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Photographer Karl Baden has employed a selection of his photographs to create a unique contemporary tribute to two iconic 20th century photographers in his new book, The Americans by Car. No guideposts are necessary to enjoy the serendipitous moments he expertly nabs, but if you share Baden’s love of photographic history, you’ll be rewarded with a deeper appreciation of this superb paean. Baden’s photographs enlighten both individually and as a larger narrative, enticing the viewer with fulsome, colorful impact, then intriguing us with subtle visual and cultural puzzles that engage the mind. Here, Baden offers his responses to my inquiries about his new book.
What precipitated this inspired tribute to two of the most influential photographers of the 20th Century, Robert Frank and Lee Friedlander, using your archived photographs?
I’ve always had an interest in the history of photography and, going back to 1981, I’ve produced at least three bodies of work – two are photographic, one involves book covers (CoveringPhotography.com)– which directly reference ‘iconic’ images and/or photographers in the pantheon, so to speak. The inspiration for The Americans by Car came from a photograph of a Boston tourist trolley I made from my car back in 2012. It’s the picture on the cover of the book. This photo, like most I make, was taken very quickly, so I had no thoughts about it at the time. Looking at it later, however, I was pretty quickly reminded of the cover image on Frank’s book, The Americans. I guess a subconscious seed was planted. Even then, it was another 3 or 4 years before the overall concept formed in my mind. I’d been working on another book and was having a hard time with image sequencing, so I figured I’d switch off to this, because the sequence was already established. From then on it was a just a matter of plowing ahead until I got it out of my system.
What qualities do you admire most about the work of Frank and Friedlander?
I’m part of the generation of photographers that ‘grew up’ admiring – or at least reacting to – the work of Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander, Diane Arbus and the rest of that crowd. Visually speaking, they were my teachers, and they were touted by my actual real-world teachers as being important, Robert Frank in particular. What caught my eye initially about Frank was that his work was so different than most photography that was admired at the time. Compared to the work of the really popular photographers, say Ansel Adams and the f/64 group, Frank’s images seemed almost defiantly bad. They were grainy, off-kilter, dark and not particularly sharp. At the same time, they were hauntingly beautiful; mysterious without the clichéd theatrics of mystery. The Americans was not an easy nut for me to crack, and that has been a good thing, because I’ve never exhausted it. Almost every time I look at it, I find something I hadn’t noticed, or I’d noticed but glossed over and missed the complexity.
I feel a little more comfortable with Friedlander; he’s less brooding and insular than Frank, but that’s not to say his work is necessarily easier. Looking at Friedlander’s photographs has always provided great pleasure for me because of the way he understands photographic space and tonality. I don’t know of anyone who does it better. When I first heard that his book America by Car was to be released, I thought, “Great. I’ve always loved Friedlander’s car pictures”. I was expecting a retrospective of oldies but goodies going back to the early 1960s. But when I finally saw the book, and realized that here was this photographer – at the books publication he was entering his late 70s – who had actually wiped the slate clean, started over and produced a body of I don’t know how many photographs but it was a lot – that, in my judgment, represent some of his most accomplished work. I was just astonished. I’m not saying it’s groundbreaking, although it may in fact be, but it is without doubt excellent work from a virtuoso who, 50 years ago, helped break the ground to begin with.
To my eye, your work veers from Frank and Friedlander in its intensification of compositional complexity and (obviously, since they shot in B&W) colorful punch, both of which create a sense of dynamic tension that mimics our culture and, in many cases, introduces a good dose of irony. In what ways do you think the photographs you’ve chosen for this book amend and revise Frank and Friedlander’s visions of America?
Good question, but one that makes me nervous, as I am hardly in a league with these two gentlemen, and I’m not sure I can make a claim to meaningful amendment or revision. What I am able to tell you is that, in conceptual terms, The Americans by Car is a personal, more specific answer to the vague question of ‘how are we influenced’; which is why, for the most part, it consists of photographs I made before I had the idea for the book. I wanted to go through the car images I’d been making and exhibiting since about 2010 or 2011 – a few of the pictures date back to the late 1990s – and see how much I may have been subconsciously or unconsciously influenced by these photographers whose work I soaked up like a sponge when I was in my twenties. And to that extent, this project references the process of influence, absorption and learning that all artists experience.
That said, I can also tell you that on a number of occasions while putting this together, I intentionally chose images that I saw as ‘cultural updates’ to The Americans; in terms of semiotics, for instance; digital replacing analog. Frank’s ‘Bank – Houston, Texas’ has been swapped for an ATM. Perhaps the revisions are most evident where Frank is dealing with pictures within pictures.
For example, his photograph of a drive-in movie… well, now we watch movies on screens inside our cars. And his photo of a woman and her screen image in a television studio is now a man and his screen image from a surveillance camera. Finally, what has happened to Frank’s ubiquitous jukebox? Of course you can still find them as retro curiosities – many are quite beautiful – but now we carry 100 times the number of tunes on the most comprehensive jukebox in our phones or on iPods not much larger than a quarter.
Your photographs and the premise of this entire book seem both reverent and irreverent. What role does humor play in your work?
“Reverent and irreverent” sounds about right. I might take a line out of context from Oscar Wilde: “Yet each man kills the thing he loves…” And, yeah, the humor… I’m fond of a quote from Arrivals & Departures, a book of Garry Winogrand’s airport photographs. Winogrand is at Rice University, and is addressing a student who’d asked him what art is. Winogrand, a great fan of puns but not of questions, says:
“Art makes you question your conceptions. That’s what puns do. You don’t really laugh at a pun because anything’s funny. You laugh because you realize you’re not getting killed. Basically, a pun upsets you. Language is basic to your existence and a pun calls into question what you believe a word means and you laugh out of relief.”
Humor does seem to play a role in my work: parody, irony, satire, the whole nine yards. It’s not necessarily intentional. I don’t go out thinking, “I’m gonna make some really funny pictures today.” In my case it’s just the nature of the beast. I might add, and you can find me saying this in other conversations and interviews, that, among its purposes, humor is essentially and historically a means of dealing with fear and pain.
This is not to say I’m the most fearful person; it’s more like, as Garry Winogrand implies, humor can be a very serious matter.
For more information and to order this book, go to: http://americansbycar.blogspot.com
Feature Image by Karl Baden (courtesy of the artist and Miller Yezerski Gallery, Boston).