In 1993, photographer Margaret Morton and the late Diana Balmori, landscape and urban designer, published a remarkable little book called Transitory Gardens, Uprooted Lives. The gardens of this book belong to New York City’s homeless. But as the title implies, land and time (the fundamentals of a traditional garden) are, for many, rare commodities.
Be that as it may, the idea of the garden thrives in these photographs. No flowers grow, neatly in a row (as the children sing), but such care goes into reimagining the wastes—broken lamps, flat tires, plastic palm trees, tattered dolls—that you cannot help but to see those inner gardens from which the homeless refuse to be evicted.
It’s this transitory narrative that Francis Baker, working in gum bichromate, often tells in his series, Against Time. Transience, as a theme, speaks not only of homelessness but of commodity-freighted lives gone adrift between the heavens and the abyss, as well as the lives of those who, in the face of police brutality, find safety nowhere and at no time.
In this feature, Baker takes us behind the scenes of an experience he had while photographing the homeless encampments of Oakland. But instead of explaining why he took the photographs he did, Baker recalls the pictures not taken—the ones that, as Rene (who lives under a highway) knows all too well, can always (never) be taken “another time.”
Francis Baker: Among the Tents
I leave with no picture to show. I had hoped to make an image of Rene. She lives under the 580, on MLK. There is a couch there and the light shines on a slice of it. On both sides of the street, tents shelter under the viaduct. I am bringing a foam mattress I thought would be better given away than sold. I park and walk across Martin Luther King Blvd toward a man picking up some trash. He tells me just to leave it. I don’t really want to dump it on the street. It is at this moment that Rene walks up to me. I get the mattress into her tent and she gives me a smile. We talk and I ask her if I can make a picture of her. She pulls on the side of her fuchsia wig nervously, giving it a moment’s thought before softly replying, “No.” She says her hair is not fixed, her makeup not right. “Perhaps another time?” “Sure, another time.”
As I walk the streets around the homeless encampments, I am entering people’s yards. There is a man in a blue plastic barricade about 5 feet square before a tent under the BART. Sitting in a beat-up recliner, one shoe on and one off, a little packet of weed on his lap, he meets my eyes. I want to bring something to the table. I ask him if he wants an orange. “I have a bunch of oranges. Would you like one?” His guard lowers and we start talking. I ask him if I can hire him; to make a quick portrait of him. I move him into the light and snap off a couple images. A woman walks towards us, asking him why he is not staying on his side of the street. This is her side of the street. Holy shit, I feel like I started something. I try to explain, “I’m doing this project . . . its about consumerism and racism and homelessness . . .” She cuts me off: “I’m not talking to you.” I figure out she is just joking with this guy, but I feel like an interloper.
I take a few more images and another person walks up to me. His name is Gabriel. He is slightly taller than me and looks intense. He points to my camera, makes me apprehensive. I launch into it, talking a little too fast: “I’m an artist and I’m doing this project on the human condition and materialism and greed and how that causes fear and war. I’m Syrian and would like to go document the refugee crisis but I don’t have any funds . . .” He cuts me off and says, “I’m not asking you for any money.” “No, of course not,” I say. “What I mean is that I can’t travel to document that crisis, but we have a crisis right here. People are struggling to survive every day right here and . . .” He no longer looks outwardly angry.
So I ask how long he has been out here. “Too long.” We walk a few steps and he tells me his story. He’s weeping as he talks, like the sides of a tub overflowing when you get in. I look him in the eyes and try to be present. At one point he starts singing as the BART train passes overhead. He sings even though nothing else can be heard but the screech of metal on metal. While the train screams I feel the camera slung over my shoulder and think about the photograph I could make; perhaps from below with the lines of the overpass forming a V. When it passes and I hear his voice again I am right back in the present. I don’t end up photographing him. In the moment it feels too much like taking. Now I wonder if that is what he wanted.
Feature Image: Inherently Free © Francis Baker
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