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For urban planners, architects, landscape designers, everyday citizens and others, previously overlooked details of life in cities are now, due to COVID-19, increasingly apparent. Many city dwellers are rethinking their relationship to urban environments from an emotional—and also a critical—point of view. For photographer Peter Baker, an investigation of cities, the built environment and its intersection with human beings and culture is central to his practice. We reached out to Baker, a native New Yorker now living in Los Angeles, to discuss his work and to find out what he’s been up to in an ever-changing landscape, both literally and figuratively.
Building for the People of the United States of America (Quality You Can Taste) Los Angeles 2015 32x48" Archival Pigment Print
DUGGAL ART SCENE: The COVID-19 pandemic is proving to be unpredictable in its ebb and flow across the United States. How has it affected your photographic practice over the last several months? Have you been able to keep working?
PETER: I spent the early months of the pandemic in my studio in Los Angeles really digging into the work I’ve made over the last five years when I moved here along with images that I’ve been making in Las Vegas for the last three years or so. I tend to have a painstakingly rigid editing process, which I probably needed to get over, and this time in the studio has allowed me to challenge some of my habits, delve into and print images that I’ve neglected or that didn’t have a place to live, so to speak. It has also inspired me to plan ideas for future pictures and future work in a world that has been indelibly altered.
That said, printing is a vital part of my process, and on the one hand, I very much value making a beautiful physical print. But the primary purpose of making the tangible print is to live with it, learn something from it and get back out there to expand on what is learned, or more often than not, how it fails. So yes, that part of the process is missing.
Given the choice, I always prefer to be out in the world engaged with the subject. The pandemic has been like the pulling of a plug, the dialing down of American capitalism. Our current reality contains extreme metaphors that will likely take a long time to truly grasp. I have done some photographing, but it's tricky. For example, I am primarily working in downtown Los Angeles, interested in how much of what passes for public space is illusory and is actually private property. And so you have many of the dynamics that make up the complexity of what takes place in this zone taken away. The vast majority of the workforce has disappeared from the equation due to COVID, not to mention tourists, consumers, traffic, fans navigating entertainment complexes, actors and production crews from the motion picture industry, etc. The show is on pause, as it were. What remains in large part is the ever-growing unhoused population who do not have the luxury to self-isolate and some of the essential workers commuting to and from hospitals or grocery stores. The few times I went downtown early in the pandemic just did not feel right. As a landscape photographer, the emptiness interests me, but having the privilege to stay at home and keep myself and fellow citizens safe has led me to practice caution and refrain from being out there.
Also, for obvious reasons, I’m generally not interested in making simple pictures of our most vulnerable and desperate citizens, who disproportionately makeup most of the human activity downtown now. The fact of this condition definitely plays a role in my work, but without the other elements on display, the complexity and nuance I aim for is less workable. It's a fine line, because the reality of homelessness is a shocking feature of this landscape regardless of if or how it is shown or to what degree one pays attention to it or not. For me. pictures of corporate architecture, new developments, security & surveillance, are all spaces of financial and municipal power and to various degrees are in fact, inevitably about homelessness.
I did attend some of the early protests in downtown LA, not to photograph the protests per se, but rather to witness the police apparatus, and later the National Guard, unfold strategically around the city not unlike an invasion. Mike Davis’ Fortress LA informs part of how I read this landscape and to see his ideas about downtown LA being designed as a proxy militarized zone happen before my eyes was both bizarre and deeply unnerving.
A Confrontation (Beyond Exceptional) Los Angeles 2017 27x48" Archival Pigment Print
DUGGAL ART SCENE: Can you tell us about your recent project Current Treatment and your images of Los Angeles?
PETER: I think of Current Treatment as the overarching, ongoing work, whether the pictures are made in Los Angeles, Las Vegas or New York. The Los Angeles pictures I see as being able to exist both specifically and as a part of this larger world of images I’m interested in creating. I am beginning the process of working on a book titled A Confrontation, Los Angeles, which is the title of a specific image of a confrontation between a police officer and a defiant man who passed through what he likely thought was a public sidewalk but was in fact privately blocked off. This interaction is dwarfed by images of hyper development, aspirational ads, and moving screens, speaking to some of the ideas I mentioned above about the illusion of public space, which in part is a kind of illusion of reality itself. And that is precisely what interests me about photography and what I think this medium does well. And while this occurs in specific ways in Los Angeles, the sensibility of the work goes beyond specific geography and is more about a kind of duplicity of the social-landscape and how we engage and participate with that, knowing or unknowingly, in daily life.
So while my pictures very much reliably describe physical facts and fragments of landscapes that can be mapped to actual localities, together there is a surreal quality to them, and I’m interested in the fictional city like something out of Calvino or J.G. Ballard’s novels, which somehow are simultaneously both familiar and strange, real and unreal. This is also why I have embraced digital photography in particular. The hyper-real resolution is still so fascinating and the unique ability to capture both artificial structures and human gestures is an aspect of the digital medium that I continue to be inspired to explore.
Untitled (War of the Worlds New York) Los Angeles, 2016 32x48" Archival Pigment Print
DUGGAL ART SCENE: Architecture acts as a foundational element in many of your photographs. Several of your images seem to suggest a disconnect between human beings and the architectural landscape. What is the role of architecture in your images?
PETER: Yes, that disjointedness and people immersed in these hyper spaces is a part of the content of my work. I think it stems from growing up in New York City and seeing the way it changed so dramatically from when I was a kid to what it is today. It informs much of what I do and what I see in cities in general. They stopped being places for the people who once made up their lifeblood. I started photographing seriously in Michael Bloomberg’s post-911 building boom and suddenly the way the city just looked started to drastically change. What began with an earnest suspicion that the city was morphing into this other place is now almost a cliche, like a “playground for the rich.” But entire swaths of the city became unrecognizable to so many people. So architecture is symbolic and can tell us a lot about history, or the erasure of history, socio-economics, and progress. It can tell us something about the health or lack-thereof in a city or place. Maybe that’s where the Treatment part of Current Treatment stems. That was before we had a pandemic, and well, we see the treatment is insufficient at best. What is the current treatment of our cities is a question I find myself continuously asking, and my work is really about looking for new ways to pose that question. The centers of our major cities are becoming these hyper-commercial, anonymous non-places that tend to treat denizens like people who bought a ticket for entry, as opposed to just being a place to live and serving basic needs. So that's kind of the vantage point I make the work from. And I’m very much interested in how these new spaces arise out of nowhere and suddenly are occupied as if they always existed. What is gained and what is lost? Who is here and who isn’t? Cities and memories and signs, destruction and construction, appearing and disappearing. These are processes we are navigating through as they give shape and meaning to our shared reality. This phenomenon plays out in Calvino’s Invisible Cities, a book that has stayed with me since I first read it as an undergraduate. It has both a physical and psychological effect. It's a strange subtle feeling that can be both banal and thrilling in the same moment if one is paying close attention. And isn’t that what photography is?
I recently discovered this book called Space and Anti-Space: The Fabric of Place, City and Architecture, written by architects and very much about urban space and its consequences. That is what I do. I photograph urban space and its consequences. I very much love making such discoveries because I work from a place of intuition in the visual field, but it's always interesting to discover urban theorists who sometimes corroborate those intuitions. It's helpful as an artist. The idea of space and anti-space is very interesting.
Untitled (Kardashian Sighting) Los Angeles, 2016 20x30" Archival Pigment Print
DUGGAL ART SCENE: Celebrity, fame and aspirational culture in the context of urban landscapes are also at play within your work. To some extent, your photographs seem to intentionally suggest an unflattering critique of this aspect of American life as banal. Just as the plight of everyday people is now front and center due to the pandemic, your images also seem to explore economics and access to “the good life.” How do you see your work functioning in the context of our current political moment?
PETER: We are inundated with aspirational imagery on our phones constantly now. And in some ways, it makes the consumer experience manifested in the physical landscape seem even more jarring, absurd, and completely fascinating to me. Perhaps because it's so clearly at odds with what is needed. And yet this comes to pass for the norm. We get used to it. The slogans of progress are largely incongruent with most city dwellers. But I’m also interested in how this imagery is intertwined with our dreams and desires. The pictures function as feedback to this idea of reality as a kind of fiction that we create and play a part in. So I include pictures made on film sets or actors shooting a tv commercial, or a fan’s elation or horror at capturing a phone pic of the Kardashians, alongside ordinary public dramas, people who work in the landscape and situations that occur with the backdrop of vernacular architecture. Perhaps it's also a way to both embrace and subvert many of the genres of photography that I have studied and very much love. What passes for the real or what is staged? I consider all of my pictures both real and staged. People may find socio-political content, humor, empathy, the details of particular objects. But mostly I just want to make pictures that invite the viewer to spend time and make their own discoveries within an image and make their own associations between them. Ideally, in front of a physical print! But for now, screens run the game.