A Boston College Professor Has Taken a ‘Selfie’ Everyday for the Last 27 Years
Karl Baden’s feat is part of an ongoing project that explores mortality and obsession.
Karl Baden has been taking a photo of himself every morning, in the same exact position to the best of his ability, for the last 27 years.
And he doesn’t plan on stopping anytime soon.
“I’ll stop when I’m dead. If I’m dead, I won’t know what will happen with [my project] from there, but the plan is to have an institution acquire it in some form,” said Baden, a photography professor at Boston College.
This past weekend marked roughly 9,800 days since he first started sitting down in front of a camera lens to snap a photo of himself for the “Every Day” project, which began on February 23, 1987. The daily task is part of a decades-long examination of the role that mortality plays in people’s lives, and, more obviously, how age changes one’s appearance. Barden said it also serves as a “meta comment” on the idea of obsession, and doing something repetitiously.
“Artists need to be obsessive to get the work that they have to get done, done. They have to have some inner drive to do it; this is taking it to another step. This is a comment on the obsession and obsessively making work,” he said. “The idea of making and taking photographs has a lot to do with documenting things over time. Many people have attempted that in terms of looking at cities, and locations, or even one’s own family—kids growing up, that sort of thing. So I felt that it might be interesting to take it a step further.”
The idea first came to mind in the 1970s, but when he brought up the concept to a friend, he was told it was “stupid.” That insight put a damper on his ambitions for more than decade, but his curiousness about taking on such a long-term project lingered in his mind. So, finally, one day he took the plunge, despite his critic’s opinion. “People asked me over the years, why did you start on that date, and to the best of my recollection, I said, ‘well, that was just the day I started it.’ There was nothing special about it, it was random,” he said.
But the death of artist Andy Warhol may have played a role, in retrospect. “He made films where very little happens for a longtime, like Sleep. Thinking back now, I’m sure that Warhol’s death was the final straw. It was the thing that pushed me over the edge to start doing it. And by that time, I think that I was physically and emotionally ready.”
Since the beginning, the process for “Every Day” has been something reminiscent of Groundhog Day. Baden usually wakes up, gets ready for work or the weekend, and then simply snaps the photo using the same camera and the same lighting that he has used for nearly three decades. The type of film has changed over time, he said, because only because the older products he relied on are no longer made.
“I don’t do anything to change my face intentionally. I don’t grow beards or mustaches, and I keep my hair the same,” he said. “I don’t use any unusual angles, and I don’t use any unusual lenses, or filters, or lighting sources. I try to keep all artistic conceits out of the picture. I try to achieve identical images, but I can’t always, because I’m human, and I make mistakes, and the camera makes mistakes. Those are all accepted as part of the project.”
Once he takes a photo, he collects the negatives and keeps them organized and well documented in a safe place, and brings them out when he needs to make prints, or in the case of one undertaking, he made to show the progression of age: a video.
Taking the same photo every day for almost 30 years sounds like a daunting task, but since the start, Baden said he could only remember one time that he forgot to take a portrait of himself, and in the end, it didn’t put a serious dent in his ever-expanding project.
“It’s not a very exciting story at all,” he said. “On October 15, 1991, I was teaching at [the Rhode Island School of Design], and usually I take the picture after I get up and take a shower. There was a rush to get to the school that day, and I made a mental note to take it when I got back home, and I forgot.”
Since then, not a day has gone by that Baden didn’t sit down and let the camera capture a shot of his face.
Over the years, as various milestones approached in terms of time since he first started, Baden has put his work on display in numerous art galleries and museums. He said he also uses the photos for projects in his classes at Boston College.
When Baden set forth on his photography endeavor, he never imagined that one day the “selfie” would become a household term, and take the Internet by storm. Calling it a “distantly related topic,” he isn’t doing this project to be known as the “selfie” king, or even to land a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records—for him it’s art, and the exploration of the human condition.
“It’s photography in its most fundamental form,” he said.