Interview: Kate Baker & David Roberts by Christopher Deere
It’s almost too overwhelming for any serious shutter-bug to visit Kate Baker and David Roberts: to see how they have found and made a place that is so well-suited to the pursuit of high-craft photography, with all of the material arranged and available in a setting that allows all of the time and space needed for the production of a good print. It doesn’t seem fair. Fair and right it is, however, because the two are so devoted to and determined about the practice of archival-quality photography that they have made sure of their ability to do it.
Partners in life and in light, Baker and Roberts make their home and their photographs in the hills just above Warburton. Their new home – they were still in the middle of moving in and setting up at the end of January – is all about their common vocation as fine-art photographers. With a workroom, a darkroom, a studio gallery, a storage room and a library there is no reason not to be able to produce a big picture that will last forever. The rumpled green blanket of the Yarra Ranges stretches all around, placing David’s seasonal role as a fire-watcher in close perspective with his large-format photographer’s view of the world.
Speaking in their kitchen on a mild summer afternoon, Kate makes clear what the new place means to the couple: “For David and I, this now is a home that can be our sanctuary and our base. We have a beautiful workspace set up, so that we can focus fully on our work. We have a darkroom, we have a space where we can hang and show our work, and we have a dedicated workspace to look after our prints. So for us this is really a long-term way to get all of those issues out of the way and be totally focused on our art.”
Neither surely needed to persuade the other of any interest in traditional large-format photography, as they met at the first gathering of ‘The View Camera Gathering’ at Trentham in 2007. Friends for some years before becoming partners, each had already followed an independent career in publication and exhibition for many years. When they decided to combine their lives and vocations they made their home on a small remote property in the Don Valley, an idyllic hamlet that was also and alas not very suitable for the production and storage of archival-quality photographs. The move to Warburton is a concrete statement about the couple’s long-range dedication to their work as traditional-technique image-makers.
“We both love the same thing, but we take very different paths toward and around it,” says David. “Our hearts are passionate about it, and that’s a wonderful thing to share. We don’t have to see the same way, and we don’t have a competition about it.”
When it comes to the issue of influences each is keen to point out that they have now reached a point of confident expression and style. As Kate says,
“Ultimately, I tend to follow my own voice. There are photographers that I admire: so, for example, I really like Sally Mann’s work, I like Ruth Bernhard’s work … she did a lot of portraits and nudes. Sometimes,” she adds, “I‘m more inspired by paintings than other people’s photographs.”
And by music, another aspect of her background that now finds its expression in her portraits of dancers and musicians. Kate’s dancers are both haunting and haunted, almost the ghosts of their desperate urge to bring their movement to life in the visible world. Her musicians are shown in the very act of making music, in the peak moment of using their various instruments for greatest effect.
“I was raised playing classical music,” Kate explains. “So, for me, music has always been evocative of mood … listening to words, lyrics, is a new experience.”
David is almost in confessional mode as he reveals a telling detail about his development as a serious photographic practitioner: “For a number of years I did not look at anyone else’s work at all,” he says. “I wanted to explore for myself. I deliberately cut myself off for probably four or five years.” He pauses, and adds, “It was kind of like swimming in the deep end of the pool.” This separation from the examples and influences of other photographers served to sharpen his ability and reassure him of his decision to concentrate upon large-format photography, leading to the subjects and projects for which he has become so highly regarded.
“I began to have a passion for photography when I was in my forties and was using a thirty-five millimetre [camera], never pleased with the kinds of prints that I was getting; so moved up to medium-format, was more happy but still not pleased, not satisfied with the prints: with the tonality, with the detail, I felt that there was a presence lacking.”
David’s background of academic interests – he has a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and a master’s degree in theology – have helped to form the outlook for his work with a camera. “I think [that] more important than what is photographed is why and how it is photographed,” he says. “The whole idea of me photographing something is to be able to make, recognise and hopefully photograph a connection, regardless of the subject, whether a landscape or a portrait.
“Minor White, for example, said that he photographed things for what else they were. So he had a sense that you could look at something and make a photograph of it; but you could also go past it, and see something deeper, different layers from the outside layer.
In an obvious nod to the influence of one of his favourite photographers, Edward Steichen, David’s website carries the name and the design of Camera Work, the seminal journal of the craft that was founded and published by Alfred Steiglitz during the early twentieth century. Steichen designed the cover with its trademark plain-bordered title, and became the most frequently presented photographer throughout the publication’s fifteen-year run. In his use of the name David underlines the seriousness and authenticity that he brings to his photographic practice, using very much the same techniques and materials as the traditionalists who worked to turn photography into a form of fine art.
It was in 2007, also, that David photographed the Dalai Lama after contacting the host organisation for the supreme Buddhist leader’s visit to Australia. Making such a bold request is not unthinkable to him, as it fits in with his idea of the timeless nature of classic portrait photography. His pictures show the famous figure as a little less His Holiness and a little more a humble Tibetan monk, underlining the quiet spiritual aspect of his being.
Another of David’s signature portrait subjects is Mark Strizic, the leading Australian modernist documentary photographer who died in the December of 2012. Roberts photographed Strizic at his Wallan home earlier that year, sitting in a lozenge of soft light while the surrounding details of chair and painting and bookcase and coffee table fade away behind him. Strizic is looking out of the frame, almost as though he is being startled by whatever the view that he has noticed outside the window. The photograph is an emblem and an honouring, a quiet gesture of respect for the life and being and work of a master image-maker.
Kate’s own fondness for portrait photography shows in the strong sense of character that is highlighted in her images, where the identifiability of the subject fills or even pushes out past the edges of the frame.
“What motivates me is my ability to connect with my subjects, and my ability to express [that] connectedness. My intention with the dance series was that I wanted people to understand what it feels like to dance. I know that it feels amazing to be able to express your soul through movement and dance. But I wanted someone who doesn’t dance to be able to see that, and to relate to it.
“I love portraiture,” she says, “because you have the opportunity to be with somebody: where it’s only you, that person, nobody else in the world, the two of you and a camera. It’s as though a doorway opens and I’m given the opportunity to be present.”
Her urge to bring out the character in even the most unlikely of subjects led to the Oasis Project, a two-and-a-half year involvement with the Oasis Youth Support Network at Surry Hills in Sydney. A residential and outreach programme operated by the Salvation Army, Oasis supports and cares for homeless and disadvantaged young people from their middle teens to their middle twenties.
The project led to the book Fridays At Oasis, which presented the subjects’ testimonies with Kate’s portraits in a plain statement of lived reality. As Kate points out: “In the Oasis series I photographed about fifty young people; and only two ever tried to comb their hair, or say ‘What do I look like?’ They understood: because I went in in a very straight, authentic way, tried to be completely without any artifice. Two people said, ‘Why are you doing it?’ So I said to them, ‘Well, I’m really interested in character; and I hope that through this photograph it’s something that reflects who you are’.”
The fundamental regard shared by the couple for their subjects as recognisable people is illustrated in the legacy of the project for Kate, who says, “I started that series in 2006, and I still have several of the young people from that series in contact with me, and they will tell me what they’re up to. Two of them have actually taken up photography. So I know that the work touched them. I know that some of these young people who were subsequently homeless again have had almost no possessions, but they take their photographs with them.”
Another of her subjects is an out-of-focus middle-aged woman writing in a book, with a cup and saucer showing sharply as they sit tilting into one corner of the frame. “I met Indigo in a café,” says Kate. “She’s a writer; she seemed very interesting. In fact she was a finalist in the National Biography Award one year, for her memoir about a traumatic life experience. I was introduced to her because she had heard about my book; she didn’t realise at the time [that] it wasn’t a fiction book.
“I asked if I could make her portrait; and she said, ‘What should I do?’ I said, ‘You don’t need to do anything. Just do whatever you’re going to do while you’re here’.”
The picture tells its own story of quiet concentration, of time and patience for a solitary creative activity. The figure is shown as lost in her own purpose, her indistinct features lending the suggestion of her retreat from the wider world.
“I really wanted to express her world, and so the photograph was all about her and her journal. She goes to cafes, and she sits in them for hours and hours on end, and writes in these beautiful leather-bound journals and sips cups of tea from beautiful fine china; and she gets completely immersed in her own world.”
Kate’s next project will soon take her a little further away from home, as she prepares to leave the Yarra Valley to visit Germany for six weeks.
“I’ll be photographing a dancer with a piece of work that I have in mind inspired by Nijinsky, the Russian ballet dancer who fundamentally inspired modern dance.”
For the couple and their cameras, the move to Warburton is a marker for the next stage of their careers.
David’s last word is a modest statement of the calling that photography has become for him. “I hope to give it everything I have for the rest of my life,” he says. “It’s something that I feel that I can give to, but it also feels like something that nourishes me.”
More about Kate Baker
More about David Roberts