Images and excerpts from the Cambridge Arts Council exhibit currently on display
PHOTOS BY KARL BRADEN
We appreciate the opportunity to publish these photos by Karl Braden. They’re among an exceptional bunch from a show put on by the Cambridge Arts Council, all of which you can see at the 344 Gallery through February. The following description of the project, titled Mass Ave, Cambridge, comes from the artist and the CAC. –Dig Editors
How would you describe Massachusetts Avenue, the 16-mile road that runs from the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston to the Town of Lexington?
“When I began this project, I felt that my mandate was to produce a document of record, something that would convey, objectively and with some emotional distance, a sense of a place at a particular time,” writes Cambridge artist Karl Baden, who has spent the past two years photographing the four miles at the middle of Mass Ave, where it runs through the city of Cambridge.
Baden’s exhibition Mass Ave, Cambridge provides a window onto Cambridge’s essential artery.
Baden, an associate professor at Boston College, has been taking photographs most of his life. His photography often begins with ideas that define the parameters of his projects—photographing through the window of his car or photographing people coming out of the Harvard Square MBTA station. He’s best known for Every Day, in which he’s photographed his own self-portrait in nearly the same way each day since Feb. 23, 1987. It’s become a study of aging and mortality.
Mass Ave, Cambridge began with a conversation between Baden and Lillian Hsu, Cambridge Arts’ director of public art and exhibitions. In recent years, Baden has developed a particular interest in the people, the serendipity, and the visual forms found along our streets and sidewalks. An idea for an exhibition sprung from what seemed like a simple objective: Karl could spend a year and a half recording life along Mass Ave from Arlington to the Charles River. But, of course, Mass Ave is vividly complex.
Baden’s resulting Mass Ave photos mix objective documentation and personal interpretation. The pictures show people walking down the street, people dancing, people stepping out for a smoke, people bundled up against falling snow, people out in summer shorts. There are smiles and pain and love. You’ll recognize icons of the avenue—the Charles River, Out of Town News, Porter Square. There are dogs and buses, advertising signs, reflections in windows. Side by side, the photos add up to a portrait, unique to our time and place, of the jostle and jumble and life of the thoroughfare.
“Massachusetts Avenue is both backbone and central artery for the city of Cambridge,” Baden writes. “Though it spans a total of 16 miles, from Dorchester to Lexington, four of those miles run through Cambridge. Mass Ave is the only street to traverse the city uninterrupted, from the Charles River to the Arlington border. This stretch includes Central, Harvard and Porter Squares, MIT, Harvard and Lesley College of Art & Design, City Hall, Cambridge Common, houses, apartment buildings and a myriad of businesses and storefronts. Mass Ave defines Cambridge as much or more than any other street, structure or location in the city.
“I can’t say that the project is finished, or even that the photographs describe what is unique and important about their subject … and I’m OK with that. At this juncture, I’m too close to the work to draw firm conclusions.”
The following is a statement from the artist:
Several years ago, I happened to be in this building to renew my parking sticker. Having a little spare time, I went upstairs to say a brief hello to Lillian Hsu, the Cambridge Art Council’s Director of Public Art and exhibitions. I’d just had a show at the Howard Yezerski Gallery of photographs made in Harvard Square, and as serendipity would have it, my brief hello led to a series of conversations between Lillian and me around the notion of what defines a place and how these defining criteria may change or disappear, to be replaced over time. Our conversations became more serious, eventually leading to the suggestion that I might document the varieties of life in flux along Mass Ave in Cambridge as it winds through the districts and neighborhoods in its path.
Now, after two years of photographing, both day and night, in sunshine and in blizzards, in rush hour crowds, people-packed celebrations and on lazy, empty Sunday afternoons, on the main drag and peeking up side streets, my contracted time seems to be up. I can’t, however, say that the project is finished, or even that the photographs describe what is unique and important about their subject. And I’m OK with that. At this juncture, I’m too close to the work to draw firm conclusions.
When I began this project, I felt that my mandate was to produce a document of record, something that would convey, objectively and with some emotional distance, a sense of a place at a particular time. I thought of the FSA [Federal Farm Security Administration documentary photos of the 1930s].
I thought of Lee Friedlander’s Factory Valleys. I would need to include all the important signifiers: the intersections, buildings, monuments. I would try to capture neighborhoods in the midst of racial or socioeconomic change. I could not miss an event. I had to pay equal attention to all parts of Mass Ave and allow them equal space in presentation.
As I photographed, however, I began to feel myself pulled in another direction, more subjective and personal. I was drawn to certain places, certain subjects, and had little interest in others. I was being simultaneously pulled in two directions by opposing forces: objective document vs personal interpretation. Add to that the issue of representation. Both Harvard and Central Square, for example, host significant homeless populations. How should they be represented? If I can’t figure out how to represent them fairly, do I ignore them entirely?
In the end, I feel I had to compromise. The subjective force prevailed, I believe, though not entirely. Photographs serving as “visual statistics” are still part of the project, but I don’t find them compelling on their own; they need to be presented in context. To that end, one wall contains four flatscreens. Each screen displays images from a specific swath of Mass Ave: Harvard Bridge to Central Square, Central to Harvard Square, Harvard to Porter, Porter to Arlington. The monitors allow me to show several pictures at once, to compare and contrast, to make connections in time and space, so that the whole may end up greater than the sum of its parts.
Have I been successful at this? I have no idea. Ultimately, the photographs may say more about me than about their nominal subject. But as always, once the work is up on the wall, I need to step back and hope it is able to live its own life.
MASS AVE, CAMBRIDGE: PHOTOS BY KARL BADEN. EXHIBITION AT GALLERY 344, 344 BROADWAY, CAMBRIDGE. RUNS THROUGH 2.14.2020.