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Social critic James Baldwin's hidden side surfaces at NW African American Museum

Turkish photographer Sedat Pakay became a part of Baldwin's inner circle while he was living in Istanbul. Now, Pakay's intimate collection of photographs is on display at the Northwest African American Museum.

Barbara Earl Thomas, executive director of Seattle's Northwest African American Museum and a prominent national artist.

Barbara Earl Thomas, executive director of Seattle's Northwest African American Museum and a prominent national artist. 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. 

 

Barbara Earl Thomas, the museum’s executive director — and a nationally renowned visual artist and writer — learned of Pakay’s remarkable photos through a friend of his, who agreed the Northwest African American Museum was the place to host the show, despite the fact that the museum, as described by Thomas, is "a small, very modest place." 
 
Last year, Thomas and Brian J. Carter, NAAM’s assistant executive director and exhibition curator, traveled to Pakay’s home in the Hudson Valley of New York. After reviewing hundreds of Pakay's slides, contact sheets and photographs of Baldwin, Thomas and Carter decided to do a show. Though Thomas says that Carter visualized the show and put it together, she added, “I take credit for being captivated by the idea and pursuing it.”

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. 


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