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Baden, seen here photographing in the Nevada desert, teaches students the skills they need to take good shots, but also encourages them to think more deeply about the art form. (Photo by Lee Niemi.)
By MIKE McINALLY
There’s a quote in “The Things They Carried,” Tim O’Brien’s classic novel about the Vietnam War, that Evan Baden likes very much, in part because it says something important about Baden’s photography.
Here’s the quote: "Fiction is the lie that helps us understand the truth."
O’Brien’s message about how fiction sometimes can effectively convey an essential truth resonates throughout the critically acclaimed photographs by Baden, a photography instructor at Oregon State University: “All the work I make is fake,” Baden said. “It’s all set up and strobe-lit, but there’s still an element of truth about society in these images.”
The famed photographer Richard Avedon put a twist on that idea, in another quote Baden likes: “There is no such thing as inaccuracy in a photograph. All photographs are accurate. None of them is the truth.”
If you take a class from Baden, you’ll learn the technical basics of what makes for a good photograph. But you’ll also spend time discussing the idea of “mistaken identity” in photography, in which even sophisticated viewers can mistake an image for the real thing. You’ll talk about the manipulative aspect of photography – and how that can be good.
And beginning photographers will learn that they should never, ever, delete an image. More on that later.
Baden, 36, has created five acclaimed bodies of work, probing subjects as diverse as sexting and the growth of evangelism in Brazil. In the sexting series, “Technically Intimate,” models were used to re-create intimate scenes that had been captured with smartphones and then posted to the internet without the consent of the subjects. The series in Brazil, “A Conversão de São Paulo,” invited youthful parishioners to act out stories from the Bible. The exhibitions have been shown throughout the United States and internationally. His work is held in public collections in the United States and Europe and has been featured in publications such as Time and New York Magazine. He recently was on assignment for The Guardian newspaper in the United Kingdom.
Baden’s career path started with an interest in photography in high school and led him to art school – after an aborted detour to study chemical engineering: “I decided that going the photo route was the better route for me in the long run,” he said. He graduated from a small art school in St. Paul, Minnesota, racking up accolades and honors, but was feeling the lure of teaching: “I wanted to be in academia,” he said. “I like working with students. I like essentially teaching the stuff I know already.”
He earned a Master of Fine Arts degree from Columbia College in Chicago in 2014, and then landed a 16-week gig as an artist and instructor in residence at the now-defunct Oregon College of Art and Craft. That residency included an actual residence – an old house that possibly had housed farmhands back when the school’s campus was an orchard. The windows would blow open at night: “I didn’t know that was a thing,” Baden said. “I thought that was just in old movies.”
As those 16 weeks ticked away, he began applying for other academic postings and was offered a position at OSU.
At OSU, he teaches classes including beginning photography, lighting (beginning and advanced) and documentary photography.
That means he’s teaching classes to students who have been taking photos on their phones for most of their lives. It adds a new wrinkle to the classroom: “Everyone thinks they’re good at photography,” he said.
So his first job in the classroom is to hammer away at the bad habits students have picked up over the years.
One of those bad habits is deleting images that a student thinks aren’t any good. Baden said the bad images can be just as important to a photographic education – maybe more so – than the good ones.
“If you only see the good things that you did, how are you ever supposed to realize where you’ve come from? It’s really important to understand, ‘OK, let’s look at some of these bad images, what did you do wrong here?’”
And some of the images students think are bad may be, upon further examination, better than they thought. So Baden’s beginning students are told not to delete anything, to turn in every image they shoot.
“Students tend to have this notion that everybody takes good photographs all the time except them,” he said, in part because they only see the good images that their friends post on social media. “It’s really important for them to understand that, look, everybody’s taking bad photographs. I take plenty of bad photographs. … If I’m pressing the shutter 100 times, I bet I’m not using more than three of them.”
On the road with OSU students, Baden examines the Sun Tunnels art installation by Nancy Holt in Utah. (Photo by Monica Szczepanski.)
Photo by Lee Niemi.
Students in his classes usually are looking for a set of skills that can serve them in any number of professions, from graphic designers to scientific researchers. Baden teaches those skills, of course, but he also wants his students to think more deeply about photography itself.
“We have lots of discussions about the way photography is used and the ethical implications of photography and what you think is OK and what you don’t. I tell them, ‘You all have a line. You have to decide if you want to cross it.’”
“Too many people walk through the world just eating up images and not ever thinking about whether or not that was an appropriate thing to consume. … Mostly I want them to know where that line is in their consumption and then that of course informs their making (images), when they decide they want to make as well.”
Baden keeps that line in mind with his own work as well. “I am VERY aware of what I make and how I make it,” he said. “So when I make something I think is going to be controversial, I am very careful how I go about it. The images that most put people off and make them uncomfortable in ‘Technically Intimate’ don't show any nudity. There's a point where you're crossing lines just to cross them, so I was very careful to make those images uncomfortable based off the thought of the act and not the outright nudity or explicitness.”
The classroom conversations go even deeper, as Baden engages students in discussion about the power of photography – he believes that not even video packs the same punch as the still image – and how “mistaken identity” fuels that impact.
“Even your educated viewer of photography mistakes the thing in the image for the thing in real life,” he said. “There’s a power to that. It’s important to recognize that mistake, but it’s a real power that you can manipulate, so much more so than painting or sculpture can ever do.”
Adding to the power of photography is that, even in an area when images can easily be altered through photo-editing software, people “still tend to believe the image on first sight regardless of how ridiculous it is.”
But Baden likes the manipulative quality of photography – and believes that, artfully used, it can help an image depict something that’s truthful.
“You’re trying to manipulate or to convince your viewer of an opinion,” he said. “You’re trying to convince them to think the same way you’re thinking. That’s what art is. You make artwork to spark a conversation or to talk to a viewer about something.”
An Oregon State University class on a photo road trip under the leadership of OSU instructor Evan Baden spent a moonless night in the Nevada desert -- the darkest place in the United States. The howls of coyotes provided the soundtrack. (Photo by Evan Baden.)
Name: Evan Baden
Occupation: Professional photographer; instructor of photography at Oregon State University’s College of Liberal Arts.
Family: Wife, Mallory; daughter, Edith, 2.
Three photographers who have influenced him:
“Those three do really form a base for me in how I think about photography and how I operate within it.”
One of the hallmarks of Evan Baden’s work in the classroom is that he works hard to get students out of the classroom.
“There’s way more photography that happens in the world than happens in a studio somewhere,” he said.
So his students tackle a variety of outdoor projects, including a shoot in which students are told to create photos that might be used in a catalog selling outdoor apparel. The goal is to teach students how to work fast and still get variety in the shots.
And twice now, he’s taken students on 10-day immersive road trips – packing students into a pair of Oregon State University vans. “We stay off the freeways and we go through all the small towns and we see some things, right?”
On the most recent trip, the students “went to the Lava Beds National Monument in California. We went to the darkest place in the U.S., which is in the northwest corner of the Nevada desert, and we had a smokeless, moonless night for that, so we went out and we saw what it’s like to be in zero light pollution. We went to Speed Week, on the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, and so we went and watched the cars break land-speed records. We went to a couple of art installations,” tucked away into remote Utah deserts.
Students are required to photograph a certain number of landscape images, place-based images, journey-based images, and portraits of people they meet on the trip. “And the requirement there is that they have to have an interaction with the person” they’re photographing, Baden said. “So they have to have a conversation with the person, they have to know their name, where they’re from, what they do for a job, so they have to have this conversation first and then they have to try to make a good portrait of them.”
It’s good practice for the photography students, even if they wind up not pursuing photography as a career. And, even if the students don’t know it, the trip ties into a grand old tradition of photography.
“Photography has a very long history of getting in your car and driving to take pictures, so I tried to acquaint them with that a little bit.”
Photo 1: Baden, seen here photographing in the Nevada desert, teaches students the skills they need to take good shots, but also encourages them to think more deeply about the art form. (Photo by Lee Niemi.)
Photo 2: On the road with OSU students, Baden examines the Sun Tunnels art installation by Nancy Holt in Utah. (Photo by Monica Szczepanski.)
Photo 3: Photo by Lee Niemi.
Photo 4: An Oregon State University class on a photo road trip under the leadership of OSU instructor Evan Baden spent a moonless night in the Nevada desert -- the darkest place in the United States. The howls of coyotes provided the soundtrack. (Photo by Evan Baden.)