Saturday, April 29, 2017

Ain't but a good nothing man bad photography feeling

"If I knew how to take a good photograph, I'd do it every time." said Robert Doisneau long ago. True dat. But isn't dat part of photography's charm? Some photos work and some don't, and at the point of exposure it's hard to know which will be which. Make a photo too "good" and you might kill your darling. Spice it up with imperfection and you could do the same. Even if you stage the thing like Doisneau there's generally no telling until later how it turned out. Sometimes it's years later. Evaluation gets downright murky when you consider variables like context, reproduction quality, sequencing, intention, appropriation, or whether the viewer just went through a bad breakup, or forgot to feed the cat earlier, or is just plain sick of the color blue, or whatever. Yes, "good" is a goddamn mystery and that's how it should be hallelujah. 

But don't tell that to the computer programmers and stock photo companies. Both worlds operate under clearly delineated rules regarding "good". Pair them up and you might get something like the EveryPixel Aesthetics Test, a plug-in evaluative tool which measures a stock photo's "awesome" rating on a scale of 1 to 100. Just drag and drop any photo into the site and its algorithm returns a number. Then you toss the photos with low numbers and Presto —only the nuggets remain! Suddenly, winnowing out the "good" photos is as easy as reading a kitchen thermometer. Doisneau, you missed out. 

I know, I know, the test is silly. But still incredibly tantalizing for someone like me who doesn't know how to take a good photo every time. No sooner had Karl sent me a link to the beta version, along with a DP Review blurb, than I was feeding cows into the machine, images into the machine.

What would the algorithm think of, say, Daisuke Yokota?



According to Everypixel this image has a 12.1% chance of being "awesome". 



Eggleston?



Odds of awesome: 79.8%. Hmm. Not bad. 

Cathie Opie with a mustache, on the other hand? 



The computer's not feeling it. Just 0.7% awesome. 

How about Todd Hido?



Worst so far, 0.2% chance of being awesome. 

Darnit if this thing ain't harder to pin down than a harpooned hippo on a banana tree. How about Kendall Jenner holding a Pepsi? By my own reckoning, and judging by the recent backlash against this scene, the odds of this image being awesome should be quite low. Can we get computer confirmation?



Everydaypixel disagrees. 97.4% chance of being awesome! 

But hold on. Change the scene just slightly...



...and the photo returns a near opposite result, 0.0% chance of awesome. 

Wha? Does not compute. Then again I'm not a computer. But from where this human sits, the algorithm appears to judge arbitrarily. A dartboard, coin flip, or international panel of judges might return similar verdicts. Perhaps the program follows some digital Potter Stewart litmus, "I can't define awesome but I know it when I see it." I honestly doisneau. Nor do I know how to make a good photo any better than before, and I don't think Everypixel's creators know either. 

In situations like this there's only one thing to do. Feed some porn into the machine.



Is this a great photo? Even without a computer I'd say nope. The composition is terrible. Why are all the faces cut off, and what's with the big vacant space to the right? And the whole thing suffers from overexposure. 

Everypixel agrees: big fat 0.0% chance of awesome. 



I should note that this shot isn't a total loss. It generates some positive keywords: Togetherness, Relaxation, and Group of People, for example. I'd think that when considered as an online jpg, the tag Alone And Naked might also apply. But for some reason it's not included in the list. It doesn't matter. Despite all the great keywords —Lifestyles?— they're not enough to return an "awesome" verdict. And I agree with the computer on this one. Looking at this photo now it seems hard to remember what made it so thrilling just a few short minutes ago. It was 100% awesome then! But now it's just kinda, meh, whatever. 

Any porn image easily belies the myth that a computer can evaluate aesthetics. Because a photograph is more than a list of keywords. Its power depends sometimes on emotion, mood, libido, and a thousand other human variables — things no algorithm can measure. With porn, duh. But the same is true about any photo. 

As suggested earlier, context plays a role too. A photo from an old science experiment might be 0.0% awesome if it's archived in a drawer in an institutional setting. Put that same photo in a book by Sultan and Mandel, and it turns out it was 100% awesome all along. But beware. If you forget your copy of Evidence in the YMCA shower stall, the photo slinks back again to 40% awesome, if you can unstick the pages. 

I'm not the first to gripe about the Everypixel ratings. Many readers of the DP Review article had the same initial impulse as me: toss photos into it and see what happens. And like me, many commenters questioned the results. This one sums it up: "tl;dr: If your goal is art, this is not your rating site. If your goal is to sell stock images, it might be." At this point it's probably good to take a step back and remember the Everypixel algorithm was designed only to judge stock photos. Fine art and porn are different animals entirely, requiring different levels of bestiality, discourse, and intercourse.


U.S.A.'s Most Wanted Painting

Still, the question remains, what exactly is "awesome"? Is there any way to measure it? Several years back Vitaly Komar and Alexy Melamid applied the question to paintings. Their Most Wanted Paintings project used professional market research to determine which paintings were "good" and "bad" according to general aesthetic preference. As with the Everypixel algorithm, quality was broken down into a list "good" metrics —for example preferred size of painting, sharp angles vs. curves, and preferred season. The compiled results, organized by country, are perhaps unsurprising. People in America like medium-sized pastoral scenes, and dislike small abstractions. Fair enough. Whether or not that's a scientific measurement of "good" is another question. 

Komar and Melamid also studied songs using the same research methods. They polled musical taste, then created songs to match general preferences. Surprise, surprise, turns out people really don't like to hear bagpipes, kids singing, accordion, wildly fluctuating tempos, or songs that last forever. Komar and Melamid's Most Unwanted Song incorporates all of these elements and more. By all accounts it should be terrible, and a computer algorithm might rate it poorly. 


Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid, 1984

But the thing is, The Most Unwanted Song is actually pretty interesting. Some (like myself) might even call it "good". It's got a bit of everything, bouncing through all sorts of motifs, rhythms, and styles over 21+ minutes. Perhaps that's why the The Most Unwanted Song has become a staple of underground radio over the past twenty years. I've played it on my own show, and just last week I heard it on KWVA while driving. The song gets around, at least on the left side of the dial. In almost every way it's more enjoyable than its terrible partner generated by the same methods, The Most Wanted Song. I dare anyone out there to like it. So we're back to square one. What is good music? Who knows?

Of course, polling human taste is slightly different than using a computer algorithm. A musical version of Everypixel which attempted to identify "good" music based on digital sound tests would likely return ridiculous results. It might claim, for example, that Grammy winning songs are 100% awesome, or that all Auto-Tuned songs are awesome, or that John Cage or Harry Partch are 0% awesome. As with photos, the aesthetic variables surpass the capability of computers, at least for now.

One key aspect of The Most Unwanted Song's "goodness" is its originality. The song marches to the beat of its own competing drummers. I know of no other song which sounds remotely similar. Originality and authenticity are highly valued in all the arts, photography included. But they might be hard for a computer program to measure. An algorithm which blindly assigns "awesome" to original works without taking into account other factors might value just about anything different. Strawberries on bubblewrap? Old album covers turned into poetry? Cutout photos of a giant spider and termite mounds? 


Pattern of Activation (jumping spider, termite cathedral mounds, growth potential), 2015, Katja Novitskova


Judging music as an art form may be more problematic than photography, because "bad" music is so easy to enjoy. Anyone can be entertained by Mrs. Miller or Sam Sacks. By any objective standard these outsider songs are awful, but that's exactly what makes them "good". I regularly improve songs by running them through an MP3 reverser. They're better almost every time. Everyone loves to sing along to bad songs on the radio alone in the car when no one's listening. It feels "good". And don't get me started on Blues music, which ain't nothing but a good man feelin' bad, even when the MP3 is reversed.

The thing about music is that most people have an inner barometer. Play someone a song and they'll tell you within a few seconds if it's "good" or not. Show those same people a photo —any photo, but especially a fine art photo— and they'll have no idea. So if music has issues, photography's are even worse, on the human front as well as the digital realm.

But that hasn't kept folks from trying to formulate "good" photos. Ken Rockwell has given it a shot. So have various others. Just last week, Mike Johnston weighed in. By his reasoning "Cool with a warm accent" is one avenue to photo goodness. Could be. Depends. I've seen this book kicking around bookstores recently. The title cuts right to the chase: Read This If You Want To Take Great Photographs. I haven't read this so I can't comment in depth, but I suspect a book called Use This Title If You Want To Sell Books would be more likely to fulfill its promise. Or maybe a title like TogethernessRelaxation, And Group of People, the cover helped along with a naked couch scene?
le Flamant rose, Camargue, 1947, Robert Doisneau

Thinking about what a "good" photo is or isn't, I'm reminded of the first and only photo class I took about twenty-five years ago. One of the last assignments was to take a "bad" photo on purpose. A bad photo? Why, that's easy. You shake the camera during exposure, or set the meter wrong, or crop out the subject, or mis-develop the film. There are all sorts of ways to screw up. 

I think you can guess what happened. That assignment produced the most interesting photographs of the entire class, the photographic equivalent of outsider music. Were they "good"? Hard to say, but they were 100% awesome to us in that moment.

The good/bad equation hasn't changed much since the advent of computers. Making a good photo now is just as hard as it was during Doisneau's lifetime. It's as futile as trying to winnow out good people from bad ones. How do you draw a line in the sand through a person? Such a clean dichotomy is ridiculous, the province of racists, xenophobes, or the poor lonely simpleton in the White House. As elections sometimes show, good things happen to bad men and woman regularly, which they may indeed feel good about. Religions have never successfully explained that one, nor why bad things happen to good people. As for good photos which fare worse over time, it's best not to judge unless you're a machine, which was Doisneau's point all along.

Would a "good" person inject porn filth into blog post, knowing that post was likely to be shared with young children during family prayer that evening? Would he release the drivel early Saturday morning during the news cycle's cellar, then tweet and hype it like crazy on social media? Would a "good" person do that? Isn't that something a bad hombre would do? And if that person knew how to write a good post, wouldn't he do it every time? Goodness knows.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Photolucida

Andy Mattern
Photolucida hit Portland this past weekend, just as it does every other April. It's always fun to pop in on the evening Portfolio walk to get a sampling of what's happening out there in photo land, or at least in its more ambitious nether regions. The conference tagline promises "you'll see more photography in one evening than most people see in a lifetime," which sounds like hyperbole until you realize it's kinda true. The event lasts a full three hours, which is just barely enough time to see everything, but only if you drink a big cup of coffee before, pace yourself, and don't dawdle. Last Thursday I indulged... As with prior Photolucidas typology projects were out in force, including efforts from Stephen Seidenberg, Kevin Schick, Max Kellenberger, Katie Harwood, Jane Szabo among others. My favorite was Andy Mattern's collection of strangely taped darkroom paper boxes, one of those WTF ideas that shouldn't work on paper, not to mention paper boxes, but won me over. I recognized the graphic design of my personal favorite, Ilford Glossy Fiber Multigrade, its box masked and scraped up into a Rothko-style abstraction. That image set the hook, and the full set was duly rewarding... Mattern may have been the only one focused on box covers, but bygone tools of the trade were a common theme as subject matter. I suppose now that the era of film has officially passed, it can be examined at arm's length as an historic or ironic or nostalgic process, or maybe all three. In any case photos of film are usually made now digitally. The
Kent Krugh
war is over, and history is written by the victors... 
Kent Krugh was one such author. His X-ray photos of old film cameras were just odd enough to be intriguing. I felt I'd seen something similar before, but where?..Oh yes, the airport security line! OK, maybe the idea is a one-trick pony but Krugh's clean presentation and soft printing —I could've sworn they were watercolors before examining closely— gave these prints a warm charm. Somehow X-rays seem both topical and foreboding, considering the surveillance state currently surrounding us, the increasing prevalence of security scans required for entrance to all sorts of places, and my broken femur.... Alan Ostreicher continued the tools-of-the-trade motif, treating celluloid itself as the subject. His photogram-style montages of film strips and film sheets hung on the verge of complete abstraction. .. Ostreicher was just the tip of the silhouette iceberg, as several other Photolucidans explored Plato's cave, theorizing various forms and outlines. I guess folks miss making photograms in the darkroom. Or else missed out on darkrooms entirely. For whatever reason, two dimensional shapes seem to be having a moment. Kerry Mansfield, Diane Pierce, Hilary AtiyehBill Westheimer, Randi Ganulin, and Rachel Wolf each explored the territory... Of course the so-called "real" world of three dimensions was represented too, albeit in limited quantities, unless you consider a
JK Lavin
studio the real world. JK Lavi
n's gorgeous nightscapes were so entrancing I had to sift through the whole box. She makes these images with a handheld camera in near pitch black conditions, with exposures ranging from 15 seconds on up. The resulting images blur suburban scenery, trees, and Hidoesque light sources into bewitching frames bridging the gap between photogram and visual krautrock... Before seeing Peter Andrew Lusztyk's aeriel shots of highway interchanges I'd never laughed out loud at suburban wastelands. But Lusztyk's godlike perspective and clean framing allowed their all too real absurdity to ding my funny bone, and made me wonder if civic planners might possess an untapped inner artist.... Luc Busquin also used a plane to capture the social landscape from above, with mixed results. His photos were perfectly composed, and a few were absolute gems. But maybe that was the problem. They were too perfect. When you see 30 such photos in a group you begin to doubt if reality is an unplanned mess after all. And when you see 100 such perfect portfolios in a room...well, you begin to wonder what's real and what isn't. If the plain worldly presentation of, say, Walker Evans or Eugene Atget was nowhere to be found on Thursday, that's just the nature of the beast. Photolucida has always been less about photographs than photographers. So it stands to reason that most Photolucidans can't help injecting a big dose of themselves into their work. Although straight photos with a twist of the absurd are my photo drink of choice, I realize a place like Photolucida isn't the best hunting ground for such material... Street photographs can hit a nerve of reality sometimes, and every biennial iteration seems to include at least one old school street bro hanging around the scene like a round lens on a square hole. This year it was Jim Lustenader. His monochrome silver prints fit the "street" brief perfectly, but with only moderately interesting results... Thomas Alleman isn't exactly a street photographer but he has that snooping, voyueristic instinct and a nose for serendipitous composition. He basically hunts with his eye, then sorts
Thomas Alleman
later. In 
other words, a photographic dinosaur. But I'm happy to report his eye ain't bad. Alleman has moved on from his earlier vein of monochrome Holga into straight up color fill-flash. His recent photographs of Los Angeles flowers in spring showed a deft touch for position and framing. But the biggest lesson of Alleman wasn't his photos. It was watching him network expertly with the passing crowd. He has an outgoing, don't-I-know-you? personality custom tailored for portfolio reviews... The evening's prize for most disturbing photographs went to Rebecca Martinez. Her portraits of Nazi re-enactors somehow normalized and creepified her subjects at once. Stacy Kranitz had shot the same crazy freaks but in a more immersive, less clinical way. By contrast Martinez was an objective sharpshooter. Her lighting was vaguely romantic, the German army uniforms spotless, the faces smug. "Do these people enjoy dressing up like this?" I asked her. She replied that it was just about their favorite thing in the world, but she needn't have said anything. Her photos absolutely stung.... They were almost as disconcerting as the nearby celebrity portraits composited from online porn jpgs. Finally, the huuuge dick in the White House had been atomized to essential components! Mel Gibson and George Bush too. Unfortunately I can't remember the name of this photographer. I grabbed cards as I went and by the end of the evening my pockets were stuffed, but somehow the Trump-Porn creator escaped me. Does anyone know?... After three hours my photo receptors were fried, so I decamped with friends to a nearby film strip club for debriefing. I can only imagine how the Photolucidans felt. They'd been through not only the evening's festivities but an
Photolucida
entire day of reviews earlier that day. And that was day one of four to come. Whew! To participate in such a grueling ritual requires a level of preparation, polish, and chutzpah that I can't really imagine. These folks have their two minute elevator pitch down, their portfolios edited and re-edited, their takeaways ready, hair combed and palms dry. I get exhausted just thinking about it. I mean holy shit, at this point
the gig is basically a business convention with demographics to match. The general age, social class, and professionalism of participants has matured steadily since I attended the very first Photolucida (then called PhotoAmericas) in 2000. Is it my imagination or did they allow in more of the sandals-and-shorts crowd back then? Maybe it was before the security scanners? Not that I'm a good judge. I'm out of the photo loop, and have never been in the business loop. But I still have great fun peeking in on the scene every two years, and seeing all the local associated exhibitions... Anyhoo, it's now monday and the storm has passed. I imagine that in Portland this morning a lot of belts were being loosened, alarm clock snooze buttons hit, and breathes exhaled. Maybe a few participants achieved complete satisfaction, and a larger pool connected with a dealer or learned something about themselves or somehow got their money's ($1200?) worth. I appreciate all the Photolucidans for making the event what it is. I certainly can't complain when a big chunk of photoland parks itself nearby for a weekend. Hey reviewees, good luck in the future. Break a leg. Get it X-rayed. Just wish you'd stop moving here

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Q & A with Karl Baden

Karl Baden is a photographer and teacher based in Boston.


BA: It's tough to dig into some of your earlier photo projects because you don't have an active website. Is that a conscious decision, or a statement in and of itself? What is the reasoning?

KB: Yes, the sad fact is that after all these years I have yet to pull the trigger on a personal website. There is one fairly sophisticated site that deals with one of my projects, Covering Photography.  It's a growing database & website, built for me by Boston College, but that's different discussion. I suppose I feel overwhelmed enough about the backlog of work that even thinking about a website gives me a headache. But I'll be the first to admit it's stupid not to have one.

In the absence of a site, most Google Searches about you return results about your Every Day project which has been profiled several places. Are you OK being represented by such a small part of your oeuvre? Or do you feel misrepresented?

I don't feel OK about it, although I understand it. Every Day has received media attention because of what it is and what the media's function has become. Although a number of journalists have written/commented about the project thoughtfully and with insight, much of the time I find myself in a position of trying to explain my motivation[s] in a way that might compel the interviewer not to file the project in the Ripley's Believe it or Not/Guinness Book of World Records/Weird News Dept. Of course I fail more than I succeed; after all, one reason I'm being interviewed is because they already have me pegged. To some extent, this brings us back to the lack-of-website issue.

What is it like to photograph your face every day? Do you notice changes over time, or just tune the details out? Do you still pay attention? What do you see?

This is a question that requires a much longer answer than I can give here. The act itself takes 5 minutes (15 if I'm on the road), so in that sense it's as integrated and boring a part of my day as brushing my teeth. After 30 years, I don't pay a lot of attention to the individual pictures unless I have to; though ironically it's not infrequently that I have to: from developing the film (every couple of months) to updating the blog (also should be every couple of months, though I am woefully behind at present) to making a film or creating an installation for museum or gallery (average once, maybe twice, a year, and a total nightmare in terms of workload). And yes, clearly, there have been changes over time, though the consensus seems to be that my face ages a bit more slowly than the average (I once collaborated with the research of a plastic surgeon who specialized in aging; he told me that my physiognomy - long face instead of round, etc - usually was more forgiving of the typical characteristics of aging). I suppose that's good for me, bad for the project. If you compare an early and more recent images, however, the difference is quite obvious.

I just got your Thermographs book last week. Nice photos. I know they were from the mid-seventies, and I recently saw some of your photos on St. Lucy which were also from that period. It made me curious if you're beginning to dig back into older stuff. What made you revisit those two bodies of work now?

From time to time I've been going back into the archive; the reasons vary superficially, but at bottom it’s because I’ve been a photographer for almost 45 years, and I have quite a bit of work, especially from the beginning, that has had either little or no public exposure. Another fundamental reason - and I believe I mentioned something about this in St. Lucy - is that revisiting work from the '70s and '80s, etc, allows me to see the arc of what I've done; to view it as a continuum, and that has become important to me as the pile of pictures grows. 

To address those two bodies of work that you'd mentioned: I've been posting the 1975 trip pictures because I came across them while looking for something else and realized there was more to the group than I’d initially thought when I took them. I remember coming back after 8 or 9 months on the road, picking out 15 or 20 images, and having a two person show with David Broda (the person I traveled with) at Light Work Visual Studies in Syracuse, NY. We included all sorts of ephemera in addition to our photographs, but essentially the show went up, the show came down, and that was that. Coming back to the pictures 42 years later gives both Dave and me a chance to re-collaborate, as it were. In this case, the pictures are accompanied by narrative, as we try —sometimes successfully and sometimes not— to recreate the journey in time order. It becomes about the trip and the times as much as the individual images. 

The Thermographs are a different story: they were made a year later (1976) and are clearly less documentary in stye and intent. The reason for the show and the catalog has much more to do with art market issues; a vintage print dealer saw them and, without going into details, there was a back and forth between him and my gallery in Boston —Miller Yezerski Gallery— and blah blah blah, they're up on the walls.

Thermographs, 1976


I wasn't around to see them 40 years ago but seeing them for the first time now I think they're great. But I tend to have a soft spot for b/w 35 stuff, so maybe I'm not a good judge. 

You're not alone in the soft spot dept. Regardless of what is considered their mature work, I think many people who began to photograph in the mid '60s to mid '70s began as, for lack of a more accurate term, documentarians. The availability of reasonably priced 35mm cameras was part of it, but also the fact that one could find a beginning photography class fairly easily. In my case, it was the Time-Life series of books on photography that came out in the early '70s. I pored over those things until they fell apart. I also went to the university library, and looked at what they had: Cartier-Bresson, Ansel Adams, Lewis Hine, Diane Arbus... stuff that could make you rush right out into the world and start making pictures, which is more or less what I did. 

You mentioned your work as a continuum. Where do these older photos fall along that continuum? Do you still think they hold up? Has your photographic method or style changed much since then? How has your understanding or appreciation of them changed?

I think a number of the photographs from that time do still hold up, but that's a tricky question; "holding up" is a relative term. Also, I think that photographs become more interesting as they get older simply due to subject matter and, well, I'll say "aura" but I don't think I mean it in the Walter Benjamin sense, at least not entirely.

That touches on a topic I'd hoped to ask you about. What was your path into photography? Was it the Time-Life books? Or some other event? How and when did you first develop your interest?

Self and Larry hitchhiking west, 1974




Oh, this is a good one... I began to take pictures as a sophomore in college. I was an anthropology major; my childhood dream was to be an archaeologist - that is, until I took my first archaeology course and was devastated to find that it was dry, scientific and excruciatingly minutiae-obsessed. At the same time I was part of a large and rowdy contingent of hippies, and participated in all the associated activities with boredom-fueled gusto.

"Associated activities"? Did you ever make or look at photos under the influence of psychedelic drugs?

I was in high school in the mid to late 1960s and college in the early '70s. I think that question answers itself. One thing I can say from personal experience is that altered states of mind often make things look more interesting than they are, and despite any insights one might glean, the photos are almost always better when made with a clear head.

There was a new group of freshman, and particularly one woman who knocked everyone out. She was smart, creative, attractive... we were all smitten, and I ended up going out with her. I was extremely insecure about it; what could she see in me? I mean, I had some talent as a musician, but a lot of people played music in those days. So I remember hitchhiking to my parents' house for Thanksgiving break. My dad had taken up photography a few years earlier, and he let me borrow his old Mamiya - Sekor SLR. When I got back to school, I was a photographer. The main reason was to try to impress my girlfriend.

Did it work? Was she impressed?

The relationship lasted 9 months. Beginning to end it makes a pretty interesting story, but one that I don't think I'd be able to tell. I don't know if she was impressed. There were a lot of other things going on. But she later became a photographer herself.

Syracuse, NY, 1973
What sort of photos did your dad make? Were you aware of them as a kid?

Both my parents were high school teachers. My mom taught Art and my dad taught Industrial Arts —wood and ceramics shop. 

You've probably had this thought before but as a photographer you're almost the Platonic ideal offspring of an art teacher and a shop teacher. Art + Craft + Tools = Photography. Or something like that.

That's a neat little pocket. Art, yes, most definitely. But craft... I've always been a bumbler. I don't make things, I break them. My brother is great with tools, but I'm hopeless. Including camera gear. I know a lot less about equipment than most photographers of my acquaintance.

OK. But even for non gear-savvy photographers the pursuit is inherently tool-dependent. And especially back when you started it was chemistry and process dependent. Studying photography was more like being in a woodshop class. Maybe less so now.

My dad took up photography and was pretty passionate about it for a number of years. His tastes tended towards Adams and Stieglitz; he couldn't quite deal with Friedlander or Winogrand. He liked Callahan and Duane Michals, respected Arbus. He taught the first photo classes in his school. Photographically he tried a lot of things, mostly stuck to the real world; Portraits, reflections, street... but did some manipulated and even sculptural work as well. He had a good eye, loved technical stuff and was a quick study. He read and looked a lot, and developed an understanding of the medium that was pretty sophisticated. I remember I was about 20 years old and we went to an exhibit together. He pointed to a photo by Harry Callahan and told me he was one of today's most important photographers. That ain't bad...

What did (does?) he think of your photos?

You'd think like father, like son, but this was unusual because growing up, I'd usually refuse to do anything he did.

Yeah, the hippie rebel thing. Did he like your photos? I'd say you're closer to Friedlander than Callahan.

Father with cameras, 1976
I'm pretty sure both my parents liked my pictures, but you can't be objective about something like that. My brother Eric is also a photographer, and a very good one. I guess we're lucky in that our parents took pride in what we did, and didn't try to make us become lawyers or bankers.

I didn't know your brother was a photographer. This Eric Baden

Yep.

It's unusual that you and your brother both went into photography. Someone just posted a question on Flak Photo about that, asking about sibling pairs in photo history. Not many turned up. The Turnleys, The Capas, The Westons, The Bisson Brothers. The Starns. Compare that to music where siblings wind up together in bands all the time. Weird.  

Yeah, I'm not sure I can think of a reason for that, but music, especially rock and roll, blues and jazz, is a more active pursuit in a way. Bands necessitate collaboration. Until recently, photography has been a relatively solitary pursuit.

Do you see any connection between your interests in archeology and photography?

The obvious connection is that they are both ways of preserving the past. From a practical point of view, the archaeologist uncovers the past. From a philosophical point of view, the photographer, upon taking the picture, turns present into past. My childhood fascination with archaeology was because I imagined it to be a romantic, adventurous pursuit. At that time I was more concerned with uncovering the past than in preserving it. Ironically, photography’s ability to preserve the past has become increasingly important to me.

What happened after you left archeology? You switched to a photo major? What stuff were you looking at or influenced by at the time?

I was very fortunate in this regard. First, I was in the honors program at school, which meant that I had more latitude in the courses I could take.  There were two professors —one in Music History, and one in Art— who apparently had faith in me, and at the beginning of each semester I would just walk into one of their offices, tell them what courses I wanted to take, and they'd make all the red tape disappear. 

Second, I was around when the non-profit Light Work Visual Studies started. I remember the summer between my junior and senior year I was pouring cement on a construction job and was fired because I was working too slowly. The next day, I went to "The Community Darkrooms", as it was called at the time, and plunked down however much it cost to become a member. The rest of that summer I was considerably poorer but infinitely happier. Light Work was probably the most helpful and important institutional influence on me as a photographer. At Syracuse University, there was the Newhouse School of Communications, which had plenty of photo courses, but they put heavy emphasis on the technical and were visually pretty conservative, and the Art school was just getting it's act together. Light Work was an almost miraculous alternative to all that. 

While I was there it was run by Phil Block (who eventually went to ICP) and Tom Bryan, both just average students who together acted with a synergistic, selfless genius in creating a facility and a community where people like me would receive both stimulus and support. They started an artist-in-residence program, and between that and people who came to do workshops, I met Gene Smith, Clarence John Laughlin, Roger Mertin, Cal Kowal, Adal Maldonado, Joan and Nathan Lyons, Charles Gatewood, Larry Fink, Burk Uzzle and I'm sure a number of others whose names escape me at the moment but were equally influential. 

Undoubtedly the photographer in this group who had the most profound influence on me was Joseph Jachna. We were almost opposites in personality but he immediately recognized something in my work, and we formed some kind of uncategorizable bond. I remember when Tom and Phil brought him in and were showing him around, I was at the dry mount press, flattening a stack of prints from the 1975 trip. Joe glanced at the picture on the top of the stack and said "I'll trade you for that". I was flabbergasted, but that's what started it. A couple of years later, Joe asked me to apply to University of Illinois at Chicago Circle, where he taught, for an MFA. It was the only place I applied.

My roots, as I touched on earlier, have always been on the street. And I suppose that's the sort of work I did from '72 (I dropped out of college for a semester, hitchhiked to California, then traveled down through Mexico, into Peru; that's when I really started to photograph seriously) through 1975. However, I'd always been attracted to photographs that had a mystery to them, and a darkness, both tonally and metaphorically. I think that's one thing Joe and I had in common. 

Here's the print that Joe wanted to trade for. 

Wall Drug, South Dakota, 1975
I made it on the road in 1975 at Wall Drug, South Dakota. I recall Joe saying that he didn't know what the black shapes in the background were (a bucking horse) but he saw the silhouettes of two lovers. Of course I had been entirely unaware of that figure-ground paradox until he mentioned it. So my pictures gradually darkened and, perhaps only to me, became more mysterious.

"My pictures gradually darkened"? Can you elaborate?

When I said "darkened", I said "both tonally and metaphorically". I was drawn to a sense of mystery, anticipation, something hidden. At the time, I responded to Minor White's work, also Dave Heath, George Krause, Ralph Gibson... 

Cemetery, Long Island, NY, 1974









Graduation, Hamilton, NY, 1973


There were a number of people like that. Sort of odd, because over the years one comment I keep getting is that my pictures are funny. I can see that, although I don't consciously set out to make funny pictures; it's just something I respond to. But I also think that humor is a response to darkness; a way of dealing with fear. If there was no pain or fear or discontent in the world, I don't think we'd have humor. There'd be no subject matter for jokes.

What was the last photograph that made you laugh out loud?
  
Can't recall specifically, but I'm certain it had to do with Trump.

You mentioned earlier "the arc" of your photographic career over 45 years. How do you think your style of seeing has changed over that time period? 

I don't know if I'm the best person to answer that question, but I'll tell you what comes to mind: As I mentioned earlier, my photographic roots are on the street. So, from say '72-3 through '75, the pictures were taken out in the world. The work shifted, conceptually and visually, in 1976 with the Thermograph series which, even though I still walked around with a 35mm camera and Tri-X film, moved more towards what John Szarkowski would have called the Mirror end of the spectrum (this is explained in more detail in the catalog essay from that series).

From 1976 through the 1980s, the work I put out for exhibition or publication was almost always manipulated in some way (ancillary lenses, toning, cliché-verre, multiple printing, collage..), although it was also always silver-based. 
From the series Self-Images, 1978-1980
From the series Contact Sheet Self-Portraits, 1980

From the series Cliché-Verre and Shadow Pictures, 1978-9

At the same time, I would usually have a camera with me, and so I continued to make straight images out in the world, albeit with less direction and focus.

This changed gradually, beginning in about 1987. A photographer friend and I drove the length of Florida's east coast, just making pictures. This was the first time in a decade that I was photographing in a documentary mode with some sort of conscious intent. I was also entering my mid-30s —i.e., middle age— and had a body of work that stretched back 15 years. Looking through some of those contact sheets, I realized at the time that the images on them were a sort of proof of where I had been and what I had been doing at various times in my life, and this became important to me. When you start out photographing, you're mostly just trying to make an interesting picture, but by the time you've been doing it for a while, you realize that you've made a record. Most of us reflect, from time to time, on where we've been —geographically, socially, ideologically, spiritually— and photographs can prod memory and enhance that process.

From the series Sex, Death and the History of Photography, 1989-90
As time passed, this realization began to take up more and more room in my psyche, and by 1990, I realized that the pendulum was swinging back to making photos that represented, and commented on, something in the world, and more specifically something out of my life. I started photographing in science and history museums (Museum Studies 1988 - '90), and even though it's one of my least-known bodies of work and, to be frank, I still don't think I've nailed the subject matter, the process of photographing in these institutions was revelatory to me in that it allowed me to see that my childhood dream of being an archaeologist was the result of being a kid with an overactive imagination in the 1950s, watching movies like Cleopatra, The Mummy and House of Wax, coupled with many family excursions to the Museum of Natural History, the Met, the Cloisters and the Smithsonian. I had an entirely romantic, intrepid view of what in reality was an exacting, painstaking science.

from the series Museum Studies, 1988-90









I had also been in a serious relationship since 1986. My partner and I got married and our daughter was born in 1994. Not unlike others of my gender, I was both thrilled and terrified to be a parent. I photographed to mitigate my anxiety (The Kid, 1993-4 and In Our House, 1994-6). 

from the series In Our House, 1994-6




By this time I was aware that I wanted the record. In 2000 when I received a cancer diagnosis (A Hair Above Normal, and A Long Year, 2000-2001), I needed to photograph; it helped me get through treatment.

from the series, A Hair Above Normal, 2006
I wish I was even remotely as good a photographer as, say, Lee Friedlander; I'll have to settle with being several rungs below on the ladder, but there is one thing I believe we have in common: We both photograph anything we can get away with, all the time. As often as not, I recognize a body of work by looking through contact sheets or memory cards, rather than by pre-conception. Personally, I think this method of working puts me out of sync with whatever is the current vogue, but for now it's what feels right.

What photographs have been stuck in your mind lately? By either yourself or others.

I do think about photography a lot, but I don't usually think in terms of individual photographs, or even specific bodies of work. My brain is often swimming in images, and even though they can jump out at me, it's hard to pick one or even ten. I try to look at as much stuff as I can, and I'm always interested, including in much of the stuff I don't quite understand. I can tell you that I have been paying a lot of attention to contemporary street photography over the past decade, not only because my work is often in that ballpark, but because I simultaneously love it and fear that, at least in its traditional form, it is a threatened genre. Aside from the old masters, living or dead, I don't think there are enough exhibition opportunities for that sort of work. I don't know many curators who think in that direction.

What are some one of places you see street photos? Online? Or in books? Or in exhibitions? Are there specific sites you follow? 

At this point I'd say the bulk of the work I see is online, followed by books. I don't follow sites religiously; there is just too little time. Exhibitions, not as much as I’d like. 

What do you mean when you say street photography is a threatened genre? 

I think the traditional notion of street photography is threatened on at least two fronts: First, everyone now has a camera, so at least in terms of reportage, there is a huge field, ranging from amateurs who are in the right place at the right time, to more committed photographers who are trying to report on a situation. Second, the general public, at least in my experience, has become more wary, not to say paranoid, in reaction to someone walking down the street with a camera, framing the world as he or she sees it. The paradox in this, of course, is that most of us are on camera most of the time, through local, state, federal and corporate surveillance devices. I'm pretty confidant that photographing in a public space is first amendment free speech, and I worry that in the current climate, that free speech is in danger of being eroded.

We all learn in high school civics that democracy is not perfect, and in order to have certain rights and freedoms, we have to give other things up. We are entitled to privacy in private places, but if we lose the right to photograph in a public space, it constitutes a foot in the door to censor other types of free speech. Historically as well as in contemporary times, this is one of the first steps taken by any government that wants full control of its population.

How does everyone having a camera threaten street photography? Wouldn't that tend to strengthen it?

What I think is threatened is not street photography itself, but photography as a learned, studied practice. I am not saying this is a bad thing, but it is a paradigm shift; one that hasn't happened since the invention of the small format camera, 100 years ago.

from the series Beauty And The Beast
I don't say there will be a dilution of quality; I do think there will be a change in the nature of street photography, though I'm not smart enough to say what that will look like. Part of this paradigm shift will be the effect of group suspicion on the person(s) taking pictures. It has become increasingly difficult in my experience, which is from the early '70s to now.

I realize that legally street photography is protected expression (at least in U.S.). How do you view it from an ethical standpoint? Do you have any ethical concern over the capture of unwitting or reluctant subjects in public? Is pointing a camera at a stranger always ethically OK? 

I find myself thinking about Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, and how it applies to this: To observe something changes the thing observed. The known presence of the photographer affects the images, as a result of the subjects feelings about that presence.

What if the presence of a photographer creates antagonism in the subject? Does the photographer bear any responsibility? I know from some of your anecdotes that you've dealt with situations like this, as have I. All street photographers do, but it often gets dismissed under the cover of first amendment rights, etc. What about viewed simply as people moving through the world trying to be nice? Is street shooting nice? 

The ethics part of it is a stickier wicket, and in the end I believe is a personal decision, by each photographer about each subject. This is an enormous issue, with many moving parts; really an interview in itself. In recent times, the complexity has been compounded by Photoshop, various social media apps  and of course social media. The photograph of a vulture near a starving child by the South African photographer Kevin Carter became the source of a firestorm of criticism, and, though other factors were most certainly involved, Carter ended up committing suicide. As we speak, there is a huge controversy concerning a Dana Schutz painting of Emmet Till in his open coffin. Different medium, and not a highly representational style of painting, but the nature of the conflict is germane to this conversation. I need to repeat; it is a personal decision, both to take the picture and to make it public. I have made many images that, due to their subject matter, may never see the light of day. Criticism and dialogue are important and welcomed. A priori censorship is not.

Yup, I was just reading a few essays about Schutz this morning.

With the passage of time, if an image is important, its importance is usually recognized. It's very difficult to say in the heat of the moment what is right and what is wrong. Are there any images from the history of photography that you wish hadn’t been taken?

I agree ethics applies to all arts, and with no easy answers. I'm most interested in it as it applies to shooting strangers because that's what I do. So I've thought a lot about this and still not sure where I stand. I think there may be some truth to the old folk tale that photographing someone steals a part of their soul. Whether you're shooting a lost tribe, your best friend, or a passing pedestrian, there's a power dynamic that's hard to escape. When you aim a camera at someone on the street you're assuming a position of power over them. 

Again, speaking personally, I find that I have to consciously try to purge the insecurity and ambivalence when I shoot. It really gets in the way. These days, I think the power dynamic works both ways. For three consecutive summers, I worked on a series called "Rising". You may have some familiarity with it. I stood in one spot during specific times of the day and essentially photographed people heading in my direction as they exited from public transportation. I was on public property, entirely within my rights, was not aggressive; just stood almost passively, about 30 feet away, and shot from chest level with a small camera.

If, after 2 hours, I had been yelled at a dozen times, cursed at 10 times, shoved 4 times and had the police called on me, I would call that an average day. I was more than happy to answer anyone’s questions and to explain what I was doing. In addition to carrying a satchel full of announcements, reviews, sample photographs, a resume and a letter written on Boston College stationary describing the project, I also had a letter from the Deputy Superintendent of Cambridge Police, explaining that I was OK and should be left to my work. Even with all that, the only difference was that the cops became my friends and allies. Every time I headed for that location, I would take deep breaths and try to focus (street photography is inherently athletic; even if you’re not moving much, you need to be quick and you need to anticipate and be prepared. Doesn't take much to knock you out of the zone). In the end, the work was exhibited, the show was a success in terms of reviews and sales.  The focus of the audience was entirely on the pictures, very little if any on what was involved in taking them.

From the series Rising, 2013 - 2015

So you felt a reverse power dynamic at times, like a victim?

In fact I did at times feel a reverse dynamic, but then that was in my head, just as a potential subject's paranoia is in their head.

Yes a lot of it is mental and/or imagined. But I also think some people have legitimate concerns rooted in deeper reasons. There's the famous Philip-Lorca diCorcia case. An Orthodox Jew might object to being photographed. I just watched a Dougie Wallace video in which he shoots a group of Muslim women in hijabs despite their obvious displeasure, then ignores them when they try to argue their point. I don't think these concerns can be totally dismissed.

Look at examples from photo history, from Lartigue, Kertesz, Cartier-Bresson, up through Helen Levitt, Elliott Erwitt, Lee Friedlander, Winogrand, and more recently Alex Webb, Jeff Mermelstein, et al. When you see the pictures in a book, gallery, magazine, museum, do you or other onlookers wonder what their subjects thought about being subjects? In my experience, this rarely comes up; the photographs transcend such matters.

You could say time heals all wounds.

In PL diCorcia's case it was first amendment freedom of speech that carried the verdict.

But that circles right back to the legal vs ethical thing again. Legally fine. Ethically?

I agree with that ruling. What I am trying to say is that there are some things that are just too important to mess with in a free society (I use that term with caution, naturally, due to our current circumstances). And to have those rights and freedoms, as crucial and important as they are, has meant that we've had to loosen up on some things that may be embarrassing or make us feel uncomfortable. The rest is a matter of personal ethical standards. Don't forget, one can always be sued, as was Arne Svenson. Looking at the pictures, I can't help but wonder what all the fuss was about.

I actually think these concerns help fuel photography as an art and give it some edge over some other art form that can be created at safe remove from society. The fact that photographers must go out and interact physically with the world is such a powerful component. Maybe that's why I'm less interested in computer generated photos or Google Street View or conceptual projects that can be thought up or created anywhere. The interaction with "reality" is what interests me most.

Personally, I don't have a problem with PL's ethics on that image. Look back to Walker Evans' and Harry Callahan's close ups of faces in the street. True, no Hasidic Jews as I recall, but I don't think there'd be as much of a fuss if there were. If they're forbidden to be photographed by religious edict, why did they allow Leonard Freed, Abraham Menasche and many others to photograph them? I think it boils down to matters of convenience, money, and being in the wrong place at the wrong time, with someone in the wrong mood.

When you think about it —or at least when I think about it— virtually NOTHING describes the world like photographing the world. Look at how our view of where we live expanded when technology allowed us to see life on the streets in all its chaos and complexity... really, my chief concern should be whether my work is good enough to add anything..

Now you get into even tougher territory. How do you decide if your work is "good"?

I do the work. I make so many "bad" pictures, I hope I’m not wasting my time; but while I think about what’s "good" in terms of what I let people see, my opinions about quality don't really draw much water in the long view. As I said, I can only hope. I put out what I think is worth putting out, then go back to taking pictures.

From the series Roadside Attraction, 2012 - ongoing
Do you ever foresee a time in the future when general paranoia about cameras and surveillance will lead to an alteration regarding U.S. public photography laws? I realize forecasting the future is inexact but what's your best guess prognosis?

We both agree that my opinion is just my opinion. The legal situation may, in fact, shift, particularly in view of what I view as possible goals of the current administration. Obviously I hope that does not turn out to be the case, now or ever. If it does, you will find me on the ramparts, with cameras. Once again, a "shift" can be seen as a a foot in the door to larger, more meaningful free speech issues than street photography.

Trump is going to move against free speech? He definitely has the press in his cross hairs. Not sure if street photographers are on his radar yet.

I have no idea whether Trump will move against free speech in the Constitution. Clearly, I hope he's out of office before he has the chance to do any more damage than he already has. That said, I would not be surprised at anything he does. I doubt if he even knows or cares what street photography is as a genre. But he certainly knows who paparazzi are. And it's as simple as: he likes those who make him look good, and dislikes those who make him look bad. Not much principle involved there.

You made a passing comment about some of your photographs which might "never see the light of day." If you don't mind my asking, why wouldn't you show them?

The photos I may never show are of delicate subject matter, and they don’t get public exposure out of respect to their subjects. Nevertheless, they are all part of things that happened to me, all part of my life; I am grateful to have taken them and would not have it any other way.

Which street photographs or photographers have you seen lately that excite you? Which things happening now in street photography strike you as fresh or different?

Well, certainly people like Doug Rickard and Mishka Henner have caught my attention, simply for presenting a new, fairly radical (but logical) way of looking at the world through a lens. But out in the real world, I admire Jeff Mermelstien's work, and that of Mike Brodie, Melanie Einzig, Carolyn Drake, Peter van Agtmael, Jason Eskenazi… I'm sure I'm leaving out dozens... There are a couple of older real-world photographers who I think are deserving of more attention: Bill Burke, Chris Killip and Jack Lueders-Booth come to mind immediately. Although these last few don't photograph so much these days. Antoine d'Agata and Jim Goldberg are still out there, taking risks, particularly with subject matter.

Earlier in our chat you made a reference to Szarkowski's Mirrors/Windows. You said you you've pendulumed between the two instincts throughout your career. I'm wondering which instinct you feel closer to now. And which one do you think best represents street photography. It seems most of the photographers you just mentioned are in the Mirror camp, but maybe I'm misreading.

No, I think it's a misread. With the exception of Rickard and Henner, all the photographers I just mentioned are for me  in the Windows camp. Their work may be more personal, less reportage than their equivalents in the past, but certainly no more personal than Robert Frank, who was Szarkowski's Windows poster boy. For the sake of discussion I will put my current work in that category as well. I find myself considerably more interested in my place within the world than with navel-gazing.




I think the trick with street photography is to show yourself by photographing what's around you. Shooting the outer world full of strangers and shadows, on the face of it nothing could be closer to Windows. But at the higher levels it comes closer to Mirrors.

I understand what you're saying, and I don't disagree, but after all these years it's enough for me to just make the pictures. Discovery is more often a posteriori. I've certainly learned about myself through photography, but that usually comes during or after the process, not before. Perhaps that's just me.

What have you learned about yourself?

I've learned that I'm a closet romantic, as are most cynics, according to the adage.

(All photographs above by Karl Baden)