An interview with Karl Baden

July 22, 2019  •  Leave a Comment

An Interview with Karl Baden
 

copyright- Karl Baden

An Interview with Karl Baden

 

RH: Who is Karl Baden

Karl Baden has been a photographer since 1972. His photographs have been widely exhibited, including at the Robert Mann Gallery, Zabriskie Gallery, Marcuse Pfeifer Gallery and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Howard Yezerski Gallery, The Institute of Contemporary Art, Decordova Museum and The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, The Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, Musée Batut in France, Photokina in Cologne, Germany, and The Photographers Gallery in London. He has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Massachusetts Artists Foundation, the Massachusetts Council on the Arts and Humanities, the Massachusetts Cultural Council, the Kenan Foundation and Light Work Visual Studies. His photographs and visual books are included in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art, NYC, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, The Addison Gallery of American Art, Polaroid International Collection, the List Visual Arts Center at MIT, the Guggenheim Museum, the New York Public Library and the Boston Public Library. He has been on the faculty at Boston College since 1989. In 2000, Baden was the subject of a 26-year retrospective exhibition at Light Work Visual Studies. “How did I Get Here?”; a 48-page catalogue, accompanies the exhibition. The 1980s, entitled “Work from two Bodies”. In 2016, Retroactive Books published “The Americans by Car”.  In 2016, Retroactive Books published “Taking Sides”. Karl Baden is represented by the Howard Yezerski Gallery howardyezerskigallery.com

 

Planning

RH: What attracted and inspired you to your current documentary project?

  KB: If you are referring to the photographs I made from cars, it was, not unlike many other projects I've ended up working on, a case of not choosing it; rather, it choosing me. More specifically, while there are a number of bodies of work I've preconceptualized; thought through to some degree before I took them on, most projects evolve from the practice of always carrying a camera and using it frequently, taking pictures of what strikes me at the time as some composition or situation that I think might make a decent photograph. Most of the time I'm disappointed by the results, but every so often i find an image that resonates with me, and if I'm lucky, I can build on that. Lots of street and documentary photographers work that way, or at least they used to. Instead of walking around with some kind of a priori notion in your head, you simply pay attention and allow the world to surprise you. This allows your contact sheets - or in a more updated sense - your pictures in Lightroom or Bridge, to show you what you're interested in. There's still a lot to be said for serendipity and surprise as part of one's working method. They offer a freshness and spontaneity to work that is generally more difficult to achieve if you already know what you're doing, because if you already know the answer, it makes the question a bit irrelevant, and posing the question is really the more exciting, fresh and important part of a photograph.

  If I recall correctly, I had just finished working on a project about having cancer in 2000-1, and I was more or less at a loss for ideas. While I walked around and looked, shooting rather randomly, i found myself taking a few pictures through the windows of parked cars, interested in the way people decorated the interiors, or even the things they left on their seats. some cars were filled to  mid-window level with all kinds of stuff, a lot of it what you might consider trash. I got a few interesting pictures, but more important, 

I got to thinking about all the time we spend driving from one place to another, and the kinds of things we keep and leave on the seats, the floor, dashboard, ceiling, windows. Our preference for outfitting these containers on wheels that we sometimes spent more time in than our actual homes.

  Photographing what people carried in their automobiles led to photographing the people themselves, driving this way or that, stopped at traffic lights, alone or with others. I guess that was somewhat of a natural progression, but the work didn't really gel for me as a series until I began to photograph the world that passed by outside a vehicle that I was happened to be in, either as a driver or a passenger. This idea, of course, did not originate with me, but goes back through a number of contemporary photographers to Robert Frank, then to Walker Evans, and even to J. H. Lartigue at the beginning of the 20th century. But I've long since known that most things have precedents, and just because someone did something 20 or 50 or 100 years ago, perhaps even  better than your version, it can still be worth doing, and if you are sincere the work will be personal and accurate to your own sensibilities.

  In the case of the car, I saw the window glass and door joints as establishing a kind of proscenium, inside of which a fast moving drama was constantly unfolding. It became a physical challenge as well as visual, because if you're not stopped, you need to watch where you're going as well as pay attention to what you're passing or what's flashing by you.

RH: Can you talk us through the planning stage for your project?

I think I just did.

 

RH: Is there anything you wish you had done differently?

KB: Hard to say. I suppose it would have been helpful to drive as many different sorts of vehicles as I was able, which would mean borrowing friends cars and even renting or leasing. I'm pretty sure that's what Lee Friedlander did in his terrific book America by Car. But he can afford that sort of luxury much more easily than I can.


copyright- Karl Baden
 

Implementation and Completion

RH: How have you dealt with any challenges and difficulties within your project?

KB: Well, there are several levels of response to that question. First, you'd want to be able to recognize the formal characteristics of the vehicle you're driving, so you can employ them compositionally. You also have to figure out inside vs outside lighting. This has been a particular challenge to me, as I almost always include part of the car's interior and I usually want it to be lit as brightly as the outside, tho not with the same source or appearance of light. To this end I use a small strobe to light the interior when I take the picture, which in my case necessitates a smaller and less powerful camera than I'd prefer, because I need the flash to sync at high shutter speeds, 1/1000 sec and up, and the larger cameras tend to limit their sync speeds at around 1/250 sec.

Finally, there are much more sensitive and complicated issues involving subject matter, which certainly includes people, but also property; other cars, houses and buildings, etc. "Street photography" (for lack of a better term) has become a much more complicated, problematic and even risky endeavor over the past 20 or 30 years, and even though it is still protected first amendment freedom of expression, in this age of smart phones, surveillance cameras and the paranoia surrounding spying, pedophilia, terrorism, et al, that may be attributed to these devices -not to mention the internet and social media platforms! - ones risk of being stigmatized and even physically harmed increases by orders of magnitude.

 

RH: How long do your projects tend to take from start to finish?

KB: As long as they need to. I have published small books of conceptually based images that have been put together in as little was a few weeks. At the other end of the spectrum, I make a photograph of my fave every day. It's a lifelong project, started on February 23rd 1987. That's 32 years and counting...

copyright- Karl Baden
 

Editing and Sequencing

RH: Do have several images to edit of one fleeting moment or do you have one well-constructed precise image that you have captured?

KB: I have both in this series, but primarily the latter.

 

RH: Within the editing stages, have you felt the project has taken on a different narrative than first envisaged?

KB: Sometimes. Like I'd said, I try to follow what the pictures tell me, and try not to impose my will on them, tho that can be difficult.

Tips and hints

RH: What would you recommend for people starting their own photographic project?

KB: It depends what stage they're at as a photographer, but in my experience, if you're going to be an artist of any stripe, you are going to make the time and priority to work, and pretty much do whatever it takes to get the work realized. There are million excuses not to, and frankly, most people i've known coming up in photography, even those who appeared to have much more talent than I do, have caved in along the way.

 

RH: Does the camera really matter?

KB: In my particular case with this project, it does, for above stated reasons. The pictures you make often indicate how you should modify your equipment. That said, in general terms, a lousy or beginning photographer can have the best gear in the world, and still take lousy or beginning-level pictures, whereas a talented, experienced photographer with a vision can use the cheapest of cameras and make superior images. They can squeeze blood from a stone.

 

RH: Any books you would recommend reading to get the creativity started?

KB: I tend to stay away from the self-help genre, and only read technical stuff when I feel I need to know it. With a few exceptions, I also try to avoid complex, opaque philosophical discourse, as in the past it made my resemble illustrations of someone else's ivory tower theory instead of being my own. I'm much more inspired by good books: Novels, biographies, histories... and it goes without saying' photography monographs and anthologies. in this case, looking is far more important than actual reading. Reading teaches, looking inspires.

 

RH: Would you recommend attending photography workshops?

KB: I fell into a few workshops, mostly when i was in my 20s. They never did much for me. The only reason I'd take one now would be if there was something specific I needed to know. As I indicate above, to be an artist, one's psyche requires a self-driving engine. Constantly showing one's work to well known photographers, curators or critics may get you someplace, but the odds are stacked against it. Plus, workshops are like being in school, and despite the fact that many have great nostalgia for the fun and comfort of school, if you remain a student all your life, chances of you being able to leave the nest and do good things on your own get slimmer as you get older.

copyright- Karl Baden

copyright- Karl Baden

copyright- Karl Baden

copyright- Karl Baden

copyright- Karl Baden

copyright- Karl Baden

copyright- Karl Baden

copyright- Karl Baden

copyright- Karl Baden

copyright- Karl Baden

copyright- Karl Baden

copyright- Karl Baden
 

 


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