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Urbanautica

PHOTOTALK WITH PETER BAKER

BY MARCO RISTUCCIA

1. Tell me about your introduction into photography. I see you’re also a designer. How did you get started with photography and what’s the relationship (if any) with your work as a designer?

«I have degrees in both photography and graphic design. Graphic design was always my fallback, commercial art career, while photography had always been purely a creative pursuit. Rather than assisting photographers, which probably would’ve been a good idea, I made the rent by designing logos, magazines, and websites. And I think designing for print for so long absolutely informed my photography, especially compositionally. I saw things in terms of form and color, almost like I was conscious of where I was going to have to later place the type».

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2. In your works I can see a delicate and well balanced mix between social and environmental documentation. You often depict open breathing spaces, where few standing people appear calm, happy and stress-free. Not exactly the images that usually comes to us from the States. What are your methodological approach and intent? Who are the artists that most inspired you?

«I’m originally from a very small town in the midwest, and grew up in the countryside outside of that town. It was calm, to say the least. And after college when I was first shooting without structured university assignments, I was living in Chicago, where it’s not exactly easy to find yourself alone with your thoughts, and I was seeking out places that had a touch of the solitude I had been used to. And I think, sometimes unconsciously, I keep trying to depict that feeling elsewhere, especially in places where you’d never think you could find that sense of calm. 

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As for inspiring photographers, there’re too many to name them all, but off hand; Bryan Schutmaat is a big favorite, I wish his Western Frieze project was mine. If Noah Kalina wasn’t a friend, I’d hate him, the guy’s so prolific. Mark Wickens has an amazing eye and Hin Chua has really got it all figured out. And I’ve said it before, but Alec Soth haunts my dreams».

3. In your projects “Blissfield” and “The Great Lakes” I notice a contrast between beautiful landscapes, perfectly integrated wooden houses and simple people life in respect to the harsh iron matter of imposing industrial structures. Indeed I often see this in your works. Are you complaining of an environmental disaster or do you think that the two realities can coexist without problems? How do you see the future of your country?

«I think two competing aspects of the great lakes area – abundant natural and recreational resources amongst a once immeasurable industrial economy – has left the region with a really interesting juxtaposed visual aesthetic. The two realities have been coexisting for so long that people stop seeing it as anything but normal, so rather than just taking pictures of the parts we all agree are nice, I’d rather allow people to see it all».

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4. The use of the square format makes everything quite static, helping the viewer to slow down and spend more time on every single shot. I often notice that putting the subject on the center of a square frame works, aesthetically and purposefully, better than doing so with a rectangular one. Would you comment on this? Is your adoption of this format coming from love, habit or language choice?

«I’m not sure what originally drew me to square format. Some combination of the symmetry and order it allows, as well as just being different. There are interesting compositions that work well in a square that just don’t feel right in a rectangle of any shape. I didn’t really feel like I was doing anything right until I started seeing things through a waist-level Hasselblad, and then scenes just started clicking, and they were looking like how I had envisioned them. And now even when shooting other formats, I see the scene first as square. So I suppose it went from love, to language choice, and now habit. Shooting large format is helping me kick that habit a bit, but I still get the itch to crop them».

5. The work “Quietude” seems to relate to the previous argument. And this is a mood I feel in all your photographs. Is quietude something you are looking for or is it part of your personality? Does quietude necessarily imply human absence for you?

«I don’t think it necessarily has to require human absence, but it does imply an awareness of our surroundings. We tend to feel like something is only happening is something is REALLY happening, but even at it’s most still, our world is buzzing around us. Being bored is underrated, and being quiet is healthy».

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6. Did you see “The Straight Story” by David Lynch? Your photos remind me of the images on that film: a slow and quiet trip of an elderly man across a country street riding a lawnmower, with the aim to rejoin with his brother. Is this the essence of your country, and maybe even of your photography?

«I watched it recently as a result of you asking. I loved it. I don’t know about it being the essence of my country, but is sure did evoke some of the same emotions I feel when I’m photographing. Especially the scene where he sees a storm coming for miles and can’t do anything about it – the lawn mower can’t go any faster – but just as the rain starts to come down he manages to find an open barn to pull in to, which turns out to be the perfect place to watch the thunderstorm roll through».

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7. You are also an Art Director, let’s talk about exhibitions. How important is the editing and printing phase for your works? How much time and care you invest on this? Do you prefer small or large print sizes for your photos?

«I don’t spend enough time thinking about exhibiting, printing or displaying. I’m trying to get better at it, but once I’m done with a project in my mind, I immediately start thinking about the next one».

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8. What’s coming up for the future? Any new project in mind?

«I’ll be in Alaska for a while this summer, shooting the inner passage between the islands of the southern part of the state. And would like to continue working on what I’ve been shooting around Las Vegas and other southwestern US boom towns. But, like I said above, I need to do more with what I’ve already shot too».

© urbanauticaPeter Baker

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