It was a simple chore, really. Being something of a neglectful gardener, San Francisco photographer Francis Baker was cleaning out some pots whose inhabitants had long ago left the land of the living. As he pulled at the bottom of the brittle stalk, the entire root structure came loose in one tangled jumble. Baker had seen the phenomenon many times, but on this day it made him stop. To Baker’s photographic eye it looked like a natural sculpture. To Baker’s fertile imagination it was the perfect metaphor for so many human relationships. Right then and there, the seed was planted.
Francis Baker has always had something to say – a distinct point of view, but finding an outlet for his unique perspective hasn’t always been easy. He grew up in a small midwestern town. He was interested in photography at a young age, and even as a seven year old, would set up elaborate “sets” to photograph. But for the most part photography was a hobby and would stay that way until after four years at the University of Wisconsin. He actually graduated with a physics degree. “I like to know how things work, but I got to the point where I didn’t think I needed science to understand the world,” he says. So after graduation he turned his attention to photography. He went from his hometown in Wisconsin to Chicago to Miami before finally landing in San Francisco ten years ago. He lived in the area known as South of Market where the nightlife was hopping and the artistic energy was high-powered. He made money with portrait commissions, corporate jobs and wedding photography, but he also started to really focus on his art. In what would soon develop into his MO, he took big topics and translated them into thought-provoking images.
For instance, his series on America’s obsession with body image tackles a tough subject, and Baker does it in the most unexpected way. All of his photographs of the human body were printed on vogue sewing patterns – real patterns. The effect is at once disarming and challenging. With that one decision to print on patterns, Baker took photographs of the female form (which have been done a million times before) and turned them into something new – a fresh commentary on body image, fashion, and the media-fueled and unattainable search for physical perfection. Baker doesn’t do anything by accident. His photographs are meant to say something. Describing the series, Baker writes, “The self does not rest in a hand, or in a shoulder, or in a leg; and, if like tissue paper, the skin becomes wrinkled and bones fragile – the individual can remain intact, the self can still be strong.” Baker maintains that all of his photographs “don’t have to be beautiful, but they do have to be striking.”
Baker started his everyday garden series just after the turn of the century. He was determined to make the jumble of roots into something understandable and compelling. So the neglectful gardener became the attentive artist. He started by modifying his “containers.” He made molds using everyday, very identifiable objects: a Barbie, a baby’s head made out of clay, a hand, a home, a Buddha, a fist – just to name a few. He put the objects in a plastic container and filled it with resin. When the resin hardened he took the objects out and filled the negative space with dirt and a plant. He experimented with type – rosemary, hypoestes (the red leaf variety), and china doll are a few of his favorites because of the density and structure of the roots. He nurtured his living sculptures with time and water, knowing full well that eventually they would suffocate in their casket-like containers – the roots would fill up the space and then tangle together until there was no room left to breathe. That was the part that fascinated Baker the most. How could a “home” that originally provided such sustenance eventually become the very thing that destroys it? When he thought the time was right, Baker released his creations from their artificial containers and photographed the results, “I had to work fast. I only had about 48 hours before the roots and the plant were completely dried out,” he explains. Sometimes he would handprint on translucent velum paper giving the image an otherworldly feel, other times he would take a more traditional printing approach. Either way, the photographs are disturbing and mesmerizing at the same time. After seeing the series, “room to grow” takes on a whole new poignancy for the viewer contemplating his or her own relationships.
Even the titles in the everyday garden series are provocative. The baby’s head is titled Narcissism. Baker is fascinated by the concept of parents creating and raising children in their image – you know, living vicariously through the child. Of course Baker created Narcissism before the birth of his own son. It’s hard to tell if little Leo, just six months old, has changed or softened the edgy artist, but we do know his home in San Francisco’s Mission District is scattered with baby paraphernalia. The Graco portable playpen sits next to a tripod in the corner – just a small visual reminder of the two main forces in Baker’s life: family and photography. Baker and his wife moved across town two years ago, and bought a home – one of those narrow, charming row houses with steep stairs and a quaint little courtyard out back. They liked the neighborhood feel. Baker’s small, but workable studio is in the basement. It’s a perfect set up – a place to work and close proximity to home and Leo. He is starting to think about his next series, which will have something to do with growth charts – the kind used to measure a child’s height. He doesn’t know exactly what form the photographs will take, admitting the idea is in the concept phase, but you can be sure whatever he comes up with, it will be filled with the unexpected. The series is inspired, not surprisingly, by his son, who, by the way, looks like a little “mini-me” of his father – dark hair, dark eyes and a quiet, gentle disposition. And that’s another thing – you might expect an artist with such big ideas to come with an overpowering persona, but that’s not the case. Baker is gentle, thoughtful and smart. He is not preachy or pushy, he simply believes that as a species, we can do better. “As humans and as a society, I think we should be further – be more advanced somehow.” Through his art Baker is determined to push the point.
Written by: Erin Clark