Feb. 23, 1987 was a day never to be repeated for photographer Karl Baden-and yet every day for the past 27 years, 10 months, and four days, this is precisely what he’s tried to do. The day after Andy Warhol’s death, Baden started a project that’s grown into a lifelong obsession: Each day, he tries to take the same picture of himself, and each day, he fails.
“Really, I know that it’s a Sisyphean task,” Baden explains. “I will fail at what I’m trying to do, but that’s not the point.”
Baden first imagined the “Every Day” project in in 1975, a year after receiving his B.A. in fine arts from Syracuse University
“It’s funny, because in 1975, I had this idea-I had just graduated college-and I thought, what if I took a picture of my face everyday for the rest of my life? And I made the mistake of telling a friend, and she said, ‘That’s a stupid idea.’ And I said, ‘Oh, okay.'”
He didn’t do it.
“It was the kind of thing that rattled around in my brain literally for years.” When he finally began the “Every Day” project, Baden was in his mid-30s, a teacher at the Phillips Academy in Andover who for the first time had the resources to settle down and open his own studio. Over the last quarter century, the “Every Day” project has grown into a radical photographic series, with the many faces of Karl Baden cropping up around in exhibitions across the country. Baden has been on the Boston College faculty since 1989, and he continues to teach photography today.
He plans to continue living the “Every Day” project for the rest of his life.
“The background’s the same, the lighting’s the same, the camera’s the same, the lens is the same, the distance is the same, so that every picture is as close as I can get to all the other pictures,” Baden describes.
For Baden, “Every Day” is the study of mortality and obsession, an investigation into the difference between trying to be perfect and being human.
“All the potential variables in the project are turned into constants, except one, which is the aging process.”
To control the process, Baden has cut his hair the same way for the past 28 years. He intentionally keeps his facial hair closely trimmed, and he has worked to shoot from the same angle and in the same lighting for each portrait of himself. Somedays, he’ll make a mistake in shooting the picture, and others, a technical problem will surface. Thirteen years ago, Baden was diagnosed with cancer, and he lost much of his hair while being treated with chemotherapy and recovering, dramatically altering his appearance in the photo series.
“It’s all in the project,” he holds. “I couldn’t help that.”
Baden has recently worked to take the project outside itself. In one of his introductory courses, he has students photoshop his image from the day they were born. He is currently planning an exhibition of these photos, opening at BC on Feb. 1. While the outlet might have changed, the process remains the same for the photography professor.
“I doubt it everyday.”
Uncertainty, according to Baden, is a critical part of his work. “If I see a friend, and I say, ‘How’s your work going?’ and they say ‘Oh, it’s totally going great, it’s under control,’ I’m suspicious,” he said. “I think that artwork comes out of doubt, and it comes out of questioning.”
Outside his work with “Every Day,” Baden describes himself as a street photographer. In 2009, as an extension of this role, he began a project photographing scenes from the front seat of his car. His work with cars recently garnered the attention of The Wheels Project, a collaboration of five photographers and one graphic artist operating primarily out of the greater Boston area.
“When they say The Wheels Project, it’s not specifically cars,” Baden notes. “It’s anything with wheels besides planes and trains, so that would include cars, motorcycles, skateboards, bicycles, and I think that The Wheels Project is about documenting that kind of wheel culture, how we get around, what we do to our cars in terms of personalization or making them stand out.”
Baden was invited by the group to show his work this winter at the 2014 Wheels Project exhibition at the Lincoln Arts Project gallery in Waltham, Mass. He is one of three veteran photographers featured in the project. The show runs Jan. 16 through Feb. 22.
Baden’s work with The Wheels Project mostly consists of subjects he happens upon while driving. In one instance, he grabbed an image of a Hood Milk truck as it drove by, with a splash on the milk printed on the truck seemingly suspended over his dashboard. In another, a bus drove by with an ad on the side for VH1’s Mob Wives. Baden played with the perspective of the ad, centered on one women angrily clawing toward another-it reminded him of the Sistine Chapel, namely Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam.
“I would use the car as if it was a kind of space capsule, and the window would be a moving film screen,” Baden said. “I would try to integrate the dashboard and the control panel with the things going by.”
About half a dozen of the pictures in The Wheels Project 2014 exhibition will include Baden’s face in the image, leaving something of a signature on the photographs.
“They’re part of the idea, but they’re different-they’re personalized as well,” he said.
Over his 42 years as a photographer, Baden has seen the photography changed dramatically, most recently with the introduction of Smartphones and invasive institutional surveillance.
“I find it amusing that people are-in my experience of 40-plus years-more suspicious than ever about a individual walking down the street with a camera, and yet we are on camera all the time by entities that we have no control over,” Baden said.
Few people, however, have lived so publicly as Baden. On Feb. 23 of this year, he will have taken 9,862 pictures of his face as part of the “Every Day” project.
“The idea of making the picture my face means less to me than it used to,” Baden said. He recalls one incident when an elderly man, blind for t10 years, purchased a set of prints from the “Every Day” series, based on the dates of his grandchildren’s birthdays.
Feb. 23, 1987 was a day never to be repeated for photographer Karl Baden, and if nothing else, there’s wonder in that.