| What is your story of Mass. Ave.? What does it mean to you? Cambridge photographer Karl Baden spent two years photographing Mass. Ave. in Cambridge to produce his current exhibition highlighting the city’s essential artery at Cambridge Arts’ Gallery 344. Join Cambridge Arts on Thursday, Feb. 6, 2020, from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m., for a community conversation inspired by Mass. Ave. in Cambridge at the gallery at the City Hall Annex, 344 Broadway, second floor, Cambridge. Free. Bring your stories and memories of Mass. Ave. in Cambridge to share aloud. Tell us how Mass. Ave. embodies Cambridge. Tell us about your favorite spot along the street. Tell us of the good times you have had along Mass. Ave. Tell us about the people you met there. Tell us how it broke your heart. Tell us how it changed your life. Baden will kick off the conversation by recounting his experience photographing Mass. Ave. Then moderator Jean Dany Joachim—a Cambridge playwright and actor, Poet-in-Residence at First Church in Cambridge, and director of City Night Readings—will invite attendees to share their stories of their experiences of the thoroughfare.
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.”
Massachusetts Avenue is both backbone and central artery for the city of Cambridge. Though it spans a total of sixteen miles, from Dorchester to Lexington, four of those miles run through Cambridge. Mass Ave is the only street to traverse the city uninterrupted, from the Charles River to the Arlington border. This stretch includes Central, Harvard and Porter Squares, MIT, Harvard and Lesley College of Art & Design, City Hall, Cambridge Common, houses, apartment buildings and a myriad of businesses and storefronts. Mass. Ave. defines Cambridge as much or more than any other street, structure or location in the city.
Several years ago, I happened to be in this building to renew my parking sticker. Having a little spare time, I went upstairs to say a brief hello to Lillian Hsu, the Cambridge Art Council's Director of Public Art and exhibitions. I'd just had a show at the Howard Yezerski Gallery of photographs made in Harvard Square, and as serendipity would have it, my brief hello led to a series of conversations between Lillian and me around the notion of what defines a place and how these defining criteria may change or disappear, to be replaced over time. Our conversations became more serious, eventually leading to the suggestion that I might document the varieties of life in flux along Mass. Ave. in Cambridge as it winds through the districts and neighborhoods in its path.
Now, after two years of photographing, both day and night, in sunshine and in blizzards, in rush hour crowds, people-packed celebrations and on lazy, empty Sunday afternoons, on the main drag and peeking up side streets, my contracted time seems to be up. I can't, however, say that the project is finished, or even that the photographs describe what is unique and important about their subject. And I'm ok with that. At this juncture, I'm too close to the work to draw firm conclusions.
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. I thought of the FSA [Federal Farm Security Administration documentary photos of the 1930s].
I thought of Lee Friedlander's "Factory Valleys." I would need to include all the important signifiers: the intersections, buildings, monuments. I would try to capture neighborhoods in the midst of racial or socioeconomic change. I could not miss an event. I had to pay equal attention to all parts of Mass. Ave. and allow them equal space in presentation.
As I photographed, however, I began to feel myself pulled in another direction, more subjective and personal. I was drawn to certain places, certain subjects, and had little interest in others. I was being simultaneously pulled in two directions by opposing forces: objective document vs. personal interpretation. Add to that the issue of representation. Both Harvard and Central Square, for example, host significant homeless populations. How should they be represented? If I can't figure out how to represent them fairly, do I ignore them entirely?
In the end, I feel I had to compromise. The subjective force prevailed, I believe, though not entirely. Photographs serving as “visual statistics” are still part of the project, but I don't find them compelling on their own; they need to be presented in context. To that end, one wall contains four flatscreens. Each screen displays images from a specific swath of Mass. Ave.: Harvard Bridge to Central Square, Central to Harvard Square, Harvard to Porter, Porter to Arlington. The monitors allow me to show several pictures at once, to compare and contrast, to make connections in time and space, so that the whole may end up greater than the sum of its parts.
Have I been successful at this? I have no idea. Ultimately, the photographs may say more about me than about their nominal subject. But as always, once the work is up on the wall, I need to step back and hope it is able to live its own life.
Cambridge Arts Council
City Hall Annex, 344 Broadway, 2nd Floor, Cambridge, MA
Gallery 344 is free and open to the public.
Monday 8:30am - 8:00pm
Tuesday - Thursday 8:30am - 5:00pm
Friday 8:30am - 12:00pm
Saturday - Sunday closed
Cambridge Arts Council Public Art Program
In accordance with Cambridge's Public Art Program, one percent of construction costs for capital improvements is designated to support the inclusion of integrated, site-responsive public art. Since 1979, over 200 artworks have been commissioned into the Cambridge Public Art Collection for the enjoyment of all who live, work and visit the city.