Erica Baum: From Word to Image

First, I want to wish all of you a Happy New Year. This starts the second year of our blog. We’ve designed the blog as an auxiliary resource that expands on the ideas covered in our book Design: A Beginner’s Handbook. With that in mind I thought it would be useful to explore the work of the photographer Erica Baum.

Erica Baum photo collage with text

Where do ideas come from? This question comes up often for beginning students and artists. Is there some magic answer? For an artist like Baum the answer resides close to home and is found in her personal history.

Baum has always loved reading and writing. As early as elementary school she was receiving awards for her stories. She went on to get a degree in anthropology and later an MA in teaching English as a second language. At the same time, she was involved with art from a young age and after receiving that MA she went back to school to get an MFA in Photography.

Baum is known for photographs that recontextualize found text. She zooms in close, often highlighting a single word or a small segment of a larger sentence or paragraph. The photographs become poetic spaces that combine the formal considerations found in visual art with word associations and abstract storytelling.

Erica Baum photo series of partially erased blackboards

When Baum first entered graduate school she says that “I began my work there in almost anthropological fashion, taking photographs of college life – fascinated, in particular, by Yale’s preppy, upper-middle-class aspects, which were foreign to me. Gradually I focused less on the students and more on details and textures, until I found myself photographing the squiggles, marks and partial erasures left on blackboards after classes were dismissed.” The image above is an example of one of these blackboard photographs – cropped so that the source is unclear and the viewer must become an active participant in explaining, and thus completing, the image. Of this work Baum comments, “I’d established a set of parameters within which theoretically endless encounters could unfold.”

Erica Baum photo series of library card catalogs

One day Baum went to photograph blackboards but discovered that all the rooms were occupied. Instead, she found herself in the library with her large view camera, peering into the card catalogs (still in use in the early 1990s). Opening a drawer “…was a kind of revelation: there were whole worlds in there. Photography, I realized, was a form of concentration; I could turn my attention to anything.”

Her Card Catalog Series is filled with absurd juxtapositions that appear as a natural part of the library ordering system. Words bump up against each other for no other reason than an alphabetical connection, leading the viewer to project their own associations onto the text.

Baum’s work over the last twenty years has continued the investigations into found text that she began in graduate school.

Erica Baum photo series "The Naked Eye" of fanned open pulp paperback books

I find these photographs from Baum’s Naked Eye Series remarkably beautiful. The photographs appear to be intricate collages that combine abstraction and figuration. But in fact, these aren’t collages at all. They are photographs of cheap paperback books from the 1950s and 60s, fanned open, the garish colors of the page edges forming the vertical compositional lines. Partially visible figures gaze out from the books. The name for the series comes from the first book Baum photographed, a book on UFOs that included eyewitness assertions that what they saw was real. “When something is seen with the naked eye it is supposed to be unmanipulated and true. It’s like the camera’s lens that we no longer believe delivers only just the facts.”

Erica Baum photo series "Dog-Eared" of turned down book pages

The photographs above are part of Baum’s Dog-Eared Series. Who hasn’t found themselves folding down the corner of a book page as a place marker. Unlike most people Baum noticed the accidental “found” poems in these folds, which she turned into a type of concrete poetry. As is the case in all of Baum’s work there is a strong visual and formal presentation that is combined with linguistic investigations to make a hybrid form.

Like many of the artists we’ve discussed this past year Baum looks closely at the surrounding world, honing in on the easily overlooked and turning it into something worthy of a viewer’s attention. So my advice to you is pay attention, anything can become transformed into a work of art.

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