An interview with Karl Baden

American photographer, teacher and writer Karl Baden agreed to share with us his thoughts around photography. 

Hi Karl, it’s a great pleasure to have you on our platform, thank you for accepting our invite. 

As I was looking at your portraits and self-portraits on Instagram, I was reminded of what Henri Cartier Bresson said about that art, considering it as ‘a question mark put on someone’. 

Do you think the camera has the power to capture the essence of a being or the reality of a lifetime ? 

If it's in the right hands, it can have a great deal of power. Some photographic portraits have been generally agreed upon as reflecting a kind of essence - Alfred Stieglitz' portraits of Georgia O'Keeffe, or Arnold Newman's portrait of Alfried Krupp come to mind - but I think it's also important to remember that 'essence' can be defined in different ways by different audiences and often more significant works of art have less to do with definition and answers than with provocation and questions.

Pictures from top to bottom : 

Photographer unknown: Karl Baden, age 17, High School Senior Prom photo (detail) 5.8.70.

Photographer unknown: Karl Baden, age several months, being held by his father, Gerald Baden, Probably Bronx NY 1952.

Can you tell us about the daily portraits you’ve been taking every day since 1987 ?

It's an open-ended project and hopefully will continue as long as I'm alive. I'd originally had the idea around 1975, but I suppose I didn't have the confidence or discipline to start doing it for another 12 years. At the time, my impetus was simply that I wanted to see what would happen; how I'd change as I aged. Since that time, however, I've realized I had other reasons for doing it that were less obvious and more subconsciously determined.

©Karl Baden, Anniversary photo excerpts from Every Day Project: 2.23.1987 - 2.23.2020

The car culture has been a subject of interest for American photographers since the beginnings of the automobile industry. 

How do you relate to that tradition ? Has your treatment of the subject evolved over time ? 

Unless stated otherwise, all pictures are a courtesy of ©Karl Baden- From top to bottom and from left to right : 

People's Republik, Cambridge MA 11.15.18, from the series Mass Ave.Between Boston and NYC, 7.6.18 from the series, Roadside Attraction - Cambridge MA 2.14.16 - Between Boston and NYC, 11.16.16, from the series, Roadside Attraction - ©Joel Meyerowitz, Car in Bubble, Michigan, 1971 - Harvard Sq., Cambridge MA, 8.20.14, from the series Mass Ave, Cambridge. 

I've been aware of the role of the automobile in the history of photography right from the beginning of my own career. My involvement with this subject is, as in most other projects I’ve done, a result of curiosity and constant looking. Like everyone else, I spend a lot of time in cars, and I suppose I began to see the window frames and dashboard as a kind of proscenium through which the landscape of life played out. The earlier pictures are more formal, like stage sets, and though I would not necessarily characterize it as an evolution, I've recently become more interested in relationships between people - the actors, as it were.

All picture are a courtesy of ©Karl Baden-From top to bottom and from left to right : 

Shriner, Boston MA, 1980's -  Red Vw Beetle, probably Berkeley CA Feb - March 1975- Poodle in Motor Home, St. Augustine FL, December 1986- Map of Kentucky and Tennessee, on the road, August 1975- Future of Transportation, Epcot Center, Orlando FL ca.1989. 

‘I like the beach because people […] are paradoxically more relaxed and accepting when they have less to cover up with.

Like Duane Hanson, in your colourful and frontal pictures of plump sunbathers, you favour realism and depart from our contemporary beauty canons. 

What is it that attracts you when you make a portrait ? Are these pictures a reflection of the society you live in, an ode to different aesthetic standards or something else ? 

We Americans seem to take a great interest in our bodies, fueled by a nonstop media barrage promising unattainable results and a mythical perfect form. In most aspects of our lives, we can dress to distract from or cover so-called imperfections. I like the beach because people are not only less able to hide their natural shape and proportion, but are paradoxically more relaxed and accepting when they have less to cover up with.

In your instagram feed, there is a variation on the theme of sunbathers with the gorgeous pictures of sand sleepers. What remembrances do you keep of this work ?  

These photos were made in the summer of 1977, just before I left New York to attend graduate school in Chicago. I've always been a compulsive photographer, and I tend to get antsy when I'm not working. For this project, I decided to photograph on the beach at Coney Island. It's a legendary part of Brooklyn because of it's boardwalk amusements and beach crowds. Weegee and members of the Photo League had made photographs there. I'd only gone once or twice, and that was as a kid, so again, it was mostly curiosity. People were sun-bathing, sleeping, reading, listening to the radio. When I look at these photographs now, they seem like tightly-knit environmental still-lives. I also think of how accepting of the photographer people were, compared to today.

When you look at the world around you, how do you feel ? 

While I'll allow that visually, I still feel stimulated, and I'd photograph every day if my life and schedule allowed it, at this writing it's difficult to see beyond the Covid-19 pandemic, and the shameful mess that's being made in response to it by the pathologically mendacious, self-aggrandizing, dictatorial bully who calls himself our president. He and his cadre of sycophants, charlatans and clowns represent the very worst of America, and as a result, we have lost any claim to be a force for good in the world. 

‘Looking around, I see many artists whose goal is to increase awareness […]. I say more power to them.’

There have always been photographers who are galvanized by the call of social justice (and it's more recent iteration, identity politics). While my own work has also had some engagement with these issues, I'd be less than honest if I claimed them as primary motivators. Looking around, I see many artists whose goal is to increase awareness, if not to create political and social change through their work. I say more power to them. But I don't believe I have the vision or talent required to consistently steer my sensibilities in that direction. Even after four decades, I find it enough of a challenge to make honest, decent pictures. Fortunately, there are other ways of contributing to positive change. 

To go further in the understanding of Karl Baden’s work, here are a few links to his iconoclast, fascinating and informed works : 

- First Son of a First Son, an everyday project. 

- Karl Baden’s instagram

- His book, The Americans by Car.

- An interview about street photography. 

- His writings exploring the connections between book covers and photographs, Covering Photography

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