He’s been nicknamed the “father of the selfie” and the “original selfie master,” and when you consider Karl Baden’s obsessive picture-taking streak, you can understand why.
Every day, Baden – an associate professor of the practice in the Art, Art History and Film Department – takes a picture of his face. Last month, he reached the 30th anniversary of his project, a daily documentation of the aging process called “Every Day.” For perspective, that means since February 23, 1987, Baden has religiously done the same thing nearly 11,000 times inside his Cambridge home, or wherever he is.
“When I do it I think, ‘This is another day.’ It’s like punching life’s time clock,” says Baden. “When I started the streak, they weren’t called ‘selfies.’ The Internet belonged to the Defense Department. Digital cameras really weren’t on the market. My reasons for doing it were a lot different than people’s reasons for doing selfies today.”
Baden had no expectations for the project when he started, other than to make it a lifelong one: “I hoped I’d be doing it 30 years, I hoped I’d be doing it 80 years.” He describes “Every Day” as a statement about mortality, obsession, imperceptible change and perfection – one that relies on daily monotonous repetition and attention to detail.
“I try to make every picture as close to the last one as possible – I use the same camera, the same film, the same lighting, the same backdrop, the same facial expression,” he explains. “I don’t do anything to my face in terms of a beard or mustache, or change my hair style. This way, all the variables that could possibly occur in terms of equipment or me are eliminated except for the one thing I can’t control, which is how my body and my face ages.”
Baden’s repetitive picture-taking has stood the test of time, travel (he brings a portable kit with him) – even a bout with cancer.
“I had cancer in 2000 and began treatments in January 2001,” says Baden. “Over the course of six months, there is a point where you can see the effects chemotherapy had on me and you can see me go from normal to sick and back to normal. The only thing that changed is I lost my eyebrows – they never grew back.”
Baden, who began teaching at Boston College in 1989, is also using his “Every Day” project as an assignment in the classroom. He gives students a picture of his face taken the day they were born, and asks them to change it around in a way that reflects their birth.
One day Baden will long remember is Oct. 15, 1991 – precisely because he forgot about his daily ritual.
“I did forget that day and it was for no good reason. I was teaching at both Boston College and the Rhode Island School of Design at the time and as I was driving down to Providence, I realized I hadn’t taken my picture yet, so I made a mental note to do so when I got home. But I forgot and that was that.”
There’s no end date for his project, says Baden.
“I hope people see a little bit of what I see in doing it and what that is,” says Baden. “It doesn’t have to do with the current selfie-sharing craze but the idea that photography at its most basic and most essential function is to record something in space over the passage of time.
“I’d also like viewers to see someone documenting something that is almost imperceptible in his life, the day-to-day change culminating in the changes over years and decades, which is something we all go through. This project serves a very basic purpose. If they can see that, I think that would satisfy me.”
–Sean Hennessey / University Communications