Leaf & stone, at the throat & precipice of time…
Portrait of Kate Baker by Jesse Graham
Kate Baker is an Australian fine art photographer based in the Yarra Valley, Victoria. Her most recent exhibitions Nijinsky: Leap and Pause and Dances with Lyrebirds showcase her remarkable talent at portraiture and her ability at making fine art silver gelatin prints. Interview by David Tatnall.
Your web-site is called ‘lumen naturae’ the light within darkness. Is that how you describe your photography?
The name ‘lumen naturae’ came to me at a certain point in my life where I was reflecting on my life, my art, and my intention in both. A little voice popped into my head to the effect of “call it the light within or light of darkness, in Latin”. As I googled, I discovered the phrase lumen naturae, which means the light of darkness or light of nature, with several articles referring to it as a kind of alchemy. In fact Jung wrote quite extensively about this term as spiritual alchemy. This felt perfect to me and utterly appropriate. So much of my work feels alchemical in the darkroom and even as I make a photograph, my sense of connection to my subject through the lens is often a spiritual experience.
Into The Mystic
Your ability at capturing a certain moment in portraiture is rare, what is your approach in making a portrait?
I ‘feel’ the portrait, often more deeply than I see it. It is important to me that I calm and centre myself before I make a portrait. This enables me to set myself aside as it were, and focus fully on whoever I am photographing. I like to create a space where it is possible for the person to ‘come forward’ and allow themselves to be ‘seen’. It is a choice for anyone who faces a camera. Will I present a particular ‘face’? Will I just give the camera the surface of who I am? I like to create an environment with a sense of calm acceptance and zero judgement, where it is clear to them that I am interested in who they actually are and that I can see what is inherently valuable in them. I have this intent even where few words are spoken and somehow that translates. I really believe our intent is half the story. I like people. I find them really interesting. I think this comes across and so I am often given a privileged view into ‘soul’.
Kate with 4×5 camera by Angela Rivas
Has photography been a part of your life for a long period of time?
I have loved photography since I was young and I remember clearly the first photograph I ever made – I can still feel the excitement of that moment now – I was entrusted with my parents’ box brownie on a school excursion to the Sydney Opera House. I made one photograph and it turned out. Just looking through the lens finder upside down was magical. I was given a camera of my own when I was about eighteen and from then on it became an important part of my life, as one of my voices for expression. I always felt I could live anywhere as long as I had my camera and my Penguins (books) with me. Everything else was optional.
Lust from Nijinsky series
Who have been the major influences in your silver gelatin printmaking?
My brother set up a darkroom under the house when I was perhaps nineteen and that was certainly a defining experience— we had to step up into a crawl-space about 3 feet high with a dirt floor and we had a tiny enlarger and an 8×10 inch tray. The smell of the chemicals was mysterious and I still recall that moment where I saw my first-ever print emerge. It happened to be my first portrait— one I made of my dad sitting on the floor of the garage, in greasy overalls, surrounded by car parts (I still treasure that portrait). Then I moved away from home so I didn’t develop real skills until much later. In my late thirties photography became a full-blown passion and at that point I learnt the basics of silver gelatin at the Australian Centre for Photography in Sydney with Geoff McGeachan. He made printing both interesting and accessible. I followed that up with a fine printing course with Marco Bok and he really opened my eyes to the possibility of expression in a photograph. From there I learned more about how to technically master a print from Gordon Undy.
Bob Kersey was perhaps one of my most significant influences. When I was preparing my prints for my first major exhibition “Unseen – Hopes and Dreams” at the Meyer Gallery, Bob came and spent a single day with me. The light-bulb moment came when he said “Kate, what are you trying to ‘say’ in this print? Where is the part of the print that needs to convey that message?”. This was a defining moment for me.
Ella – the light-blub moment
It is like a musician playing Beethoven vs Mozart for example. There is an entirely different feel to both composers and, within each of their repertoires, each piece has its own tone and timbre. To do a piece of music true justice you cannot simply play the notes mechanically. The truly magical performances have fine subtleties and nuances. While there is a framework and obvious boundaries, you cannot apply the same rules in a rigidly blanket way to each piece of music. And so it is with printing. Sometimes to really convey the beauty of a photograph, for instance, you may not have a solid black. It is easy to get hung up on that as a ‘rule’. Of course we al need to learn the rules first. Then we need to learn about nuance. Sometimes a piece demands strength, sometimes it requires delicacy and/or subtlety. Sometimes there is a point within the photograph you may actually want to calm down so it doesn’t distract from the whole. It is this awareness of subtle intent I learned from Bob and I am forever grateful. Back to the music analogy, I realised anyone can play the notes, but are they playing the music?
The Golden Slave from Nijinsky series
You are currently working on a body of work called Seen and Heard – Boy to Man – a series of portraits of young men aged 15 – 19. These have been reproduced as ‘paste ups’. How does that sit with your fine art printmaking?
I am enjoying making both fine art silver gelatin prints and pasteups, even within this one project. For this project each of the young men receive an 11 x 14 silver gelatin portrait to keep. I do intend at some point to do a gallery exhibition and I will make larger silver gelatin prints for that. For this project however, I also wanted to find a way of sharing the images in a very public and highly accessible way. I am dealing with youth and so creative street art murals in the centre of the community using pasteups seemed entirely appropriate. So I’ve scanned the negatives and created large artworks on walls. One mural in 2017 was 6 metres long and integrated portraits, landscape and text. The mural is pasted up in panels using a glue of flour, water and sugar. It is designed to be ephemeral and I am very fine with that.
I have found the boys highly value their silver gelatin print and I think in their eyes as well as mine, it is a totally different thing. Both have their values.
One of the boys and his mother stopped me in the street the other day. He wanted to say thank you again and his mother told me he will treasure that print for the rest of his life.
He was very proud to be on that 6metre wall for a couple of months, but he is going to treasure this print for a lifetime. I actually really enjoy the accessibility of street art. As an experiment I have started pasting up some of the images from my La Poesia della Danza series on the wall of an empty building in the main street of Warburton – people love driving past it. For me it enhances awareness of and people’s sense of value for actual silver gelatin prints.
‘Paste up’ in Warburton
Matthew aged 15
Using a large format camera to make portraits requires patience, how do you work with your subjects to get them to cooperate?
I use the slow set-up process to my advantage. While I am setting up, I usually let the person know “it will take me a little bit of time to set up, so don’t worry about me, we aren’t making the photos yet…” Then, because I need them to sit or stand still while I focus, I position that process in such a way that they feel they are helping me and because all pressure is now off them and they need to be still, it becomes actually a very calming part of the process. I feel it is actually an advantage because during this time I can build trust. I really enjoy this part of the process and without me ever needing to say it, they get the sense I value them as human beings, which of course helps enormously once I actually press the shutter. The other advantage with large format in particular is that the camera isn’t actually between you and them when you press the shutter. A handheld camera usually separates you as it is held up to your eye. It is not so apparent with a rangefinder, but with a mirrored camera I feel the barrier and momentary separation can sometime break the contact, or at least it is easier to retain contact when you can retain direct eye contact with the person. When someone is especially self-conscious I sometimes actually turn away and press the shutter on instinct. When I do that it is about letting them know subtly that it is all ok, I am not that intense, we can all relax and they can feel it is a safe and experience a private exchange with the lens. Even that is better than having the camera separate me from them.
Kate with 4×5 camera by Angela Rivas
Who’s portrait work do you admire?
I really like the trust and intimacy of Dorothea Lange’s work. Diane Arbus’ work speaks to me a whole different level. I love the starkness and vital energy of her work, she commands your attention. I’m not sure I define it exactly as ‘portrait’ work, but I really love Bill Henson’s work, especially the ethereal other-worldness and beauty. Sybille Bergmann from East Berlin did an amazing series of polaroids I find both moving and very beautiful. Henri Cartier-Bresson is of course known for his street photography but he also made many beautiful and profoundly deep portraits. Arnold Newman was an incredible photographer–the way he placed his subjects in the frame was just so powerful. Irving Penn inspires me too. Julie Sundberg was my first mentor and I really love some of the work she has done with her daughter Sheena over the past 20+ years. I admire the way these photographers and many others bring different things to the portraits they make, to reveal different aspects of ‘self’. I tend to go for the deep and meaningful but I really appreciate others who at times construct masterful pieces of art.
Apart from making portraits what else do you make photographs of?
I tend to follow down a particular track for a while. For instance for some time I have been fascinated by windows, pathways, gateways and how these are devices that can impact and frame our perspective of the world beyond. I am also very interested in what I guess could be loosely termed the soul of the artist. I have photographed international concert violinists one-on-one, asking them to play for me and go to that place where they ‘become the music’. Photograph them in that space. I have photographed actors in character — again one-on-one where I ask them to fully inhabit the character, keeping only to the intent of their character’s script. My La Poesia della Danza series was about dance as an expression of the soul. My Nijinsky series came from a desire to understand the incredible creative genius of Nijinsky and to get inside that somehow. I am now starting a new body of work, which is entirely different and I think is going to require me to learn a few new skills. More on that later once it is a little clearer to me!
You have made mural sized silver gelatin prints in your recent Nijinsky exhibition. They were masterfully printed and had great impact. What dictates the final size of the photograph you are making?
I generally feel into the collection of photographs and consider how I would like them to be seen. Some photographs call to be large, others are much better small and intimate. I also consider the environment I want them to be seen in. For the Nijinsky work, I wanted to have a smaller collection of works on display with plenty of air between them to given them the sense of presence I wanted to convey. It felt appropriate to the work. I showed ten photographs at MARS Gallery in Melbourne and later I exhibited nine from the series at the Arts Centre Melbourne. At MARS there was just one photograph that was very large — the dancer leaping toward the open doorway ‘Toward the Light’. My decision to make that one huge was partly to do with the gallery space but more particularly it was a seminal piece in the series.
Toward the Light
Ashwyn aged 10 with Hunter, at home