“Traveling feeds that need of visual discovery for me.”
All photographs ©Peter Baker
Peter Baker is a graphic designer, programmer and photographer based in Michigan. I’ve admired his work for a few years now and have always been impressed with his level of consistency. If you follow his work, you’ll quickly learn that he’s a man on the move who always seems to be road tripping somewhere across the globe.
You’re a Michigan native whose made his way around the county. What was your initial inspiration for leaving Michigan, and where did you go first?
Everyone wants to leave their home “place” at some point. I first moved to Chicago in my early twenties, then San Francisco and Oakland, California for my late twenties. But as you live anywhere for a length of time, you start looking for greener pastures, and recently moving back to Michigan, having had some distance for a while, has really made me appreciate it like I never had before. Also, as my career has developed, and I have more and more control over my time and priorities, having a home-base in a relatively less expensive area of the country has let me travel more extensively and choose projects more selectively.
Is it safe to say travel plays a big role in your work? One thing I like about your work is that you’re consistently producing strong photographs, no matter where you maybe. Are you looking for certain things when you’re working, no matter the location? Have you found yourself in a new place and unable to find photographic material?
Definitely. Traveling feeds that need of visual discovery for me. I’m not sure that I look for certain things, but I definitely put myself in certain types places and look around. City edges, streets along-side highways, small towns mid-day, downtowns after hours… anywhere that might present something unexpected. Travel is just an extension of that, even if it’s only to the next town over. I’ve rarely not been able to find something worth taking a picture of, but I’m routinely frustrated that I don’t always take it.
Stephen Shore is obviously is a huge influence. I don’t shoot as much portraiture as I sometimes feel like I should, and looking at Uncommon Places again and again makes me feel fine with just being fascinated by places, sometimes peopled, sometimes not. I’m drawn photographers that are really good at summarizing an entire really-large scene in one photograph; Andreas Gursky, Edward Burtynsky, Gregory Crewdson.
Alec Soth haunts my dreams.
Funny, it was Sleeping by the Mississippi that first sparked my interest in photograph back in Minneapolis. A friend showed it to me. It was the first time I realized what photography really was all about.
I think he’s having that effect on a lot of photographers lately. He definitely sparked a certain aesthetic and story-telling style, along with a kind of poetic thoughtfulness that hasn’t been seen a lot recently.
Like most artists, I’m sure you feel the burden of influence at times. How do you overcome that? It’s funny you mention Crewdson and those guys because I never really feel them in your photographs so perhaps you’re well adept at shaking off their influence.
Hell, give me a million dollar budget and you might see a little more Crewdson in me.
But really, I guess I just don’t think about what I’ve seen before when I’m out shooting, and concentrate on what I’m currently looking at or for. Consciously avoiding your heroes is just as troublesome as actively duplicating them. Like, I love every one of Todd Hido’s night houses, but I still like to shoot some of my own.
Yeah, I struggle with photographing strangers, as I imagine a lot of photographers do, but they are always the best kind of subject. I think it’s just shyness, disguised as a principled desire to not “stage” the scene, even by just asking them to stand still for a minute.
I found your work early on when I was on Flickr. You’re also on Twitter and Tumblr as well. How do you think the web is changing photography? I know that many photographers kind of have a love/hate relationship with the web.
I’d say the web is changing photography in the same way it’s changing everything else; access to something new is easier then ever to find, and more likely it’s already been shoved in your face. I think trends begin and die on the web way too quickly, and influences can be determined and cited almost absurdly fast. Back to Alec Soth; I don’t think there’s a particularly unique look to his photos, and he certainly has his own influences, but it’s becoming really easy to write another photographers work off as Soth-style, because everyone is so familiar with his work, where as prior to the web, it may have taken years for a photographer to become that well known, through books and exhibitions.
But, that same effect is also really liberating, especially geographically. I don’t live in New York or LA, which, a few years ago, would not be a particularly wise choice career-wise. Now I’m not sure that matters as much (at least as far as my own career goes, different style of photographers still definitely need to be in the midst). With enough people spread over enough of the globe following my work, I feel like I have at least as much of an audience as I would living in a traditionally larger “market.” That being said, being the slow and steady type, and concentrating for too long on shooting and less on exhibiting, has probably been partly a result of not being in the epicenter of the market.
If there is one thing I *hate* about the web though; it just wastes so much of my time.
For me the web has been an invaluable because it’s allowed me to meet so many other photographers who have interesting ideas, and more importantly, a willingness to discuss and share their knowledge. Do you have a network of peers whom you discuss photography with? In real life? On the web?
Definitely, I’ve met a few photographers through talking online that I’m now tight friends in real life with. But at the same time, generally the online discussion of photography is pretty lacking, at least as far as old school crits go. There’s is plenty of decent discussion of photography as an art form, but I’d love to see a place for photographers to solicit a real critique of a project or a photo. Flickr had that potential, but the comments have turned into a pool of “Nice colors”, “She’s pretty,” or “What lens?” notes.
As much as I talk shit about it, there really is some great work being posted to Flickr. I also still love browsing the book stores and finding something I’ve never heard of. I follow a few more blogs than I’d like to admit, and keep a backlog list of photographers that catch my eye (both their photos and how they display them).
What are your goals for the future with photography? I sense there’s kind of a divide amongst passionate photographers who would fall into the fine art category. On the one hand you have the project oriented group who will play the game, going to portfolio reviews, submitting work to contests, applying for grants, etc. They seem to aiming for a career. On the other hand you have a kind of a new wave vernacular movement developing. Photographers who are passionate about it, and maybe project oriented but really have no deep ambition to climb the ladder. This dichotomy has probably always existed, but now with the web, the passionate amateurs have an outlet to show their work and connect with like minded people. I know that’s kind of a rambling theory but these days I can kind of tell the difference by looking at the work sometimes. It’s interesting.
I definitely see where you’re going with that, and definitely feel part of that new wave. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about this actually. I certainly don’t have a traditional photography career, and even hesitate to call myself a professional photographer, as I don’t make my entire living off photography. I am also a graphic designer and programmer, and have been freelancing independently for 6+ years now. The fact that photography is maybe a third of my income makes the question “what do you do?” harder to answer succinctly, but since I don’t have a “day job”, what’s the difference? I guess I wish Disney hadn’t already snagged “imagineer” because I can’t think of a better one-word job title for myself, and any other description would leave something important out.
I have degrees in both graphic design and photography, but never expected (nor necessarily wanted) to make a career solely as a commercial photographer, and I knew early on that a fine art career was not something that would happen right away. So I spent time developing my career as a designer, and kept up with photography as a pure passion pursuit. Then, when my design career was such that I could begin working for myself and set my own priorities, I began to put more effort into photography (and other things that tend to need time to dabble with and incubate but ultimately became a source of income as well).
The game, as you say, is probably my least favorite part of a traditional fine art photography career. Contests, grants, reviews, etc. are not something I’ve put a lot of effort into. Partly out of misguided principle (“I should concentrate on shooting and let the chips fall where they may.”), but partly out of a lack of necessity: I don’t *need* my photography to be commercially viable, I just want it to be appreciated enough to let me continue doing it. And I think this is another place where the internet has been a huge factor. Not living in a large photo market any more feels like it takes me one giant step out of the game as it is, but way less then I imagine it would’ve a few years ago, as I don’t need to be face to face with a curator or an audience to get feedback, I don’t need to be represented by a gallery to have my work seen, and, certainly part of every narcissistic photographers desire; I’ve been able to become somewhat well known among a certain (small) circle, all without being a real player of the game.
Not that websites or blogs can replace the very real desires of being physically in tune with your audience, and to have your work shown in real life and in-person, but I suppose my attitude towards my photography “career” is one of slow growth. I just keep plugging away on all the things I enjoy doing, and as long as I don’t spend more than a week or two straight doing something I don’t want to be, I figure I’m doing something right.
Man, I don’t know. If there’s one thing I can identify, it’d be a sense of visual absurdity. Things that seem off, both naturally occurring and otherwise, that make us think twice about the world around us.