May 2009
The Baby
The Kid Stays in the Picture: Karen Baker’s The Baby Socks it to Us

Karen Baker not only is a skilled photographer, but knows what skilled photography looks like. That is to say, Baker’s photography is about photographic skill – but by no means about simply replicating it. Her images reiterate various tropes about landscape photography, architectural photography, narrative photography still life photography, and various other contemporary – notably, color – photographic practice. But spank in the middle of these sober and evocative pictures, Baker has deposited an incongruous little creature whose very presence hijacks the meaning of his surroundings. That’s The Baby.

The Baby is apparently one of the world’s most–travelled monkey toys – or if he isn’t yet, he’s fixin’ to be.  Fashioned by Baker herself, the sock-shaped simian sets down in a string of seemingly seedy venues – or has to date.  Perhaps the photographer has some more glamorous locations in mind amongst which to shoot her progeny, but there’s a recession on, y’know, and besides, The Baby’s a baby and could hardly care less at this point.  Maybe for his bar mitzvah Baker will take him to Paris or Rio or Tokyo; until then, he’d better be satisfied with Chicago (well, could be worse) or Vegas (still could be worse) or even the Salton Sea (there, it got worse).

In fact, Baker has cast The Baby in a poignantly abject video short as the child of emphatically funky desert rats Bobby & Ginger who hide out from their big-city creditors by opening the “Economy Palms B&B” out by the Salton’s West Shore (“playground of the solvent and paroled”, as the brochure promises).  The Baby narrates the entire documentary, his upbeat (if occasionally befuddled or disgusted) outlook clearly reflecting the resilience he’s apparently inherited from his ever-hustling, ever-clueless parents.

The Baby appears in Baker’s still photographs, for the most part, without benefit of parental guidance.  But the brave little guy holds his own, whether posing before run-down sheds, on rumpled beds, or amidst desert-soil reds.  The reward comes with The Baby’s up-close-and-personal encounter with leading porn star (ret.) Jenna Jameson.  We’re privy only to the snapshots, not the money shots; but, then, The Baby, to reiterate, is just a kid.

Biking Baby | 18" x 12" | 2008 | Archival Pigment Print | Edition of 3
Beach Babi'i | 12" x 18" | 2017 | Archival Pigment Print | Edition of 3

For the photo-purists, the recurrence of this dopey gray lump of cloth in photos worthy of Robert Adams or Stephen Shore, or, rest his soul, Julius Shulman is a gnatworthy annoyance, a blemish that shows up time and again almost like a scratch on Baker’s lens.  But for the rest of us, The Baby is Baker’s “beard, “ the cover that gives her the moxie to replicate various of contemporary photography’s hoariest tropes.  Baker enlivens her otherwise deadpan (and gorgeous) New-Topographic, neo-conceptualist knockoffs with her moth-eaten offspring the better to critique, mock , and ultimately pay loving homage to her photographic forebears.  For all her japing with The Baby, Baker has learned a lot about looking at the world through the lens from the landscape photographers who have gone before her.

The Baby, then, is a William Wegman-type running gag in an Ansel Adams world, constantly interrupting the world’s abiding beauty with a nagging banality, but never managing to usurp the power of that beauty – or, in the final analysis, never even wanting to.  If The Baby begins as Baker’s anchor, he winds up her foil, the dwarfed narrator in the nature documentary who has the grace to stay dwarfed and happy.  The Baby isn’t simply the guy at the edge of the snapshot; he is the guide through the snapshot’s edgy world.

Peter Frank – Senior Curator at Riverside Art Museum, Riverside, California