Friday 17 November 2017

Picture this: Snap-happy professor's back to his old selfie

In the picture: Professor Karl Baden with an exhibit of his photographs from 1976 (AP)
In the picture: Professor Karl Baden with an exhibit of his photographs from 1976 (AP)

Long before anyone called them selfies, Karl Baden snapped a simple black and white photo of himself ... t hen repeated it every day for the next three decades.

His Every Day project officially turns 30 on Thursday - and he says he has no intention of stopping.

The stark contemplation on mortality and ageing has prompted some to dub the 64-year-old Boston College professor the unwitting "father of the selfie".

Prof Baden, of Cambridge, Massachusetts, grumbles at comparisons to the pouty face, self-congratulatory portraits that fill Instagram and Facebook, but recognises the ubiquity of the "selfie" - a word that did not become widespread until this decade - has helped raise the profile of the project, exhibited in art galleries in Boston, New York City and elsewhere over the years.

"If it wasn't for the selfie craze I'd probably be slogging along in anonymity as usual," Prof Baden joked. "Which is sort of what I had expected."

What makes the project work is that it reflects a number of universal themes, from death to man's obsession with immortalizing himself in some way, said Howard Yezerski, a Boston gallery owner who has exhibited the work on two occasions.

"It's both personal and universal at the same time," he said.

"He's recording a life, or at least one aspect of it that we can all relate to because we're all in same boat. We're all going to die."

Robert Mann, a New York City gallery owner that exhibited Prof Baden's work on its 10th anniversary, says he is impressed with how the academic has stuck to his process.

"Watching Karl age (gracefully) in front of the camera has been an honour," he said.

Prof Baden quietly launched his project on February 23, 1987, the day after Andy Warhol died and nearly two decades before Facebook emerged.

He tries to remain faithful to that first image, posing with the same neutral facial expression and using the same 35mm camera, tripod, backdrop and lighting.

"The act itself is like brushing your teeth," he said.

"I'll just take the picture and get on with the rest of my day. It's not a holy ritual or anything."

Prof Baden has taken other pains to maintain the same aesthetic - he has consciously not grown a beard or moustache and his hair remains simply styled.

"I have to turn all these variables into constants so that I'm not distracting from the ageing process," he said.

Besides mortality, Prof Baden says the project touches on the notions of obsession, incremental change and perfection.

"As much as I try to make every picture the same, I fail every day," he said. "There's always something that's a little different, aside from the aging process."

Approaching 11,000 photos, the changes in his appearance over time do not appear dramatic.

But in 2001 Prof Baden underwent chemotherapy to treat prostate cancer and became noticeably thinner.

The cancer is now in remission and, as later pictures show, he quickly bounced back.

The only lasting change from that time, he says, has been his eyebrows; they never quite grew back.

And there has been just one day over the past 30 years where he admits he neglected to take a photo: October 15 1991 - a "dumb moment of forgetfulness".


Press Association

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