A Snapshot of a Changing City

Photos by Karl Baden.

Boston College photography professor and longtime Cambridge resident Karl Baden is often better known as “the guy who has taken a photo of himself everyday since 1987.” This project, entitled “Every Day,” has earned Baden a sort-of notoriety in the local photography community; every few years, the media coverage of the work returns in waves.

Baden’s most recent project, however, turns the camera around to face his environment. The series, called “Mass Ave, Cambridge,” documents how Cambridge is changing through photos of the iconic street taken over a two-year period. He began the series after a conversation with Lillian Hsu, the director of public art at Cambridge Arts. Prior to “Mass Ave, Cambridge” Baden was showing an exhibit of Harvard Square photos at the Howard Yezerski gallery in Boston, which helped to inspire the current exhibition.  

“Mass. Ave. is this defining route that goes through Cambridge,” Hsu says. “It’s very different depending on where you are. The four miles that it goes through Cambridge are all very different. … From the people coming into our gallery, it’d be hard to find someone who doesn’t really know some aspect of Mass. Ave. if they live or work here.”

“Obsession” is a word that he associates with his self-portrait project, but his tendency to be obsessive about his photos links “Every Day” with “Mass Ave, Cambridge.” Both leave little room for rest—Baden has only forgotten to take his self-portrait once in 32 years—and he carries a camera with him everywhere he goes, just in case. If there’s a dangerous storm, a large crowd, or any other event that would have most Cantabrigians avoiding major roads, that only makes him more likely to step outside to snap a few shots. But in a field where self-motivation is integral to success, he doesn’t consider this trait to be a bad thing. 

“I think that an obsessive quality is not necessarily harmful,” he says. “The way I see it is if your psyche is like a raging river, you can drown in it or you could put a paddle wheel in it and generate electricity.”

The challenge of taking these photos for Baden was balancing the aesthetics of the photos with the need to put forth an accurate representation of the city. While street photography is one of his specialities, documentary photography presents a new set of rules.

“I’m just trying to make pictures that are interesting to me,” he says. “But I felt the responsibility to see if I could get a sense of what Mass Ave. was in Cambridge. So, that involved paying attention to things like neighborhoods, storefronts, things that are shifting, socio-economic populations, ethnic populations.” 

What differentiates this exhibition from a document, though, lies in the fact that Baden’s perception of the city is so present in the photos, Hsu says.

“It’s a particular artist’s view,” she says, “which is different than if we wanted to hire a commercial photographer to document a street or document a neighborhood. It’s very much Karl’s view that we’re looking through.”

He used a few recurring images as guideposts while shooting, which was helpful in crafting a unified identity for a city that has a lot of ground to cover—Central Square, Harvard Square, Kendall/MIT. Across all of these locations, he “collected” images of empty storefronts, out of business signs, moving signs, and construction projects, to name a few. 

There are also photos in the show that he wouldn’t normally include “because, you know, they’re not so great,” he says. However, what they succeed in is conveying his perception of the city. The show opens with two photos of the storefront at One Central Square. The first, taken two years ago, features a paper mache effigy of the late Cambridge icon Hugh Morgan Hill, known by the stagename Brother Blue. The second, taken in 2019, reveals the storefront’s current tenant: Amazon.

“Mass Ave, Cambridge” will be on display at 344 Broadway in Gallery 344 through Feb. 14. Admission is free. To learn more, visit www.cambridgema.gov/arts.

This story appears in the Jan/Feb print issue of Scout Cambridge, which is available for free at more than 220 drop spots throughout Cambridge (and just beyond its borders) or by subscription.

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