by Clark G. Baker
This work-in-progress is a melding of Wright Baker's family photography and interview text by family members. The photographs from Wright G. Baker (Pop) are accompanied by interview text from children Beverly Rowden, Joyce Brekke and my father, Bill Baker. Velma is Wright's wife. A selection of images and interview text from the project is being presented to illustrate characteristics of family photography and to provide an understanding of family life in and around Oklahoma primarily in the 19205,305 and 403.
The photographs contained in Pop's Camera illustrate the characteristic of the family photographer to value content over technique that can be seen by the inclusion of technically flawed photographs in the family album. Subjects bleed off the edges of the frame, the photographer's shadow intrudes into the image and blurred photographs find stature in the family album.
Ambitious Aesthetic Sense in Family Imagery
Having suggested a lack of compositional awareness on the part of the family photographer, one must also note the family photographer is capable of making images that exhibit a highly ambitious aesthetic sense. Wright Baker's photograph of Velma, Joyce and Beverly taken in the Arbuckle Mountains is one such photograph. Velma's hand is placed delicately on the wind-blown tree and her gaze is away from the camera. Joyce's stance is away from the camera but her head is turned slightly towards the camera. The wind blows their hair, and Velma's hair especially resembles the wind-blown tree she is holding.
Another image taken by Wright Baker is a subtly posed image of Joyce sitting on a park bench. She is reading a book seemingly unaware of the camera. Happy, the family dog, is at her feet. The vertical composition accentuates the surrounding trees and contributes to the quiet feel of the scene. Both images show that the photographer is in control of his composition, lighting and exposure.
Variety of Subject Matter
Halla Beloff, among others, has suggested that family imagery is limited because it does not include areas of family life such as work. Yet, Pop made photographs in his work environment. These photographs give the viewer insight into a variety of construction projects.
Divergent and Convergent DialogueCertain photographs prompt responses that seem to diverge from the manifest meaning of the photograph. Pop's image of a naked and sunburned Gib is one such photograph. Originally made to be humorous, the image prompted Bill and Joyce to describe the circumstances surrounding the photograph and they added poignancy to the image by connecting that photograph to Gib's later death from Melanoma.
Joyce recalled, "There's Gibby. You know; I think so much of that, because of Gib's later melanoma. When you see how brown he was. No one was safe from Pop's camera."
Bill stated,"There's Gib, onesummer after we worked in summer jobs in Okmulgee on the farms. He wore shorts and got a tan that impressed even Pop. Pop took a picture of Gib out in the backyard facing towards the house so he wasn't facing out toward the back for the neighbors to see. We kids all had to stay away from any windows. We were cloistered in the front, because Pop was going to photograph Gib in the back. The contrast. There he is. This photograph is so poignant because Gib later died of melanoma."
Other photographs converge well with the dialog about them. One image shows Bill and Gib side by side. Gib is relaxed and smiling. Bill appears serious and ill at ease. A sense of responsibility is visible on Bill's face, and this sense of responsibility is confirmed through the dialog of all three children. Joyce Brekke describes a weight on Bill's shoulders and Bill confirms that observation by describing himself as the more serious of the kids saying, "If I think something isn't quite right, I take it too seriously." Family photographers make photographs of a variety of activities including the humorous ones. Wright Baker's photograph of Bill sitting on a box of explosives is one such photograph.
Family photographers, because they are insiders, are privy to, and sometimes help to create, the significant moment captured on film. Joyce recalled, "Pop bought all of these shoes in one day, and he had them all lined up. Gib and Bill had the boots and look at Mom's platform shoes. Pop already has the shoe forms in his. There was a family called Brown that had a shoe store on Main Street and that is where we went for shoes."
"Now, here's a man who wore his hat. The shadow of the photographer. There was a specific time of the year that you took on your straw hat. I believe it was Memorial Day, which used to be called Decoration Day, when you would decorate the graves of your family. You put it on them, and kept the straw hat until Labor Day, and then off it went for the felt fedora."
Bill recalled one photograph that was made during his senior year of high school after the traditional junior-senior fight. He said, "I didn't know anything about a junior-senior fight. I certainly didn't want to take any part in it. But I went down there. A couple guys and I were just standing around the fringes. We didn't want to have any dealings. But some guy came up who was in the boxing club. He said, 'All right. It's you and me.' Whap. So we got fighting each other. It was dark and hard to see. So, we took a number of blows back and forth. I was considered the victor, although the photo doesn't look much like it. We had beaten the bejabbers out of each other. Well, of course I didn't realize that there was blood all around me. Black eye, cut over the eye, hands beaten up. The next morning, I came home, went to bed, got up, looked terrible. So Pop was there with the camera."
Beverly Rowden's response to the image confirmed the event and gave a further insight into the event. She said, "I always looked up to Bill. I just thought he was Mr. Perfect. I don't remember if Bill was a junior or senior, but he had a fight with Harold Higdan. And Harold came into the dentist while I was there, and I can remember just hating him because I knew he hit my brother, and gave Bill black eyes."
Contributions of Pop's Camera
Taken as a whole, the photographs and interview text presented as Pop's Camera contribute to the historical record by shedding light on family life in Oklahoma. It speaks to the cohesive-ness and resiliency of family members, the value of education as a means of improving one's life conditions, the changes that occur to families over time (including births, deaths, loss of job and loss of wealth), the importance of the extended family, the variety of social activities pursued by both young and old. Family photography contributes an intimate insider's view to the historical record and is a useful adjunct to other forms of photography as document. The inclusion of interview text from the participants in family photography allows for the establishing of context and detail and the expression of abstract thought not supplied by the images themselves.
CLARK G. BAKER TEACHES PHOTOJOURNALISM AND THE HISTORY OF PHOTOGRAPHY AS AN ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR AT BAYLOR UNIVERSITY.
clark's photographic work is featured in the upcoming
BOOK, ROCK BENEATH THE SAND: THE PERSISTENCE OF THE RURAL CHURCH IN TEXAS, TEXAS ASM PRESS.