Photographer Tom Baker in his Placitas studio
Topanga Canyon #1a, street photography style, by Tom Baker
Tom Baker—in black and white
Photographer Tom Baker colors his world with black and white—his primary choice of palette. He likes what happens when limited to the two shades, to think in terms of shadow, light, and texture, to capture the detail in an isolated object, the stark lighting of an arch, the fullness of a broad landscape. With a bright smile and cool ease, he explained to me his passion: “Black and white don’t actually exist in nature. It’s total fantasy.”
Baker’s past photography training, steeped in West Coast tradition, could have been that of another person’s fantasy. In the 1970s, he studied with a few of the legendary California street photographers out of the Weston/Adams group, like Ansel Adams—photographer and environmentalist best known for his black-and-white photographs of the American West—and Morley Baer, who was dedicated to large format work resulting in images of exquisite detail.
“This was a great experience,” Baker said regarding his training. “To be around ‘the good stuff.’ They provided the foundation for a lot of artists. Just being around these people, you could learn where their art comes from.”
Like Morley Baer, Baker photographs the commonplace, to make the ordinary memorable. In his work, “La Purisima Mission—California,” he captures a room, a loom, a spinning wheel, and its raw materials, but the viewer sees more than that. The quiet stillness of the room with untidy remnants of wool and unfolded blankets speaks loudly of a story untold. In his architectural work, “Taos Pueblo,” weathered adobes are randomly stacked against the mud plaster of an adobe house. A boarded window, a door with painted flowers, and objects left behind tell of someone missing from the scene.
Like Ansel Adams, Baker photographs compelling landscapes. In his aesthetic work, “Navajo Lands,” grey bands of light form a mystical landscape; in the foreground, a significant fallen tree and a building adds the human element often seen in Baker’s work.
He says, “My camera goes with me wherever I go: fishing, hiking, in the car.” Happy to not lug around the heavy photographic tools of yesteryear—the large format cameras and lenses with swings and tilts to correct perspective and depth of field, Baker totes a tripod, digital camera, and polarizing filter. Beyond that, he says his computer provides complete color spectrum filtering capability.
The Placitas Artists Series September, 2010 exhibition features four artists, including Baker. In this show, photographers are permitted to hang their work without the glass overlay usually required by galleries. “This was the first opportunity I’ve had to hang my work this way,” said Baker. “I think hanging without the glazing makes the images richer; you get the full impact of the print.” He sprays the prints with a protective coating to ward off fingerprinting from curious viewers.
Regarding thematic focus in his work, he replied, “I’m interested in everything. My art comes from a lot of places. Focusing on one thing makes me feel like I’m taking away from something else.” Down the road, Baker would like to explore New Mexico, camera in tow, of course, and has a yen to snap portraits of local artists. He says, “I’ve been thinking about that for a while now.”
Though Baker said there was never much time for corporate work in his life, he has done his share as a software designer and builder of airline and financial software programs. Retired from computer-related services for American Express just two years ago, he credits this computer background to a further understanding of digital art and the black-and-white photographic process.
Baker does all of his own printing in his home studio, both color and black-and-white, and prints for other photographers and artists. “It’s something I would like to do more of here in New Mexico,” he said.
Beyond photography and the computer desk, Baker has played electric guitar in several rock ‘n’ roll bands, performed music for television shows (like Shindig!), worked Hollywood sound stages, and hung out at the beach. New to Placitas in 2009, he said, “If I had my druthers, I’d love to find a band to play old-time surf music.”
One can easily relate Baker’s photography to his musical leaning. After all, rock ‘n’ roll is like the black-and-white of music. It’s minimalist, involving volume and beat, form and texture. “A friend once told me that the good thing about a rock ‘n’ roll song is that it has a good hook—just like a black-and-white photo—that draws you in.
“But,” Baker grinned, “even after all this black-and-white stuff, I’m still a sucker for a pretty flower picture.”
To contact Tom Baker or see some of his photographic images online, go to http://www.placitasarts.org/Visual_Arts/Baker_Tom/TomBaker.shtml.