Friday, January 4, 2008
Matthew Baum: Smoothed-out reality
"Smokebreak," Matthew Baum, All rights reserved
Matthew Baum likes "...the idea of meandering around, allowing the camera to lead the way." He says, "Much of my enjoyment ... comes from wandering around and taking pictures of what I see." (all quotes from Humble Arts Foundation's current show of Baum's "Limelight" series). Sunday shooters all over the world would no doubt agree. So what makes Baum's pictures different?
For one thing they succeed in the opportunistic, deadpan "you-can't-make-this-stuff-up" style of 1970s artist-documentarians like Stephen Shore & William Eggleston. But in today's market that's arguably not enough . Baum attempts to expand the genre.
A former architecture student & graduate of SVA, he has taken a conceptual step beyond shoot-it-as-you-find-it work, attempting to graft ideas of set-up theatricality, a la Jeff Wall (see my review) & Philip-Lorca diCorcia, onto his unplanned moments . At SVA they teach the importance of artist statements, & Baum's has written a good one (it actually applies to his work). To "...merge the emotional immediacy of pictures made by observational photographers..." with the "...formal aesthetic and metaphorical content of theater and, consequentially, constructed photographs...", he says, he has developed a post-processing technique that "...distills basic information such as color and surface texture to the essential. They become sculptural..."
"Zion," Matthew Baum, All rights reserved
As a photographer who often tries for the same kind of revelatory formal-informal, incubational stories as Baum, I'm impressed & intrigued. Look at a few in larger size -- e.g. here & here -- to get a better sense of how this subtractive technique focuses the imagination. To give a clearer sense of what's going on, here's a direct comparison of one of my own shots with a similarly-themed one by Baum (p.s. this is not a contest).
"Shiloh," Tim Connor, All rights reserved
"Gettysburg," Matthew Baum, All rights reserved
The difference doesn't knock you over, but it's there (obviously we're dealing with tiny web JPGs here). My only question is how much retouching is necessary for this subtle simplification? My own experience with post-production of grabbed shots is that backgrounds -- the necessary context -- are almost always frustratingly messy. I've been actively working to change my thinking ("Leave it" is my new motto) &, in any case, my retouching skills are only fit for removing the occasional tree branch or distracting reflection. But I keep coming back to a basic fact: photography is not reality. If I'm not doing photojournalism, why am I worried about anything except making the picture work on its own terms?