Recently, author and art critic Rick Moody led a small tour through the 2012 Yale MFA Photography Thesis Show, Group Portrait, on view through Saturday, July 21st, at the Ana Tzarev Gallery. Moody became well acquainted with the group of nine photographers in the show while teaching them a writing course, after which he was asked to write the introductory essay of the exhibition’s catalogue. The show is impressive, and the bodies of work presented range from profound investigations of loss and compassion, to video art exploring the mechanics of labor, to self-conscious explorations of personal identity, family and landscape. But one series of photographs in particular, by Peter Baker, caught my attention for its acute sensitivity to the interplay between individuals and the built environment around them.
During the tour, Moody expounded upon what he sees as Baker’s “passionate preservationist impulse for New York.” Baker is a third generation New Yorker who grew up in the Bronx, and his images reveal a particular urban landscape that can only be captured by someone who has been properly and duly steeped in it. To me, the six photographs of the Bronx and Manhattan included in this show reflect not just a preservationist impulse, but an excavationist one as well. Baker’s intimate and informed relationship with his surroundings is complemented by a desire to keep reappraising and understanding them further.
The image Moody and Baker agreed was perhaps Baker’s most poignant, in subject matter and composition, is of several men on a dark city street, balancing boxes of gigantic LCD Screen TVs, booty from Black Friday at Target. They are carrying them to their car, offstage on the other side of the street, or perhaps to an idling cab. The TVs, the street behind them, and this quasi-religious Thanksgiving ritual, annotated by the just-hung Christmas street lights, are barely contained by the frame. In the catalogue essay, Moody writes of it and of the photographer:
Baker, whose method is in part preservational (he is saving the Bronx from cultural amnesia), is also about using the medium for its complexities (he likes reflections, obscurities, dark passages), and also for the way, on the fly, that he can, with photographs, depict the manifest despair and resignation of isolated persons adrift in the economics of the cityscape. In this, no example is better than “Black Friday,” wherein large flatscreen televisions, boxed, move diagonally through the image like caskets. Black like a wake is black, black like the deeper night, black such that black is all that is left, black when it is all that we have or are liable to have. The mall, the night, the flatscreen television. It’s a lovely, woeful, and oddly celebratory picture, indicative of Peter’s playful, confident, sardonic, and poetically inflected photographic voice.
Yet, it is Baker’s photograph of Yankee Stadium, titled “Sweet Home,” that seems to best exemplify both his preservationist and excavationist spirits. The title “Sweet Home” bespeaks a very personal relationship with Yankee Stadium for Peter Baker. His great grandfather, Harry Baker, Sr., was one of the original groundskeepers of Yankee Stadium when it opened in 1923. Harry’s son, Peter’s grandfather – Harry P. “Honey” Baker – became close friends with Lou Gehrig when they met in a high school All-Star game. Both would get signed by the Yankees, and Baker used that money to go to college and eventually become a teacher in the Bronx and the coach of Columbia’s baseball team for over 20 years.
Continuing this unique family relationship with the Yankees and the stadium, Baker worked at (the old) Yankee Stadium from age 18 through his mid-20s, making cotton candy. He was on hand then, in 2001, to witness the first game after 9/11, when President Bush threw out the first pitch, which Bush later described as the most nervous moment of his presidency. In only a few months’ time, his good friend and co-worker at the stadium, Danny McKay, would be off to Afghanistan, then Iraq, like so many others.
“Sweet Home” was taken 10 years later, about two months after the 10th anniversary of 9/11, in the new Yankee Stadium. Again, as on that day in 2001, the stadium was the site of what Baker calls a “strange marriage between war and sports.” In the photograph, the Jumbotron shows a baby Skyping with his soldier-father, whom he has very likely never met. The Jumbotron, Skype and the stadium itself did not exist 10 years before, nor did the war that sent the baby’s father to the other side of that screen. The buildings just behind the screen, between stadium and sky, and the Yankees franchise and hallowed history, are our constants. This image exposes but also unites all of these elements, in an excavation that helps create a new rendering of past and present, and helps, to paraphrase Ricky Moody, save us all from cultural amnesia.
The views expressed here are those of the author only and do not reflect the position of Urban Omnibus editorial staff or the Architectural League of New York.