‘I want to give you a sense of a particular environment but not in its entirety. The view is oblique and re-contextualized.'

Erica Baum’s photographic work delves into and mines found sources of text and image. As an undergraduate in college she studied Anthropology and she looked at her source materials, books, blackboards, card catalogues, player piano rolls, newspapers, sewing patterns and more, as potent artifacts that can yield poetic information reflecting the circulation and dissemination of information and material in our shared popular culture. 

‘I’m thinking about structures and systems and how a playful engagement can yield insights as well as generate new meanings,’ she explains. Transposing the tradition of street photography, she navigates intuitively framing and partially decontextualizing my subject matter to harness moments that suggest meanings beyond their original situations. Erica’s current exhibition A Method of A Cloak at KLEMM’S Gallery, Berlin, is currently closed but has been extended to June. More details can be found on the gallery’s website. PHOTOFAIRS caught up with Erica to discover more about her intriguing practice. 

The Public Imagination © Erica Baum

Hi Erica, please tell us what you are drawn to for your work and the main themes you explore. 

What interests me are the juxtapositions and sense of history derived from the words themselves even without knowing everything. I want to give you a sense of a particular environment but not in its entirety. The view is oblique and re-contextualized. In this close up immersive situation the viewer can retain a level of awareness, just enough to inform but also to allow a different visual and semantic experience to take hold. The source is familiar and recognizable but the experience is new. It is that tension between something that we recognize, that we routinely encounter and the fact that we can look at it in a different way that creates a strangeness, a difference in which exist multiple possibilities.

While respecting the constraints of a given subject, the page sequence of a book or the reference system of a library, the work suggests a visual meta-language, mixing history and humor to display the disparate, often unheard cacophony of voices present within cultural structures. Reflecting intimate and direct encounters with familiar actions and objects - opening a card catalogue drawer, opening a book, folding a page - the viewer is reminded that meaningful visual surprise surrounds us if one pays attention.

Forever Foe © Erica Baum

By combining image and text to powerful effect, your work occupies an interesting space - one that oscillates between photograph and poem. What were you drawn to explore in your practice, The word or image? 

Both. I love to savor the visual presentation of printed material, the texture of the paper and the variety of typefaces. While it is critical that an image has visual properties I’m also mindful that if there are words they will carry some degree of meaning directly or sometimes more indirectly.  Some projects tend to lean one way or the other. The Dog Ear series for example really has to carry both the words and the visual, I start with the words but the visual has to work as well. The Naked Eye, on the other hand, is more about referring to words, columns of partially glimpsed letters and the idea of the structure of the book as an object arranged around the constraints of page sequencing but for that series the visual is dominant. For my newest series Patterns there’s an almost even intersection with both. I’m looking for the words but the words come to life within the frame determined by visual choices. One of the ways Gertrude Stein is so inspiring to me is that I feel how she savors her words. The words behave like distinct objects available for our delectation.

Worry © Erica Baum

Tell us about your latest exhibition A Method of A Cloak at Klemm’s Gallery

My current display A Method of A Cloak, at Klemm’s Gallery in Berlin (and a related show at Markus Lüttgen Gallery in Düsseldorf) comprises photographs of sewing patterns. The mostly 20th century sewing patterns come factory folded in envelopes with booklets that serve as a guide for the do it yourself home tailor. I’ve been intrigued by the material quality of the semi-transparent gauzy tissue paper, the chance vocabulary and the diagrams and information. 
The title comes from Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons.  “A single climb to a line, a straight exchange to a cane, a desperate adventure and courage and a clock, all this which is a system, which has feeling, which has resignation and success, all makes an attractive black silver”, and this choice follows the title of my recent show in New York at Bureau also from Tender Buttons, A Long Dress, “What is the current that makes machinery, that makes it crackle, what is the current that presents a long line and a necessary waist. What is this current. What is the wind, what is it. Where is the serene length, it is there and a dark place is not a dark place, only a white and red are black, only a yellow and green are blue, a pink is scarlet, a bow is every color. A line distinguishes it. A line just distinguishes it.” The semantic and visual layers in the photographs of patterns echo the slippage in meanings and the loose boundaries amongst the words in Stein’s passages.

Work from the Patterns series is currently on view in an exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, the exhibition largely from the museum’s collection is titled Making Knowing: Craft in Art 1950-2019

Untitled (Reality) © Erica Baum

How much does the Modernist movement – or art movements from the past – inspire your practice?

The project of Modernism remains an open invitation with work that continues to resonate with the questions of today. 

Nuzzle © Erica Baum

Tell us a little about how you seek out these found fragments of language that you go on to photograph. Do you store lots of material to then look through and if so do you catalogue this? Or is it more you create a piece when you come across a newspaper clipping, vintage paperback and other literary artifacts that you’d like to photograph?

I’m always on the lookout to see if I can find something that I can develop into a new series. Some of my earliest projects, looking at partially erased chalk lectures on blackboards at my university and card catalogues in libraries involved returning to classrooms and libraries, developing and expanding my access to those locations. But currently my work involves things I can acquire and keep in the studio. In recent years I’ve alternated my work between several different series, so now my studio is filled with stacks of newspapers, stacks of books and stacks of sewing patterns as well as other material. I first bought some sewing patterns at a thrift store in Edinburgh. I kept them at home for over a year before I opened them up partly because I was working on other projects but also because I didn’t want to end that period of mystery and anticipation. But once I start if a material is fruitful then the series can be infinite.

Discover more about KLEMM'S Gallery here
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