Seizing the Day

Geoff Baker’s landscapes of northeastern Ohio and northwestern Michigan expand our understanding of what Henri Cartier-Bresson called his quest for “the decisive moment.”

In Cartier-Bresson’s celebrated images, that “moment” is generally confined to street scenes inhabited by a person caught unawares – a pedestrian jumping over a puddle; a young man giving his girl friend a bunch of flowers. The subject’s body language dominates the frame, engaged in a kind of visual dialogue with something in the background – a shadow, a piece of architecture, graffiti. With one uncanny act of perception, the photographer becomes the hero of his quest.

Baker’s quest for the decisive moment takes place in a profoundly different setting. His subjects—a durable old barn, a skeletal tree, a murky marsh—are fixed and unmoving, grounded amid the unknowable changes of weather and the seasons. Nature—not man—rules. 

Geoff Baker photo

Geoff Baker photo

Baker’s world is decidedly American, continuous with the “sublime” in the 19th century vistas of Bierstadt and Church, the humility of Thoreau and Melville, the transcendentalism of Emerson. He is a native of Aurora, Ohio, a classic “small town” between Cleveland and Youngstown. A former executive at Republic Steel, he belongs to the American tradition of businessmen/artists exemplified by the composer Charles Ives and the poet Wallace Stevens. Like those two connoisseurs of American splendor, he has remained loyal to a homegrown passion, his adolescent pursuit of photography. Cartier-Bresson’s chance encounters have the charm of discovery. Baker’s landscapes offer the quieter satisfaction of returning to scenes that enchanted him as a child.

If Cartier-Bresson’s great subject was form, Baker’s is light – most often, first light. Often he positions himself at the edge of a clearing or a marsh, a good walk from the nearest paved surface. His palette is dynamic, an emerging one of blacks and grays as they turn into whites, greens, browns, yellows, mauves, oranges and blues – the mottled hues of shadowy things taking shape in the dawn of a new day.

One morning, Geoff picked me up at an early hour and we drove into the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. We parked along a deserted roadside and ventured by flashlight into woods. We stopped by the edge of a marsh and waited. And waited. Then, without warning other than the flapping of birds rising from the water, the light came.

Geoff crouched behind his camera. A soft click. Then another. And another. I could feel the rising mist on my face. Overhead, clouds raced. Click. Click. And then it was over.

That’s it for this morning,” Geoff said in the flat, no longer mysterious light. The camera went back into his bag. I heard the sound of cars out on the road. The decisive moment had passed.

Charles Michener was Senior Editor, Cultural Affairs at The New Yorker and at Newsweek.

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