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Each time I find myself cruising down Highway 1 in California between Big Sur and San Francisco, the urge to make photographs instantly strikes me. It’s an easy feeling to encounter. The rocky beaches and rolling hills tend to beg for a lens. Accompanying this sense of photographic wanderlust is a recognition of walking in the footsteps of some of the greatest American photographers that the twentieth century ever produced. Names like Weston, Adams, and Cunningham all seem to linger in this area of the country. However, there’s another name connected to the deep photographic past of the west coast that you might not know quite so well but should: Morley Baer. In this installment of “Lessons from the Masters,” we’re going to take a closer look at the prolific work of Morley Baer and learn some valuable lessons about how he went about the business of photography that you can use to improve your images.
Morley Baer came into this world on April 5th, 1916 in Toledo, Ohio. After graduating from the University of Michigan with a BA in English and an MA in Theatre Arts, he briefly worked in advertising in Chicago until fate pressed him into his life’s work. After seeing an exhibition of Edward Weston’s work, Baer became captivated by the medium of photography. He left his position with the advertising firm he worked to educate himself in the art of photography. After working in commercial photography briefly, he soon made the journey to Carmel, California to track down Edward Weston.
After serving in the Navy as war photographer from 1941 to 1946, Morley and his now wife Frances (also an artist and photographer) embarked on a decades-long exploration into photography in and around the Bay Area of California until finally settling in their home/studio near Garrapata Beach. Baer became one of the most desirable architectural photographers of his time. His landscape and seascape works are also still widely regarded as some of the finest photographic representations of the west coast of California ever to be recorded on film.
Here are some, but certainly not all, of the lessons you can’t learn from Morley Baer.
For the main body of his landscape and architectural studies, Baer used one camera and one camera only; the Ansco 8x10S view camera. In our modern day photography jungle, we are constantly harangued by the marketing mentality that if our cameras are not the newest, then they are somehow lacking. Of course, that’s just an opinion.
In any case, Morley was an expert operator of his Ansco to the point when it became almost an appendage and an extension of his physicality. Similar in practice to Ed Weston, the fact that Baer became so monogamous with his singular 8×10 view camera speaks volumes to us today.
Whatever your camera or tools, make yourself so familiar with their functions that you can control them without hesitation. The adage “the best camera is the one you have with you” is not enough. We must strive to become absolute masters of the tools we use to make our photographs. The tool is secondary to the ability of the user. No matter what gear you happen to be using it is essential that you understand how to use it and use it well.
Not only was Baer’s proficiency of his 8×10 camera finely tuned in, but he was also quite fixed in the way he presented his photographs. Morley was a darkroom master printer, and he virtually always printed his photographs using the contact method and seldom used an enlarger. This meant the negative was exposed directly in contact with the paper resulting in an image the same size as the negative. Contact printing remains one of the most simple and pure forms of printing even today. Regardless of its merits or limitations, this was the vehicle Baer found worked best for him and his creative expression.
While we should all continue to learn and grow with our photography, there must also be a conscious recognition of the methods and techniques that tend to produce the best results time and time again. Hone in on the processes that allow you to reach your fullest potential and pay no mind to whether or not they are popular or follow certain “rules.” When it comes to photography the so-called “rules” are there to guide us, not limit our flight.
Every so often I get an email or a Facebook message from someone asking whether or not they should enter a particular photography contest. I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with the idea of grading one photograph against another. This is because I feel it causes us to miss the purpose of photography altogether. At the same time, a photograph is a visual medium, and as photographers possess an inescapably inherent narcissism; we want our work seen by others.
I mentioned earlier that Baer’s wife, Frances, was also a camera jockey. Not only did she make photographs herself, but she was also remarkably accomplished in her own right to the point where Morley and Frances were essentially domestic competitors with their photography. There is a famous tale of them reaching an agreement for rights to photograph scenes when they were on road trips. The agreement they reached thereby declared that everything on the left side of the road belonged to the driver while everything on the right belonged to the passenger.
It’s important for us to reach a certain level of catharsis with our photography so that we produce work that is representative of our vision. At the same time, healthy (and I do stress the “healthy” part) competition with other photographers not only keeps our creative juices flowing but also serves to engage us with our fellow shooters. We learn and better ourselves through interaction with the work we love and respect. With the correct perspective, competition with our peers promotes dynamic artistic growth.
As with all esteemed photographers, seeing the work in person brings about a level of appreciation that cannot be obtained by merely viewing a photograph on a computer screen. I’ve recently been fortunate enough to visit select galleries in and around the areas where Morley Baer lived and operated. As usual, it’s easy to look and see the beauty of Baer’s photographs, but as perpetual students of photography, we should always seek to find what we can learn from those whose work we admire.
The lessons listed here are just a few to glean from Morley. Digest them and put them into practice with your own work. However, don’t stop there. Learn all you can, when you can and where you can. Never stop exploring the incredible world of photography.