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BC Professor Explores Aging and Obsession With Daily 'Selfies'

Up four flights of stairs and tucked into an art studio lies Boston College photography professor Karl Baden’s office. It is a small, neat room with high ceilings and photography books piled high on a floor-to-ceiling bookshelf. His desk is immaculate; a single flyer for a gallery showing is the only thing that deigns to mar the surface of the shining wood.

Karl Baden has been a photographer for 44 years, and he has an amazing project. Since Feb. 23, 1987, Baden has taken a single picture of himself each day. The project, called “Every Day” is about aging, mortality, and obsession. By his own description, it lacks art.

“I try to go out of my way to get as little art in the process as possible. I try and push any kind of aesthetics as far to the side as possible so they don’t get in the way of pure information.”

The seed of the project was planted 12 years before Baden took his first self portrait for “Every Day,” but after his friend brushed off the idea, Baden gave it up. However, it lingered in his mind for years, until—perhaps inspired by the recent death of Andy Warhol, an artist iconic for themes like boredom and repetition—Baden took that first picture. Seven years of undeveloped film sat in a freezer until his gallery decided it was time to unveil his work.

The gallery showing was the first time Baden had to truly analyze the meaning of “Every Day,” which, like his own image, has grown and evolved over the years. It is a project he continually learns from. He notes that it’s a good thing if “you can do something and keep learning while you’re doing it. If you’ve got it all figured out before you do it, why are you doing it?”

In 1987, Baden was simply taking a picture of himself, but in 2017 his project finds itself enmeshed in the world of the 'selfie.' Although he did not create or coin the term, he is often asked about the relationship between “Every Day” and the selfie.

To Baden, the rise to prominence of selfies has three branches: it is human nature to want to look at yourself, and to record what you look like; digital technology makes taking a selfie easy; and social media makes sharing that selfie with a large audience simple. The world of photography is radically different today.

“Twenty years ago, once you took a picture, you had to get it developed, which meant that even if you were right next door to a dark room, even if you weren’t out in the jungles of Vietnam, it would take an hour to develop the film and dry it, and it would take another half an hour to an hour to make the quickest print that you possibly could,” Baden recalls. “You’re talking about, from taking the picture to having it published, at least a day, and that’s with fast-moving professionals. Today, anybody can take a picture and in theory a billion people could see it—that is a quantum leap.”

What separates Baden from the selfie is that his project is not about looks; rather, it is a pseudoscientific exercise to convey the natural aging process and incremental change.

“If I give you a stack of pictures from this project, you’ll go through them and it’s just boring, and then infuriatingly boring. Then you compare the first and the last, and it becomes like a magic trick, because you saw all the evidence, nothing up my sleeve, but then there’s this change. Every picture, contains a little grain of that change, but it’s impossible to see. You can see change from one day to another, but it’s not aging change. The fact that all the photographs hold that information which is right in front of your face when you look at it but you can’t see it. The pictures are paradoxically completely open and completely closed. They’re completely literal and completely mysterious. Completely forthcoming and completely hidden at the same time.”

Part of the photos’ ability to demonstrate this change is Baden’s commitment to keeping his looks exactly the same. The magnitude of maintaining a single physical appearance for thirty years despite changing styles seemed like a staggering task to me, as well a constraining commitment. With a sly smirk, Baden displays pictures of himself from before “Every Day,” showcasing long hair and even longer sideburns. It became clear that he had had his fun with experimental styles.

“I care more about the project than I care about my looks, in terms of the more superficial aspects of presentation,” Baden says. He admits that there is a cultural stigma pressed on people to be looks-conscious, but he presents “Every Day” as a sort of counter-idea to the culture’s “superficially and bewilderingly-valued youth.” This is the focus of his project—the aging process and what that brings, as he stares neutrally into a 35mm-lens day after day, not reflecting the popular 'look' of the time.

However, the photos do more than just challenge popular culture—they also document a very crucial part of Baden’s past, in which he battled cancer for a period of time. His illness did not stop his determination to carry through the project.

“When I was sick, it was really important for me to see how I changed and changed back; I’m punching life’s clock. I’m still alive another day. For me, that’s a profound thing.”

“Every Day” fulfills the fundamental qualities of photography. In Baden’s own words: “If you consider what photography is, you photograph something and take a sliver of time and space. If you consider photography philosophically as seeing space through time, although I might be one of the few or one of the earlier people to do something specifically like this, people have been documenting the passage of time with photography since it was invented. This is the most essential use for a camera—photographing the passage of time, the passage of a life.”

Those interested in Professor Baden’s work can catch a glimpse at some of his older work, which will be shown at the Miller Yezerski Gallery until March 14.