The Photograph Explained: Dignity by Kate Baker

Dignity by Kate Baker

Silver gelatin photograph

A few years ago I made a series of portraits of young people at the Oasis youth refuge in Surry Hills in Sydney. Initially I used a 35 mm camera but shortly after beginning the series I started to use my Linhof 4 x 5 monorail to make the portraits. I found the beauty and natural ceremony of the view camera and everything about the associated process of making the photograph added something to these portraits. This was clearly not a happy-snap phone session or requiring some kind of “ham-it-up for the camera” experience. Instead it was quiet, private and personal, with a sense of ceremony that said without words “you matter, you are worth being seen”.

This is Dignity. I generally like to make my portraits with no one else around and this was no exception. Dignity was attending the school at Oasis after a period on the streets had disrupted his schooling and so he was now completing at least a little more of his education. Having destroyed all his childhood photographs sometime earlier, I am told this was the first photograph Dignity allowed anyone to make. He was initially distrustful as he walked in to the room, asking me what I planned to do with the photos. I answered honestly and clearly and so we began. Since this portrait I have come to know Dignity and he is smart, creative and thoughtful. This portrait is of the Dignity I met.

I love the way a large format camera allows you a different opportunity to really connect with someone through a portrait. Intimacy and open objectivity coexist. It really is like a trinity of you, the sitter and the camera…. a space where in the middle something magic can happen when a space of trust and unspoken collaboration is created. This was a longer exposure, perhaps half a second and again it seems to me that longer exposures can offer a depth that doesn’t come through as easily when the camera has only 1/125 of a second to “see” you.

For me, a portrait that stands the test of time will have something that holds your attention and allows you to engage with it. Therefore I always seek to make a portrait that is much more than a surface reflection. It needs to be something that sees beyond the surface and reveals something about the person and perhaps reaches in and touches something in you the viewer. I like that this photograph touches people in many ways. I cropped the photograph, something I don’t do that often, but I wanted to remove context and it wasn’t possible to get close enough with the lens I chose during the session itself. I like the way you cannot really age this photograph – Dignity could be from any era, from any country. Some people see a woman, some a man. I don’t correct them on this because it seems this portrait invites people to bring themselves to it. It’s not about me.

This photograph was made using Tri x film, developed in D76, pretty standard. I have printed it using a warm tone silver gelatin fibre based paper. For exhibition I printed it on 16 x 20 paper but it also suits a smaller size.

I used an old uncoated lens with the 4 x 5 Linhof.

This is the link to the series – most but not all the photographs were made using large format (the 35mm should be obvious).

Kate Baker

Kate Baker with 4x5 camera