Whether you have two feet of snow on the ground already or celebrate the holidays by stringing lights on palm trees, there is one ubiquitous image in December decorations: those tacky and kind of creepy blow-up Santa Clauses. Karl Baden, a documentary and fine-art photographer based in Massachusetts, took it upon himself to show what happens when these strange Christmas traditions deflate and leave Kris Kringle looking less than jolly. Musée spoke with Baden about his project and plans for the Holiday season:
What first drew you to photographing these "dead santas"?
This was a brief, almost accidental project I did while in the midst of putting together a larger, unrelated body of work. I'd bought a panoramic camera a few years earlier and hadn't made many pictures with it, so in the late fall of 2004 I began driving up and down the coast of Massachusetts to photograph where the land met water. The holiday season was starting up, and as I drove I started noticing these inflatable displays in people's front yards: santa, reindeer, snowmen, etc. Some were elaborate; they clearly required imagination and a huge effort to put together, and in their own way were quite beautiful. People seemed to run them at night, lit up and inflated by a tube running to an electric air blower in the house or yard. They'd be deflated during the day, crumpled on the snow, hanging upside down, draped over a fence... there was a sort of sadness to it, like a crime scene in a cartoon. When I spotted one, I'd pull over and take a few pictures with my 35mm.
Why did you chose to originally have it presented as a book?
It was a small, simple one-shot idea. A small, simple book seemed to be the best format for it.
How did you approach photographing the deflated decorations - did you contact the homeowners at all?
No, it was almost always just a drive-by. I was usually on the way from one place to another and didn't have time to do much more than take the picture.
What sort of response did you receive from it, especially since you often gave it as a gift?
Most enjoyed it, but then, most were friends who already knew my sensibility.
People normally associate the holiday season with joy and happiness, while this work doesn't quite fit in. What was the statement you were going for?
These pictures are documents. I can't deny implicit commentary about the commercialization of Christmas, but that's really no news to anyone. Joy and happiness is the stereotype. There's also loneliness, dysfunction and greed. But I intended no real 'statement', I was just responding to what I saw.
Would you ever have decorations for the holidays similar to these yourself?
Well, I haven't so far. I wouldn't rule it out entirely but if I did there'd be some tongue-in-cheek involved.
How does this fall in line with your other work?
Humor and darkness.
What other projects are you working on now?
Too many. I'm an obsessive street shooter. For the past few years I've been photographing from inside my car. I've been making pictures about observation and surveillance. And there's "Every Day", a lifelong project in which I take a photograph of my face on a daily basis. I began doing this in 1987.
Text by Justin McCallum Photographs courtesy Karl Baden