GREENWICH — As a youngster growing up in Greenwich’s Armstrong Court, Fred Watkins often tagged along with his father, a wedding photographer who taught him the tricks of the trade — and a healthy dose of ingenuity.
“His makeshift dark room was our bathroom,” Watkins said in a phone interview from his Virginia home. “My father would make an announcement: ‘Anybody have to go to the bathroom?’ And if they didn’t, that’s where he developed his film.”
Watkins’ dad didn’t realize he was passing on more than just a hobby to keep his son out of trouble. Early exposure to the art form sparked a passion that led to a more than 30-year career capturing heads of state, celebrities and every president since Ronald Reagan on film.
Local residents will have a chance to track Watkins’ impressive career at “Rock Stars and VIPS: The Photography of Fred Watkins,” a new exhibit running from July 12 through Aug. 17 in the Byram Shubert Library’s Community Room.
An opening reception will be held from 6:30 to 8 p.m. July 12, giving photography fans a chance to meet Watkins and enjoy his images of South African President Nelson Mandela, Bob Dylan, President Barack Obama and more.
Watkins credits his parents with keeping him “on the straight and narrow” through his youth up to his 1972 graduation from Greenwich High School. They taught him to fish, brought him to Boy Scout meetings and insisted on family dinners each night and church on Sunday.
When it was time for college, he headed for the University of Denver, but holding down several part-time jobs — and his love of skiing — left little time for academics. After a semester, his parents brought him back home where he eventually graduated from Western Connecticut State University.
It was there that Watkins began his professional career, spending three years as the college newspaper photo editor and getting paid for yearbook photos.
A social welfare major, he spent a year working with youth offenders after college, but quickly realized his passion lay elsewhere. He snagged a job in the Time Life photo lab, washing and drying prints for the organization’s many popular magazines.
Always one to look for opportunities, Watkins introduced himself to members of the promotions department. Soon he was allowed to attend the star-studded parties they planned, hoping to snap a few exclusive shots of celebrities and newsmakers he could sell to magazines like People or Us.
It was a grueling schedule.
“I literally was up at 5:30 or 6 to get to the lab early to develop my film from the night before and then I’d work 9 to 5 and then I’d be back out at Studio 54 that night,” he said with a laugh. “And those parties were late events, like, until 1:30 or 2 in the morning. I slept on a bench in Grand Central a lot because the last (train) out was at 1:37.”
Sometimes a magazine editor would bite at one of his photos, such as exclusive images of supermodel Christy Brinkley with champagne heir Olivier Chandon or newly engaged tennis star John McEnroe and actress Tatum O’Neal.
Most times they didn’t.
“I can’t overemphasize that if you do something you really love you’ve got to put in 100 percent,” he said.
Fate stepped in in the form of director Gordon Parks, best known for the film “Shaft,” who began his career as a photojournalist in the mid-20th century. Watkins convinced Life to hire him as the still photographer on a PBS documentary Parks was filming.
There was just one problem: He had to pay his living expenses on the three-week shoot in Savannah, Ga.
“I had enough money for maybe six or seven days with a hotel room, so I brought my tent,” he said. “That’s where my Boy Scout training came in. I pitched a tent!”
Over the years, Watkins said he was honored to document Mandela’s first U.S. tour after he was released from prison and to befriend the late boxer and humanitarian Muhammad Ali. Some of his photos, including those he took during a 20-year stint with Ebony, are being added to the collections of the Smithsonian Institute’s African American Museum of History and Culture.
Watkins said the trick to getting a good shot is to treat every subject with respect while putting them at ease. Once asked to photograph a reluctant Michael Jackson, he decided to bust a move on the pop star.
“I did a moon walk for him and did a little turn around,” Watkins said. “He died laughing. He said, ‘I like this guy!’”
Barbara Gotch, Watkins’ middle school art teacher, is looking forward to reconnecting with her former student at the July opening. She said she saw something special in both Watkins and his artwork all those years ago.
“He was just one of those guys who had a spark to him,” Gotch said. “It’s exciting to see someone who goes above and beyond.”
The July 12 reception is free and open to the public. Refreshments will be served.