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Spotlight
 
The Photographer
 

Photo courtesy of Kyle Bajakian

”In my view you cannot claim to have seen something until you have photographed it.” – Emile Zola

I recently came to terms with the knowledge that my septuagenarian Uncle Phil can upload an iPhone photo to Facebook faster than I can say “cheese.” If that doesn’t capture an image of how modern technology has altered the world of photography... well then, I just don’t know what will. No offense to Uncle Phil, but this is a man who was born at about the same time as the Retina I, Kodak’s first mainstream, 35mm camera. Before that, it was brownie boxes and dry plates.

The world of photography recently experienced another huge step in evolution. Considering the rise and affordability of the digital camera, the Internet’s instantaneous access to global communication, and the magic wand that took the form of Apple’s iPhone, it’s not hard to see why the importance of photography and role of the photographer is suddenly contested.

Kyle Bajakian, a Bozeman-based photographer and photography instructor at Montana State University, eloquently summed up this debate with a simple question: “Where are we going with this?”

Although he agrees modern technology has completely changed how photographers work, Bajakian’s perspective on the future of photography is positive, hopeful and even inspiring.

“Basically anyone can take a pretty darn good picture these days—at least technically and aesthetically, “ says Bajakian. “But now the question becomes: What do you do with that image?”

Photo courtesy of Kyle Bajakian

After setting up their tents virtually overnight, the camp assaulting the Art of Photography claims, rightly, that anyone and everyone can capture history with the click of a button. Not buying it? Take the role of smartphones and digital cameras in the current democratic heave-ho in Moscow, the Arab Spring, and the Colombian rise against FARC in early ‘08.

This advancement has come at an especially high cost for photojournalists, in addition to the other professional and academic legions of the lens. Until quite recently, the photojournalist was the world’s primary vehicle of visual news, poised to catch the proverbial “image worth a thousand words” (and no small chunk of change, either). Vested in stereotypes, the gritty men pushed lens into the undercarriage of humanity; the classic field photographer evoked a style part-paramilitary, part-wildcat, as he was assigned again and again to the frontlines of worldly cultural events, spending months on end in hovels many steps downslope of the tourist paths. Now, the photojournalist has been largely usurped by the everyman—a Balkan schoolboy cruising a protest or a waitress in Hollywood who carries her point-and-shoot just in case.

Bajakian sees this change as opportunity. As he explains, “With so many more images being made, the language of photography is also becoming more understood.”

So, back that first question: What to do with that image?

A few years ago Bajakian started a photography series titled, “The Urban Forest,” after a creative catalyst arrived from a most unlikely source—a City of Bozeman utility bill.

Photo courtesy of Kyle Bajakian

“I received a pamphlet with my water bill that said, 'Protect Your Urban Forest,'” Bajakian says. “I was struck by the concept of an ‘urban forest,’ and how this real term is used to describe the community of trees planted and cared for in an urban environment.”

The Urban Forest” begins with a not infrequent walk down the aisle of “rephotography”; Bajakian’s project took shape as he revisited the locations for historic images of Bozeman, some of which dated back to the late 19th century. The initial goal was to demonstrate time’s mark on Bozeman’s urban forest and what differences (or similarities) could be unearthed from the town’s founding days.

The Gallatin Historical Society and Pioneer Museum graciously provided copies of their archived photographs taken during the early eras of Bozeman. Bajakian hoped the old photographs compiled next to present-day images would provide a striking narrative about the growth and texture of the city’s landscape. But he also quickly realized that with our cultural tapestry and steppe climate, the urban forest changed more quickly and more frequently than one series could hope to encapsulate.

Photo by Kyle Bajakian

“(The original concept of rephotography) worked with one or two photos,” says Bajakian, “but I wasn’t able to follow many threads of connection to photos from the past.”

Amidst the research, the professional in Bajakian found ample inspiration from the methodology of the itinerant photographers. In many cases pioneers themselves, they were the first recorders as Bozeman was built in stick and stone. With their examples as black-and-white motivation, Bajakian’s “The Urban Forest” project changed course and accelerated forward, but not as a mere comparative study of our town’s evolving landscape from agrarian to today’s mixed palette, but also to record for future analyses the present condition of Bozeman’s architecture, culture and people.

Once that effort was completed, the project evolved yet again when a student, Camden Hardy, approached Bajakian and pointed out a new thread to follow. Hardy (now a grad student in Arizona), Bajakian, along with Ian Van Coller, a professor of photography at MSU, as well as other MSU faculty members and alumni, started the “Bozeman Survey” project with the mission to create more than snippets, but a thorough visual archive of Bozeman today.

“It is meant to outlast us,” says Bajakian (pictured above), adding, “Everyone is invited to work on it, and we hope it continues to record Bozeman’s history, subjectively as well as objectively.” (Yes, Bozeman, this means you. But be quick; those tan, pocket-riddled vests at the Powder Horn won’t last long.)

Of course, the debate over the role of photography is far from over.  You can imagine the master painters’ opinions towards the very first photographers and their “cheapening shortcut.” Or how photography's pioneers felt in 1889 when Kodak released the first inexpensive, mass-produced camera. They likely sounded off in an echo of today’s sentiment, “Anybody can take a picture.”

In that sense, Kyle Bajakian and his counterparts over time are critical to the procession of photography as they provide the pivot points for embracing new technology.  From camera obscura to the iPhone, the art has always been in the doing.

-TBM

Sarah Skoglund loves all things art & design. She is an art consultant (www.sksartcompany.com) based out of Bozeman, Montana, where she specializes in curating private and corporate art collections.  Her most popular article for the Magpie from 2011 introduced the talents of JC as a part of "Inside an Outsider Artist."

Author's Note:  Bajakian's work is commercially available. If interested, please contact him at bajakian@bresnan.net.

 
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