written by Angela Romeo
And with that, one enters the world of photographer Stephen Baumbach. Within the walls of his studio one must leave ego, id and super id behind. It is here that Baumbach is photographer, artist, mentor, teacher, critic, advocate (devil’s and otherwise) and friend.
Born into a military family living at Edwards Air Force Base, Baumbach spent his youth in Kern County. But military life involves moving from place to place, and the skills involved in moving have served Baumbach well, as he has lived in locations from Japan to Boston.
This lifetime of travel has led Baumbach to his now. “I have found my way,” he explains. “I have always known I am an artist, but to say those words is the result of a lifetime of journeys. My father was not impressed with my decision, so he decided that the military would be the better choice. I spent 20 years in the Air Force. From there I did my time in the corporate world. I spent the last few years in that world trying to get fired, but the more abrasive and brash I was, the more the corporate world embraced me. Finally I just had to quit.”
Drawing upon the discipline from his military days, the acumen from his corporate days and his artistic talent, Baumbach opened the doors to his studio in 2005. “To earn the elusive dollar, I became an accomplished portrait and real estate photographer,” he notes. “But I continued to experiment and explore the outer limits of photography.”
Well-versed in old-school methods, Baumbach understands the joys and vagaries of the darkroom. “With film there is always an element of surprise. The eye takes the image. Next, in the darkroom the negative is produced. The surprise—did the eye capture the image? That is the reveal moment. At that point the negative can be manipulated, or not, to create a photograph.”
Baumbach also began to explore digital in 2005. “The process is the same. The eye takes that image. Photoshop becomes the new dark room. Anything Photoshop can do can be done in the darkroom.
“But what digital photography has done is create bloat,” Baumbach continues. “Many tell me they have 500,000 images stored. I have to ask why. Can saving all 500,000 images be justified? I doubt it. Someone with 500,000 images likely has only a few thousand worth storing.” Here is where the harsh reality of Baumbach’s house takes root. “Social media have created a cult of fake adoration. For every posted image that elicits an ‘awesome,’ the reality is different. An objective eye can tell the difference between a snapshot and a photograph. Each has its place, but the two are not the same.”
And here is where Baumbach’s critical thinking takes over. “A person asking me for guidance needs to be open. When I teach, I start with the very basics—a pinhole camera. You cannot be a photographer in the digital age without knowing the basics and the history of photography.
“Many digital photographers don’t understand the dials, buttons and levels on their cameras,” Baumbach points out. “Even basic concepts of photography—depth of field comes to mind—are unknown. I teach these basics. I teach about the history of photography. For example, Matthew Brady, known for Civil War battlefield photos, used highly explosive silver halide. The silver crystals make up an image on a negative. When exposed to light, the crystals create an image. The crystals not exposed are washed off, leaving either a negative (film) or positive (print) image. Brady and his assistants used this method on the battlefield. What is little known is that, because silver halide is explosive, several of Brady’s assistant were killed. Yes, we have come a long way with the technology, but the basics remain.”
Baumbach comes back the basics quite often. “An artist does not take a photograph. A photographer is making an image. Two different issues. If one is constantly fixing an image in post-production, Photoshop, there is a problem. The problem is with the photographer. Lack of knowledge will always be revealed.
“I am a better photographer – not because of ego but because of education. I keep learning. I want to share what I learned. Here, in this space, photographers of all skill levels can gather to work and to share knowledge. Here we can network and bring jobs to the area. I find it incredible that local publications and businesses will look outside this valley for photography services. Look around—the talent is here! Why ignore it?”
Nowhere is Baumbach’s respect for the artist more evident than in his forthcoming exhibition, A Show of Hands. Opening September 2017 with the reception on the 6th of that month, A Show of Hands features intimate photographs of the hands of Coachella Valley and High Desert artists.
“These black and white photos offer no judgments,” Baumbach explains. “The works show no faces and no artwork. I focused only on the hands of the artists, and the photos reveal their more vulnerable, intimate side.
“When I proposed the project, I was not certain of the response, but I could not have asked for a more sincere outpouring from the artist community. I have had the pleasure to sit with 100 artists. The experience of talking with each on an intimate level was humbling. Some of the artists I knew, some I met for the first time. But with each encounter I learned about the person. The very art of photographing the hands was more intimate than any photography I have ever done. The strength and vulnerability of the artists shine through. What they create is secondary to the hands that create the work.
“The intimacy of the encounter was best captured in black & white,” continues Baumbach. “Color was not an option. The simplicity of the background, devoid of distractions, creates a powerful image.
“Artists came into my house, my studio, hands covered with paint—proof of their existence as artists. They revealed parts of their hidden selves. Miguel Criado had lost his legs, and we discussed that moment and how his prostheses carry him forward. I photographed Miguel with his hand on his titanium leg.”
The desert’s Grande Dame of artists, says Baumbach, is Peggy Vermeer, who is in her nineties and still creating. ”Peggy sat and folded her hands, which tell a story of dignity, beauty and elegance. The position was natural and exemplified a quiet strength that is rare.
“I am an artist charged with capturing a moment in time. A Show of Hands is more than an exhibition of my work. It is capturing history. I took that task seriously. The most difficult photograph? My own hands. I know their story better than anyone.”
To bare one’s own self is unsettling. A Show of Hands is far more intimate than had the artists been photographed in the nude. It is an expression of Baumbach’s respect for art and the hands that create it.
Stephen Baumbach—thank you.
A Show of Hands, September 6th from 6-9pm at the Backstreet Art District, 4116 Mathew Drive Palm Springs. For more information visit www.stephenbaumbach.com