Obituary: Baird Bryant

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An award-winning cinematographer, documentary filmmaker and 17-year Idyllwild resident Baird Bryant, 80, died Thursday, Nov. 13, 2008, from complications from colon cancer surgery at Hemet Valley Medical Center.

Baird was a pioneer of the hand-held camera, but also used digital cinematography in a career that included more than 100 films and spanned five decades. Many of the films won prestigious awards, including “Broken Rainbow,” a 1985 documentary about the Hopi and Navajo, in which he shared an Oscar; “A First Class Miracle,” which earned an Emmy Award; and “The Vipers,” which won a Golden Lion (an Italian prize at the Cannes Film Festival). “The Cool World,” a 1964 documentary about youth gangs in Harlem (crediting Baird as director of photography), is part of the Library of Congress Film Collection. Director Martin Scorsese was a film student at the time Baird was working on “The Cool World,” and later credited him as being a positive influence.

Yet, Baird was best known for his work on two controversial films, including the 1969 cult film “Easy Rider” starring Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda as counterculture bikers, and the 1970 Rolling Stones’ documentary “Gimme Shelter.” During the Stones’ free concert before 300,000 spectators at Altamont Speedway, Baird turned his camera toward a scuffle in the crowd and captured a fatal stabbing on film. Baird was later called to testify in court, and the stabbing was left in the documentary.

Baird was born Wenzell Baird Bryant on Dec. 12, 1927, in Columbus, Ind. He was a graduate of Deep Springs College in Inyo County, and Harvard University. He also taught film at UCLA.

Baird supported the arts and film appreciation in Idyllwild. He videotaped the annual Jazz in the Pines Festival up until his final years when Parkinson’s took its toll. He was a practicing Buddhist who belonged to the Tibetan Temple in Pine Cove. In the early 1970s, Baird was among a group of Buddhists from Boulder, Colo., who followed Chogyam Trungpa as he introduced Tibetan Buddhism to the West. “Heart of Tibet,” a 1991 documentary about the life of the Dalai Lama, was among Baird’s proudest achievements because he was able to capture the spiritual leader performing everyday tasks like brushing his teeth.

Baird also belonged to a local writers’ group and his unpublished screenplay, “Souvenirs of a Beat Hotel,” about his life in Paris with the Beat writers, is receiving interest from Hollywood. “Play This Love with Me,” a whimsical book written by Baird, and narrated by local actor Chris Pennock, is in the works.

In a 2002 article in the Idyllwild Town Crier, Baird had said about his life’s work: “I try to put in a good word for the good side of people — the visions and poetry of life that go largely unseen.”

Baird is survived by his partner of 12 years, Sandra Chellton, an artist in Idyllwild, and three sons, Guido Bryant, Pablo Bryant and Caleb Quinn, of the Silver Lake District. Baird was cremated and prayer services were held amongst his friends in Idyllwild and Los Angeles. After the holidays, a Café Cinema film tribute to Baird will be held at the Green Café. Everyone is welcome.

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