In 2009, when Jeff Baker retired from a 35-year career as a commercial photographer in New York City, he moved back to his hometown, Dallas, and began to feel directionless. He also began to feel portents of death in the form of three serious diseases: atrial fibrillation, macular degeneration in his left eye and prostate cancer. One day, he sought advice from his mother, Edith Baker, one of the first fine art dealers in Dallas. "I've been waiting for this day," she said. She walked over to her desk, pulled out a pack of Pall Malls, lit a cigarette, took a puff, and said, "It's time for you to be an artist."
"I knew I was going to take her up on it," Baker says, "[But I thought], 'Now what.'"
Baker studied photography at University of Texas at Austin in the 1970s under Gary Winogrand. Regular visitors to the campus for lectures and critiques included Walker Evans, Lee Friedlander and John Szarkowski. For an up-and-coming Baker, photography had always been useful for documentation, as well as self-expression. But he'd pursued a commercial path in NYC, working with photographer Howard Berman at his company Beehive. Now, 40 years later, he had the skills but needed to find a new perspective.
He called his first series of art photographs Portraits of the Inventors. Instead of photographing people, he took black and white glamour shots of their tools. He was interested, he says, in the idea that invention is the end result of what you have and what you need. The series included kitchen tools, farming equipment and the like. He imbued the tools with drama and personality, playing with light and shadows.
"When I started shooting these things, I wanted to be as pure and basic as possible," says Baker. "Plus it spoke the idea that photography as we know it came from the Arts and Crafts movement."
In the late 19th century, this movement started in Britain as a reaction to the decorative arts and the harrowing conditions of the factory line. It renewed emphasis on the value of hand-made products from furniture to bookmaking. Eventually photography also fell into the movement. For Baker, photographing these early hand-held tools was a reminder of the primacy of creation.
The next big shift in Baker's pursuit of artistry happened during summers spent in New York City. When he was working there, he operated at a rushed pace, darting through the streets — or underneath them — from one shoot to another. Returning without an agenda, he walked more slowly, photographing things that caught his eye. Usually, he was stopping for graffiti.
"I was asking myself the question, 'What do you want to say?'" Baker says. "I had the technical chops but I had to develop a new language."
When a patch of graffiti caught his eye, Baker would step closer. If not for the hints of the place he allowed in the images – frames of brick or a glimpse of a door — they might appear entirely abstracted. It was around this time that a friend gave Baker a tool that would become integral to his artistic process: an inkjet printer. The precision of color and 3-dimensionality possible from the individual tiny jets led to a new style. Suddenly, the photographic prints look like mixed media collages. If a flier or a sticker peels up in a photo it appears tactile, beckoning the viewer to reach in and rip it off. His process creates lush, painterly images, the layers of paint so vivid they sometimes seem applied to the photograph after its's been printed. As such, appearances of text or recognizable characters or symbols seem to be Baker's messages, rather than the artists who colored the wall first.
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"For me, photography will also be a tool of documentation first and foremost," says Baker, who can count on one hand the amount of times he's used Photoshop to manipulate an image's subject matter. For him, knowing what to document and how to frame it is where the art comes in. "It's also the luxury of time. Being able to stop when something catches your eye and you just know it's the photo you want to take."
Early on in this series, he found the recurring motif of doorknobs and locks, which interested him because in the gentrifying neighborhoods of Manhattan like the Lower East Side and the Meatpacking District, even the crummiest corners contained something of value for its residents. Much of that work was exhibited in a show at Conduit Gallery in 2015. Later, he found himself drawn to grids, like those in windows or in the chain link fences on construction sites. Not only did the visual layers add natural drop shadows to the images, they also did the work of both framing and obscuring the image of whatever they protected. He brought this interest in grids — perhaps a natural photographer's interest — back to Dallas with him and he'll take it to Taos, New Mexico, when he moves there with his partner, Catherine Horsey, next month.
He's certain he won't fall into the landscape photography that an oasis like Taos attracts. On one of his first trips out there with Horsey, he was driving along a frozen road at night. When he stopped at a gas station, he whipped out his camera and pointed it at the ground. He captured an image of a bulbous sheet that looks almost scientific, as though he were examining something microscopic.
"What I'm really interested in," says Baker, "is how to make a photograph not look like a photograph."