Garrett Baumer was born in Dayton, Ohio in 1981. He received his Bachelor of Fine Arts in photography from the University of Louisville in 2006 and his Master of Fine Arts in photography from Columbia College Chicago in 2012. Shortly after graduating Baumer became the artist in residence in digital arts/photography at the Lillstreet Art Center in Chicago, where he is also an instructor. Along with his responsibilities at Lillstreet he is an adjunct faculty member at Harrington College of Design where he teaches photography.
Each of your photographs appears to be highly constructed. Can you talk a little bit about your process? How do you start conceiving a new photograph?
“Since I am constructing a three dimensional set, I need to plan out everything ahead. I start with loose sketches, trying out different compositions. Then when I decide on a sketch, I create a more detailed and practical rendering of the image.
“When I start the set construction I am looking through the camera most of the time. When any alteration is made to the set I look through the lens and see how it affects the composition. I find myself building around the lens as opposed to building a set and then placing my camera in it after the fact. Looking through the camera, I lay out the major structural elements to see how the optics react to them. Then it becomes a series of problem solving exercises to get the image to match the sketch. I find myself thinking within the means of the materials I use, and as a result sometimes the materials themselves have inspired photographs.”
To me, the influence of cinema is evident in some of your photographs because of the light, the construction and the use of elements like smoke or water in a very deliberate and visual way. Can you talk about that? Why have you settled on the photographic medium rather than the moving image?
“Though I am highly interested and influenced by cinema, the still image is more important to me as an artistic practice. By stripping the scene of any action, I reduce the environment to its basic formal elements allowing the materiality of the set to create a certain atmosphere. These images are distilled down to a singular moment, a result of a series of events awaiting a resolution.
“The events occurring in these photographs reference archetypes of alarm and emergency, depicting a transition from a stable to an unstable situation. I like to think that my work relates to a mythology of space and I believe that space in itself can contain a mythology, as in a set of stories or ideas centered around a place we commonly do not have access to. I’m exploring how these unobtainable spaces are dramatized, and through this, gain mythical status. When photographing these constructed sets I place the viewer in a strange mental space; caught between the photographic reality of the material and the alternate reality the space creates as a whole.”
In some of your images light seems to be the subject or at least a character in the narrative you are telling. Can you talk a little bit about that? What role does light play for you and how do you think it can influence the interpretation of an image?
“Light is not so much a character in the work, as it is a major structural element of the form that I am building. Sometimes the physical structure of the set is built around how light reacts to its form. I wouldn’t consider light a character in the narrative sense of the term but rather in the way that a letter is a character of a word. A letter, much like my use of light, is part of a group of characters that when combined create a new informative product. The most difficult thing is not to repeat the same word over and over.
“The lighting is precisely controlled and if I am careless, haphazard, or just even casual about it, the whole shot falls apart for me no matter how perfect the construction is. Drama is important to me for my work and light can effectively enhance that if properly used.”
On a scale between a documentarian, for example Sebastio Selgado, and let’s say a Gregory Crewdson, where do you see yourself fitting in? Who in contemporary art do you see your work in conversation with?
“My work fits in with artists who place a high amount of emphasis on aesthetics and drama. I am in this in-between world of Crewdson and Casabere. Two artists that are completely different, yet I’m taking what I appreciate about both of them, blending it with my own interests and creating a new product.
What inspires you in general as an artist and more specifically what inspired some of your photographs? What or who are some of your influences?
“I always looked to film as a prime example of how images should be constructed, from storyboarding to set construction to lighting. I have a background in technical theater, so I acquired a lot of lighting and set design/construction skills at a young age. Over time I adapted these techniques in front of my lens instead of a stage.
“Stanley Kubrick has had an enormous impact on me as an image-maker, because his films contain a visual intensity due to his camera work. He was able to make anything in front of his lens look like the most important thing in the world. His shots demand a certain attention, so the viewer is incapable of breaking away from the scene. That is what captivates me and that is how I fell in love with the power of one point perspective. Kubrick used a simple technique and injected it with so much tension that the resulting image is all consuming. I seem to constantly be looking for a tension similar in my photographs, and that is not easy to do.
“Kubrick, along with a variety of highly visual directors such as Ridley Scott, Stephen Spielberg, Terrance Malik, and Alfred Hitchcock, use the camera to envelop and transport the viewer into a surrogate reality.
“Recently I have been re-watching some of the Twilight Zone series from the 60′s, so Rod Serling has made my inspiration list, as well. One of my newer images, H18, is inspired by an episode. What is important about Rod Serling is that his television series leaves so much up to the viewer’s imagination through his use of mystery. We bring our own fears and anxieties to television shows, cinema, literature and art and as a result it is our own psyche that intensifies the experience.
“Photography inherently contains a mystery and I believe the same thing occurs when viewing a photograph. That is why it is such an interesting medium.”
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