Laurie Rae Baxter: Staying Visually Connected

Laurie Rae Baxter has spent her professional career as a professor of philosophy, and when not traveling, she divides her time between the west coast of Canada and the mountains of Colorado. Her juried work has been exhibited locally and nationally, and as part of group shows in Reykjavik, Iceland; Oaxaca, Mexico; and Santa Fe, New Mexico. Her images are very much enjoyed in the collections of private patrons. Below, she shares the story of her Leica M9 named “Simone” and the influence Mary Ellen Mark has had on her work.

Q: What camera and equipment do you use?

A: I use a Leica M9, (named “Simone”) with one prime lens, a Summicron-M 28 mm.

Q: People sometimes name their cars, boats, or motorcycles, but not too many photographers give names to their cameras. Why did you choose to name your Leica M9 Simone, and what do you think it says about your personal relationship with this camera?

A: Beyond my attempt to establish an abettor relationship with my camera, I do think that many of us resort to naming objects so that we can identify or become more understanding of the thing.

Named for the two famous ‘Simones’ — Simone de Beauvoir, French philosopher for (among her many contributions) her assertion that any successful relationship “between two parties grows from mutual liberty”, something I try to keep in mind as a photographer and in life generally. And, for the distinctive voice of jazz singer Nina Simone. There is not the slightest chance of mistaking, or replicating, her clearly identifiable vocals or the power of her voice — reminiscent for me of the legendary “Leica Look”  – unmistakable. Finally, both Simones were hugely influenced by the global movement of their times, even as they helped to shape them.

Q: How would you describe your photography?

A: I would describe my photography as primarily street photography. Those photos I consider good images, I would say, possess a kind of perspicacious timing. Many of my images capture relationships in strange juxtapositions in depth and space and they, more often than not, embrace a sense of playfulness and humor.

Q: You mentioned that those images you shoot that you consider good or successful “possess a kind of perspicacious timing”. Well, the word “perspicacious” literally means having insight, the ability to see through or into things. Can you tell us anything more about how you think that word applies to your creative process, or how you achieve “relationships in strange juxtapositions in depth and space” and “embrace a sense of playfulness and humor” in the images you capture?

A: There’s the composition framed in the viewfinder and then there’s the dynamics of the actual photograph. Perspicacious timing — exactly. Hopefully I am becoming more consistent in my ability to create an image in that nanosecond when my own visual sensibilities and instincts meet-up with the genie of provenance. To find myself in that place, and then to stay present, takes a lot of practice, and practice seriously increases my chances of my making a good image.

I am curious about everything visual and very rarely will I stage a photograph. Mostly I see outside of the camera and move quickly to position the camera. More often than not I’ll release the shutter without rechecking composition or focus, which in part accounts for the strange juxtapositions in many of my images. My back-screen is turned off, and that helps me to stay with the moment, something I learned from the B&W Leica film photographers who can’t instantly review their last image. I will intermittently check the lighting levels, and then adjust my focal distance, but mainly I ready my camera, and try to stay visually connected with the action of world moving around.

Q: Are you a full-time photographer or would you describe yourself as a serious enthusiast?

A: I would describe myself as a seriously enthralled enthusiast.

Q: When did you first become interested in photography?

A: In autumn of 2009, Lúz Studio photography gallery was opened, and partner-owner and Leica photographer Quinton Gordon, offered a workshop. Following the requirements for enrollment in the class, I gathered up some of my (what my close friends referred to as “quirky”) photographs, along with a copy of  ”Water Babies”, a Blurb book of underwater images of my grandchildren, and I entered into a class of very serious photographers. Two things occurred: one of the quirks of my images promoted much discussion, and two, along with many other notable photographers past and present, I was introduced to the work of photographer Mary Ellen Mark. In February of 2010 I took my first workshop with Mary Ellen, the first of now seven workshops. I consider Mary Ellen Mark to be my primary mentor/teacher, and other than the very few technical workshops I have attended, my seminal and continued experience with photography is by and large through the workshops of this exceptional photographer and master teacher.

Q: You consider Mary Ellen Mark to be your primary mentor/teacher and note that you have learned and continue to learn a lot through attending her workshops. How do you think she has helped you to advance your photographic technique or approach, and what are a few of the most useful lessons you have taken from this experience?

A: Apart from being an amazing photographer, Mary Ellen Mark is an exceptional (and tough!) editor. No one works harder than she does. The more effort you put into your work the harder she works alongside you, pushing you to make an even better image than your last best image. Her workshops fill quickly with professional artist/photographers, many frequent workshop repeaters, and for some the Oaxaca, Mexico workshop is an annual event. The exchange and level of experience and knowledge in these groups is huge. Assigned individual projects, Mary Ellen meets daily with each participant in a one on one review before sending you back out to continue shooting. Possibly the best part of her workshop structure — along with access and individual assignments — is the students’ agreement not to show or share their working images with others in the class — only with Mary Ellen — until the final class review. I believe that this accomplishes a couple of key things — first, even though venues may overlap, you are making your own images and working with your own process, focusing on improving what you see and not (however unintentionally) repeating someone else’s shot. And second, because everyone is present for the initial portfolio reviews and we are all aware of each other’s starting place the final portfolio reviews are hugely surprising, and the images produced by the each member of the group over the course of the workshop are equally remarkable. Finally, apart from being in the company of incredible photographers and wonderful folks, the intensive commitment of time and energy has made an enormous impact on my evolution as a photographer.

Q: What approach do you take with your photography or what does photography mean to you?

A: At this point I am following the advice of Mary Ellen Mark, one camera one lens. As a beginner, I am constantly humbled by the potential of this approach. I am very interested, curious really, with life around me and when I am out photographing I move around a lot to get my pictures, hoping to find that just right expressive distance, or that camera angle which might better capture the human element. Also, before an image becomes an image of any interest, reality needs to go through a process, so I spend a great deal of time viewing and editing my images, trying to understand what makes one image work and another not. I am continually in search of the different, more evocative and significant picture. And not being at all technically motivated, I want to get the image with the camera and avoid the computer time as much as possible. Finally, I am making images that, hopefully, engage the imagination and that others find engaging.

Q:  Most of these images have a “grab shot” feel and embody a variety of impressionism in that the feeling of being there and experiencing the moment seems more important than ordering of reality, which is to say formal composition. Do you agree, and is this the essence of your evolving style? And are there also other aspects you can tell us about?

A: I would agree, to a point, with grab shot as a descriptor for many of my images. Yes, the experience of the moment does tend to dominate, and I would hope that it doesn’t completely detract me from good image making. The hard part for me is to juggle skillful observation with the premonition that something is about to happen. Hopefully, I am evolving and developing symmetry in my practice and making images which reflect a certain way of seeing or feeling, that’s important to me.

Q: What makes the above image fascinating, other than the flaming orange wig, is the fact that the subject’s face is partially obscured, leaving her jaunty eyes to convey the emotion. Also the juxtaposition of the figure, her outlandishly large bag, and the classic formality of the large wooden doors in front of her lend this image a surreal quality. What were you thinking when you pressed the shutter release and what do you think this image conveys to the viewer?

A: It is always fantastic to be in New York City where the extraordinary is normal for everyday life and even more so where things give way to the even slightly more surreal around Halloween. I agree with Elliott Erwitt when he said, “All the technique in the world doesn’t compensate for the inability to notice”. And who could have missed the girl with the flaming orange hair? This image comes the closest to my staging a photograph. I saw her coming and hoped she would turn toward me, when she reached her front door I called out to her and she turned, and I pressed the shutter. When I’m out with my camera, things happen and in this image it happened glowingly well. When I look at this image, it feels like the two of us (and by extension the viewer) are caught in a light-hearted celebration of fantasy.

Q: The above image certainly pares the elements down to the bare essentials to capture a moment in time and the motion blur enhances the impression. Was this a grab shot, and did you deliberately compose it so tightly or was it pure happenstance?

A: It was little of both; dogs show up a lot in my photographs. I love dogs. Dogs have human qualities and in the urban landscape they often convene the human condition. No mistaking the urban life for this dog.  I focused tightly hoping to capture the experience for this beautiful animal moving contently through the blur rushing passed in downtown Manhattan.

Q: This image of an adolescent female is powerful because of that always difficult transition to adulthood. She embodies wary self-consciousness with her carefully applied lipstick and hesitant backward glance, and even the vestiges of the childhood trappings of Halloween that adorn her have a dark gothic quality, which is emphasized by the expansive colorful background that includes two women pushing a baby carriage with a toddler in tow. Do you agree with my interpretation, and what are your feelings about this evocative image?

A: I delight in the photograph’s ability to provoke a story, and for me an image, such as this one, is all about the potential narrative. I am fascinated by the difference between what my eye sees and what the camera records. The mishmashes of the unanticipated and unrelated caught in the frame can produce powerful visual combinations, and it happened in this image. What a wonderful interpretation — thank you.

Q: How do you see your photography evolving over, say, the next three years, and do you plan to explore any other genres going forward?

A: The wonderful thing about my photography is that it is continually evolving. For now I am drawn to photograph almost anything people are doing or about to do. I am endlessly fascinated in what my eye sees and the image the camera lens records, and I wouldn’t rule anything out going forward.

Thank you for your time, Laurie!

- Leica Internet Team