government. When dropped off, we would make frequent detours before secretly meeting with photographers to arrange an ‘underground’ FotoFest exhibition for FotoFest 1990. The precautions were probably more Hollywood than necessary but we were influenced by Wendy Watriss’s experiences there during the aftermath of the Warsaw pact invasion and the tragic end of the turbulent, hope-charged months of the Prague Spring in 1968.
Some the experiences were like chapters from spy thrillers. In 1970, at the request of Czech dissidents, Wendy was able to smuggle legal papers from the Theological Hall of the Strahov Library when working for on a Newsweek assignment. She made her journey alone by car on a cold, snowy night from Prague to the Austrian border with a dreaded black Tatra car (used by the Secret Police) following close behind. Those papers broke the story of the secret political trials of Czech dissidents in 1970 after the Warsaw Pact-Soviet invasion.
There were also our memories of the summer of 1988, when we photographed Czechoslovak police lined up against protesting crowds in the Wenceslas Square – the tear gas fusillade and the dysfunctional water cannon that tried to hose down the crowd, then broke down to squirt us with the intensity of a lawn sprinkler.
In December 1989, we received a mysterious invitation from the Luers to come to Prague to attend a dinner on December 28. We assumed that it was connected to finalizing our ‘underground’ exhibit of 19 Czech photographers for the FotoFest 1990 in Houston. On arrival, we were met at the airport by Pavel Stecha and taken to the dissidents’ new headquarters at Civic Forum near the end of Wenceslas Square where to our surprise we received ‘special credentials’. At the Intercontinental Hotel we discovered others from Houston: Miles Glaser, a well-connected Czech émigré, who worked at the Menil Collection as the financial officer, Roy Cullen of the Cullen Foundation, his wife Mary as well as Adelaide de Menil.
The surprise meeting of friends was only the beginning of surprises. At Civic Forum HQ there was joyous confusion, the culmination of the Velvet Revolution, and frantic efforts to keep up with the momentous events, with six ancient Bulgarian computers. Back at the Intercontinental, I got on the phone and began calling business contacts, finally locating Compaq Computer’s European Sales Manager, Eckhard Pfeiffer in Munich. I explained that should Compaq donate the desperately needed new computers – pronto –this might encourage significant sales for Compaq in the future. Mr. Pfeiffer seemed to like the idea, which seemed promising as he shortly became CEO of Compaq in Houston.
On December 28, Wendy and I arrived at the mysterious dinner at the famous Seven Angels restaurant in the Old Town. We were still not quite sure what to expect or why we were invited. Bill and Wendy Luers, it turned out, had paid for the event along with Miles Glaser and had invited us. There was more history: The Luers had given a number of parties at the Seven Angels for their dissident friends every year since 1983. This was the fifth one. Former dissidents who had been at previous parties were to be members of the new Havel cabinet. Suddenly I was seated next to Rita Klimova, the next Czechoslovak Ambassador to Washington and Wendy was seated beside Vaclav Klaus, to be appointed Minister of Finance. We were celebrating a new administration with Vaclav Havel who became president the next day –wearing a necktie that belonged to Bill Luers because Havel didn’t own one.
At dinner we had another surprise. Czech TV and Radio had been shut down all news accounts of the popular protests at the beginning of the Velvet Revolution under orders of the Communist government. In response, Pavel Stecha and other photographers organized secret nightly printing and distribution of photographs of the protests to workers clubs outside the capital. They were using the film and paper that paper that we had been smuggling into the country in the late 1980s to create the Czechoslovak exhibit for FotoFest 1990. Pavel Stecha had also been working directly, and in secret, with Havel throughout the Velvet Revolution and the formation of Civic Forum. The FotoFest exhibition and this collaboration provided an additional bonus to the dinner and the inaugural ceremonies for Havel on the following days.
Wendy and I were thanked by Havel at the party and later in an Outlook Piece that President Havel wrote for FotoFest in the Houston Chronicle. During our 1990 Biennial, FotoFest exhibited 19 Czech artists, produced a catalogue of the Czech work, and presented a surprise exhibition of the inner workings of the Velvet Revolution donated to FotoFest by Pavel Stecha and other Czech photographers. For FotoFest 1990, the Alley Theatre put on a special production of Havel’s play The Audience at the George Brown Convention Center, where we held the Biennial. To complete the package a video tape was produced in Prague with President Havel recognizing FotoFest’s support, and it was also shown at the Convention Centre.
Twenty-two Czechoslovak and Bulgarian photographers came to Houston for FotoFest 1990. For most, it was their first trip to the U.S. FotoFest secured Fulbright Fellowships for four photographers to visit U.S. universities and art schools around U.S. These steps began longtime collaborations with both artists and cultural institutions, first in Czechoslovakia then with both the Czech Republic and Slovakia. But perhaps the most memorable moment, which is a continuously rewarding memory, came New Year’s Eve 1989, when we were again in Wenceslas Square, and again being sprayed, but not by riot police. The water cannon and tear gas had been replaced by a jubilant mob showering one another with champagne, celebrating the completion of the Velvet Revolution and the fall of Communism in Czechoslovakia.
Thank you Vaclav Havel.