How would you describe Massachusetts Avenue, the 16-mile road that runs from the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston to the Town of Lexington?
“When I began this project, I felt that my mandate was to produce a document of record, something that would convey, objectively and with some emotional distance, a sense of a place at a particular time,” writes Cambridge artist Karl Baden, who has spent the past two years photographing the four miles at the middle of Mass. Ave., where it runs through the City of Cambridge.
Baden’s exhibition “Mass Ave, Cambridge”—at Cambridge Arts’ Gallery 344 at 344 Broadway, Cambridge, from Nov. 12, 2019, to Feb. 14, 2020—provides a window onto Cambridge’s essential artery.
Baden, an associate professor at Boston College, has been taking photographs most of his life. His photography often begins with ideas that define the parameters of his projects—photographing through the window of his car or photographing people coming out of the Harvard Square MBTA station. He’s best known for “Every Day,” in which he’s photographed his own self-portrait in nearly the same way each day since Feb. 23, 1987. It’s become a study of aging and mortality.
“Mass Ave, Cambridge” began with a conversation between Baden and Lillian Hsu, Cambridge Arts’ Director of Public Art and exhibitions. In recent years, Baden has developed a particular interest in the people, the serendipity, and the visual forms found along our streets and sidewalks. An idea for an exhibition sprung from what seemed like a simple objective: Karl could spend a year and a half recording life along Mass. Ave. from Arlington to the Charles River. But, of course, Mass. Ave. is vividly complex.
Baden’s resulting Mass. Ave. photos mix objective documentation and personal interpretation. The pictures show people walking down the street, people dancing, people stepping out for a smoke, people bundled up against falling snow, people out in summer shorts. There are smiles and pain and love. You’ll recognize icons of the avenue—the Charles River, Out of Town News, Porter Square. There are dogs and buses, advertising signs, reflections in windows. Side by side, the photos add up to a portrait, unique to our time and place, of the jostle and jumble and life of the thoroughfare.
“I can’t say that the project is finished, or even that the photographs describe what is unique and important about their subject,” Baden writes. “And I'm ok with that. At this juncture, I'm too close to the work to draw firm conclusions.”