“Don’t Burn the Toast”
I’m a product of the Inland Empire in Southern California. Most of my childhood took place in Riverside, CA with a few formative years occurring in a housing development against the San Bernardino foothills. The San Bernardino house was consumed by a wildfire a few years ago, as was much of the scrubby desert foothills were my father used to hike with my sister and I. I remember the Santa Ana winds being relentless there; they would whip under the eaves of the house and make this incessant high-pitched whine for months at a time. It comes as no surprise that those same winds contributed to the inferno that ate that particular housing development: it always felt like a place that wasn’t meant to exist.
The years spent in Riverside seemed rosier. We knew our neighbors and, quite unlike most suburban children these days, we were allowed a bit of latitude to roam about on our bikes. Both my parents worked full time and were fairly liberal in terms of education and perception. Dinner conversations were always conducted at their level and my sister and I were simply expected to rise to their complexity of discourse. Consequently, we were in a persistent state of striving to articulate our ideas with clarity and wit. I doubt we succeeded all that often, but the compulsion to try was probably more important than anything we might have said or felt at the time.
I grew up with two parents at a time when many of my friends were dealing with divorces. Many people jokingly referred to us as “The Cleavers.” It wasn’t uncommon though that such a joke was made with a bit of longing in the voice and I always felt saddened at what I naively perceived to be the lack of commitment in the adult world. Even then I perceived a sort of shiftless, faithless, tendency being engendered by the modern world. This might be one of the most important assumptions I’ve made in terms of my preoccupations and decisions as an artist.
When did you start taking photographs?
I began taking photographs when I moved away from Southern California. I moved back in with my parents (who had relocated to Oregon) and met Paul Gentry, a fantastic jack-of-all-artistic-trades, who offered to teach me the basics of constructing pinhole cameras. My first photographs were taken with converted VHS boxes and developed on top of a washer and dryer in a closet-sized laundry room. I’ll never forget watching those first prints flash to life under the red light and hastily trying to throw them in the stop bath before they went completely black. “Don’t burn the toast.” became my photographic mantra for some time as I worked out the technical side of pinhole exposures. Paul and I would spend countless hours wandering the Willamette Valley taking pictures and, in that year prior to art school, I probably netted more successful images than in all of the years that have passed since. In art school, I took many photography classes, but in some ways, they tainted my ability to be completely open to unpredictability. That little bit of knowledge about ideal negatives and prints robbed me of the capacity to appreciate a more random sort of beauty. I’ve been trying to find my way back to those exhilarating moments of naiveté ever since.
In your work you often do mixed media, lots of drawing and photography, how did you arrive at this process?
There’s a short, and rather jaded, answer to that question or a longer, more earnest, response. I suppose I’ll offer both.
In college, I was awarded a commission to produce a drawing or painting for the annual fund-raising auction on behalf of the Drawing Department. I understood that the intent of the fund-raiser was to make money for the school and, therefore, that anything too avant-garde would be less likely to sell. Out of a sense of obligation, I sat down one night and really attempted to analyze how I might go about creating the most shamelessly beautiful image that I could muster while still retaining a bit of my own personal proclivities. I settled on developing a drawing derived from a pinhole image I’d taken that would utilize an “antiqued” color palette as well as the symmetrical harmony of a grid. As the drawing developed over the course of the weeks I found myself completely enthralled with the idea of manufacturing a commodity. When it sold for a respectable price on auction night I felt like I’d cracked some sort of code, and that a foolproof recipe for beauty wasn’t just some sort of cerebral exercise relegated to the ivory tower of the conceptual artist.
That’s the short answer.
The longer answer is that after I graduated from art school I had to return to Southern California and I found myself blocked. My entire thesis experience had been very heady — I’d been looking at the spiritual ramifications of the digital age and had been working in a variety of media. But once away from the cloistered experience of art school I fell prey to the demands of a real life and became…artless, I suppose. I couldn’t settle on any one direction and ended up growing so frustrated with my mounting collection of incomplete projects that I just stopped creating.
Eventually, I began to look back through all the work I’d produced; reflecting on their relative value. And I don’t mean monetary value, I mean that I wanted to uncover when my joy for creating had been most earnest and pure, which may seem like a very wistful undertaking, but it brought me back to those first experiences with pinhole photography. I missed the wandering about and the egoless approach to capturing images.
With this realization, I then looked at what I felt was the most limiting aspect of pinhole: it was never scaled quite right to fully accentuate its most sublime qualities. Matchbook-sized contact prints or increasingly thin enlargements just seemed incapable of expressing the magnitude of an intangible quantity of light writing a bit of time onto a physical surface. In order to really convey that quality I felt that the human hand would have to act as an intermediary…so I picked up charcoal and gesso again.
You used an interesting phrase “spiritual ramifications of the digital age”, care to expand on that? How do you think spirituality influences your work?
I’m not a Luddite, but I do look upon the digital revolution as a potential gateway to disconnected experience. I cannot embrace you or look into your eyes over the Internet. A blog post doesn’t offer me a way to run my hand over the raised ink of a printed page and think about the process that brought a particular book into my bed that night: how a writer’s idea was valued enough to take down trees and turn the drums of noisy machines half a world away before it shipped into my hands and thoughts. Technology offers me no real intimacy, no spiritual closeness, and no haptic reward.
I don’t value the anonymity of bits and bytes: I believe that people should take ownership of their experiences, words, and creations — I believe those things should be offered up to the world with integrity and care. To hide behind an avatar is morally irresponsible.
Were we further along in our evolution as a species I might see value in the speed with which we can now transmit our thoughts, but at this point, that speed primarily promotes the dissemination of vacuous and trivial information. If I can post anything I want on my blog why should I take the time to actually craft my thoughts? The entire digital revolution is so biased towards the immediate moment that it ignores the future and spurns the past. As an artist—as a photographer— I value a longer temporal picture, and I remain wary of the impermanence of the digital age.
After having been raised in a household that values faith and the ethical standards that are intrinsically a part of religious faith I found the self-centered, uncritical, and consumerist expansion of cyberspace to be profoundly alarming. At the same time, I could see beyond the baser surface of the web’s development and realize that the technology itself held many profound promises for sharing experiences and inspiring creative inquiry. This duality became the crux of my thesis in college. After college, I found my preoccupations changed. Instead of considering the spiritual potential within technological advancement I started to look backward and consider my moral responsibility to respond to the complexity of creation; to the beauty of natural order and the world, we live in.
Why do you feel the human hand in an artwork is important? Or, outside of your own work, do you feel that it is important?
The presence of the human hand has a validating quality. Minutes, hours, and days of hand labor indicate a deep personal commitment to an image or object. Even non-artists understand that devoting time to something is, essentially, paying for its existence with your life.
The sudden swelling of the DIY (Do It Yourself)movement points to just how hungry we are for legitimizing our time with handwork. For many people now there seems to be this painful realization that television, bestsellers, and internet chat groups are tantamount to “trading your time for little-colored beads,” as David Mamet so wonderfully put it at a Portland lecture a few years ago, and the natural reaction is to will your hands to bring something into the world. I don’t remember who said that America was really a culture beholden to Death; that our products and our entertainment were so empty as to be just distracting corpses of imitated reality, but clearly there must be some truth to this or we wouldn’t see so many people striving to create now. Using your hands is an assertion of a life-giving energy that works counter to the embalmed consumerist goods we are being shouted at to buy day-in and day-out.
Who or what are some of your artistic inspirations?
How do you answer this question? Where do you start? I always wonder if people prepare a few pat answers to this so that they can’t be taken off guard.
I’m inspired by music, visual artists, writers, folktales, rituals, antiques, and world history. I have been lucky to develop relationships with some tremendously talented and inspiring individuals. In my day job, I’m called upon to know a great many things about a variety of subjects so I tend to be perpetually involved in research projects that often lead me along interesting tangents.
I won’t go so far as to say that I studiously avoid looking at the work of other visual artists, but as the years go by I grow increasingly paranoid about falling so in love with an image or conceptual idea that I will become ensnared by it. I understand my own inclinations towards mimicry and I employ avoidance as a means to fight against them. Nevertheless, there have been figures who’ve made a lasting impression on me. Among them are Leonard Baskin, Ann Hamilton, Anselm Kiefer, Sally Mann, Caravaggio, Robert ParkeHarrison, Frank Miller, Andres Serrano, Michelangelo, Michael Kenna, Allan McCollum, Jim Dine, Andrew Wyeth, Uta Barth, David Wilson, Richard Misrach, and Cy Twombly.
In terms of visual inspiration, I think I’m most taken with the early photographic experiments of the mid-1800’s and the flea market snapshot collections of family photographs from the first half of the twentieth century. I keep a collection of found photographs that I’ve dubbed the “Lost and Found” which serves as the basis for at least a third of the drawings I create. The idea of these anonymous images being mistaken for photographs I shot provides countless hours of happy contemplation about the veracity of memory and the historical record.
If you were mentoring a young photographer what would the first lesson be?
Don’t look. Don’t think. React. Experiment. Then edit.
Jeffrey T. Baker’s work can be viewed at www.jeffreytbaker.com