Ingrid Pape-Sheldon Photography
James Baldwin (1924-1987), the renowned American novelist, essayist, civil rights advocate and social critic, was an outspoken advocate for equality and respect for all people.
His novels include Giovanni’s Room, Go Tell It on the Mountain and Another Country, but he may be most remembered for his powerful essays, often reflections on the timeless American obsessions with race and sexuality, found in his books such as Notes of a Native Son, The Fire Next Time and Nobody Knows My Name.
Gay and black, Baldwin was at the height of his career in the early 1960s — and the demands of admirers and critics alike grew so overwhelming that he was often unable to work in his native land. From 1961 to 1971, he often sought refuge in Turkey to write and enjoy a less frenzied and more contemplative life.
A young Turkish photographer, Sedat Pakay, met Baldwin in Istanbul and became a close friend.
Born in Turkey in 1945. Pakay studied art at Yale and received his Masters in Fine Arts in 1968. Pakay has worked for various magazines including Holiday, Esquire and New York. His photographs are in international private and museum collections including those of The Museum of Modern Art, Smithsonian, Museum of Turkish-Islamic Arts, Getty Museum, Metropolitan Museum of Art, University of Wisconsin, Istanbul Modern Art Museum and Lehigh University. He lives with his wife in Hudson, New York.
Now, Seattle’s own Northwest African American Museum (NAAM) is hosting a rare exhibition of dozens of Pakay’s candid photographs of Baldwin, as well as his short documentary of Baldwin in Istanbul, In Another Country. The images reveal a relaxed, happy, funny and reflective man.
Pakay recently spoke by telephone from his home in New York about his exhibition and his relationship with James Baldwin.
Robin Lindley: How did you meet James Baldwin?
Sedat Pakay: I met him in 1964, the year I finished high school at an American school [in Istanbul] called Robert Academy, a part of Robert College.
I saw an item in one of the newspapers that said “Famous American Writer Visiting Istanbul.” Immediately, I wanted to photograph this man because he had a fabulously photogenic face. I collect faces. I like doing portraiture and faces and people fascinate me.
You were already a photographer then?
I was a novice. This was really my first trial at photographing somebody well-known. I went in without any expectation that [the photographs] would be sought after. I didn’t really know about him and hadn’t read any of his books.
Through a friend, my art teacher, I got to the people he was staying with. I asked if I could photograph Jimmy Baldwin and they said fine. It was a very easy assignment. I asked him to sit here, sit there, move your hand, move your head. He complied and he was very nice.
Later, I read about him and, my goodness, I was 19 years old and [directing] this seasoned writer and well-known personality.
He was immediately quite comfortable with you?
He was. I wasn’t pushing. I’m basically of the school of photojournalists who didn’t want to show themselves to the world. For example, the photographer Cartier-Bresson who refused to have his picture taken and didn’t want anybody to know who he is.
Throughout the years that I photographed Jimmy, I was just a witness in his scene. He was comfortable, and did whatever I asked because he knew I wasn’t exploiting him and he was very cooperative.
How did you become a member of Baldwin’s inner circle in Turkey?
After I met and photographed him, I had a show at Robert College about a Turkish painter Aliye, who was very blonde, and I opened that show called “Aliye and Jimmy.” Jimmy was the opposite: dark and not a great beauty, whereas this woman was. The show opened, and I gradually made friends and I was invited to meet his friends, Engin Cezzar and his wife.
So I knew these people and other artists and newspaper people, but luckily no photographers. I had the camera and nobody else had one. I was able to photograph and catch him in my quiet way without any forceful interruption.
And this was at the height of the civil rights movement in the United States, yet Baldwin chose to often leave the country?
He was already active in that earlier than his arrival in Istanbul.
My theory is that he was not really free to write his books in New York. There were always interruptions and he was pulled in every different direction. He was invited to four or five dinners every night and he couldn’t say no. The first would end at twelve, and then he’d go to the second dinner, and by five o’clock, more or less finish this round with the proper amount of Scotch.
He was a big celebrity. People would come to our table to get his autograph and he was always dressed as a dandy [with] this scarf around his neck and beautifully dressed. He knew he was at the top of the world, and he acted as such.
Was Baldwin open about his sexuality?
He was very open and everyone knew he was gay. There was a wonderful interview with a BBC reporter who said, to the effect, “Mr. Baldwin, you are a Negro and you’re such and such and you are a homosexual.” And Baldwin said, “Baby, I hit the jackpot.”
You note that celebrities often visited him.
Yes. Marlon Brando visited him in Istanbul. He and Brando had worked together at the Actors Studio in New York and they were good friends. ...
Baldwin moved to L.A. [to work on the Malcolm X screenplay] and I had a tough photography assignment in upstate New York. I was exhausted and I asked Jimmy if he minded if I come to stay in L.A. He said come on over.
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