Handsomely composed, deeply moving, timeless or inextricably of their time and place; Gordon Baer’s photographs, now on view at the Kennedy Heights Arts Center in a career-spanning exhibition, are all of the above.
Capturing the Essence: The Work of Gordon Baer purports to feature “rare photographs never shown before,” which turns out to mean never shown before in an exhibition setting. Of course these vital pictures have been seen — by those who commissioned them, by newspaper readers, by others lucky enough to have access to them. The Arts Center has done well to bring them together, newly printed and as fresh as the days on which they were taken, to show how our world has looked to a photographer with an enviable eye.
Baer took up the camera at the age of 8 in his hometown of Louisville, Ky., and essentially didn’t put it down until his recent retirement. Beginning with a small box camera and the encouragement of Brother Josephus, leader of a Louisville camera club, Baer would move on to Nikon and Tri-X Pan black and white film with occasional sorties into color. He graduated with a degree in design from the University of Louisville and in 1965 became director of photographic services for the university. A year later he was in Cincinnati, a staff photographer for what was then the Cincinnati Post and Times-Star, and in 1971 he struck off on his own as a freelancer.
Sarah Siegrist, curator for the exhibition, says that most of the new prints are digitized scans, although a few required old-fashioned dark room technique. She referred me to Baer and his wife Shirley for information on the most surprising objects in the show: color transparencies embedded in uneven, textured glass. This turns out to be a process of Gordon’s own devising, meant to be reminiscent of stained glass. He calls the technique Photo Mirage and it’s apparently his way of meeting that old bugaboo of the black-and-white photographer: color. Baer has said, “Nothing is as credible as a beautiful black and white photograph,” but I was interested to see how sensitively he handled color in the few standard examples in the show. A sensational color shot of Union Terminal, now the Museum Center, plays fast and loose with its architectural curves. Some Photo Mirage pieces are more successful than others and they are at their best when hung with light behind them.
The first work the visitor is likely to see is a stunner. “New Astroturf – Finishing Touches” (1968) hangs above the fireplace in the first gallery and shows a kneeling worker in a crescent of light. The installation of Astroturf in the new Riverfront Stadium becomes almost a holy act.
Some of the earliest photographs in the show are in the adjoining room. Between 1963 and 1966, Baer photographed a Kentucky chair maker, Chester Cornett, whose work he had come across driving down the country road on which Cornett lived. A pragmatic advertiser, he had lined the road with his products. Baer was fascinated with Cornett’s own bearded, bare-footed appearance and with his craft. He made repeated visits, publishing the photographs, until finally on a return visit there were no chairs along the roadside. I was told Baer said, “What happened to your chairs?” and Cornett told him, “You happened to my chairs.” All inventory was sold.
This is a rich show with a wide variety of emotional content. In the relatively small confines of the sun porch gallery is the heart-wrenching Vietnam Series (1980-81), exposing the lasting effects of combat; Baer’s own military experiences in the Korean War are reflected in his Korea series (1968).
“Little League Funeral,” a photograph Baer himself was anxious to include, shows small boys in their uniforms, sad and uncertain in their role as mourners.
Other photographs capture moments high and low, always in interesting, attention-compelling compositions. The mundane, attendants taking hospital patients for a wheelchair outing, becomes a striking picture when we see this line of people silhouetted against a clouded sky, moving along a slanted walk, dwarfed by a large tree. There are famous shots of the Beatles, on their first Cincinnati appearance. The photographer has his own fun with one of these: a narrow print showing John Lennon, playing and singing, that can be hung either horizontally or vertically. Baer has been giving us good things to look at for decades.
CAPTURING THE ESSENCE is on view at Kennedy Heights Arts Center, 6546 Montgomery Road, through April 20. Find more information at kennedyarts.org.