From behind lens, he captures mayor

Photographer: Jay L. Baker turns Baltimore's boss' actions into images.

January 02, 2004|By Doug Donovan | Doug Donovan,SUN STAFF

When Mayor Martin O'Malley enters a room nearly everyone takes notice - especially Jay L. Baker.

When Baker enters a room, however, barely anyone notices. And that's just how he likes it.

As O'Malley's official photographer, Baker is always on hand to capture the canned and the candid images of a mayor whose hectic daily schedule has him mugging for cameras most days. Baker gets his best shots when the mayor forgets he's nearby.

"He gets to be the fly on the wall," O'Malley says.

Baker is O'Malley's in-house paparazzo, snapping pictures of mayoral moments for the sake of political posterity and for documenting visits with international dignitaries and neighborhood leaders alike.

"He'll tease me and say, `Did you get your candid presidential picture?'" Baker said. "I love the job, particularly the significance of documenting history."

Baker has been documenting the job of mayor since Kurt L. Schmoke hired him in 1997. His pictures may not constitute photojournalism, but they do provide a behind-the-scenes look at the mayor that no media organization has the daily access to capture.

That links Baker to a tradition of political photography dating to the Civil War, when pioneering Mathew Brady snapped indelible images of Abraham Lincoln.

"Lincoln credited Brady with getting him elected," said Ken Light, teaching fellow and curator at the Center for Photography at the University of California, Berkeley.

The best-known practitioner of such work was Jacques Lowe, President John F. Kennedy's personal photographer. Lowe snapped some of the most memorable candid pictures of Kennedy.

"There have always been the grip-and-grin photographers taking pictures of [politicians] with dignitaries," said Susan Moeller, a professor of media and international affairs at the University of Maryland, College Park, who teaches a photojournalism course. "But there have also been photographers who have really documented officeholders' daily existence."

Baker straddles both duties. He does not follow O'Malley's personal life as closely as Lowe followed Kennedy's, but he does manage to steal unguarded moments of the mayor as O'Malley navigates a tightly-scripted schedule.

"He's an easy person to be comfortable around," O'Malley said. "I lose consciousness of his being there."

O'Malley said he typically sees only the photos he signs and sends to the people with whom he is posing.

One of the mayor's favorites is Baker's photograph of him at Defender's Day, a re-enactment of the 1814 British siege of Baltimore. In it O'Malley is dressed in the uniform of an American colonel. O'Malley also enjoys a picture known around City Hall as "Mount Rushmore." In it, O'Malley's face provides the foreground while the faces of Police Commissioner Kevin P. Clark and Fire Chief William J. Goodwin Jr. fill the background.

"When you stumble upon early pictures you have to say, `Oh, my God, look how we've aged,'" O'Malley said. "It all goes by in such a flash."

Two of Baker's favorites are a photograph of O'Malley with his feet propped up on a table during a telephone interview and a picture of a beaming O'Malley cradling his newborn son.

"I have a good chemistry with the mayor," Baker said. "I try not to obstruct the business at hand, to be inconspicuous."

Baker is a quiet, extremely polite man of 44. His unassuming nature allows him to blend into a crowd wearing his typical vest with two cameras strung around his neck and shoulder.

"His work is never about him being part of the event," said Dudley M. Brooks, a Washington Post photographer and longtime friend of Baker's. "When Jay is working you never know he is there."

Baker's ability to remain an unobtrusive fixture comes from years of practice.

The Baltimore native has pursued photography as a profession since his days with the City College yearbook. After high school he earned a bachelor's degree in photography in 1980 from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

He initially found work in advertising and commercial photography, posing both products and people for pictures that would appear in furniture catalogs. He then ran his own commercial photography business until he joined Westinghouse Electric Corp. as an industrial photographer in 1986.

His only professional regret, he said, was rejecting an offer in the late 1980s to work for The Washington Post.

"It did not pay enough," Baker said. At the time he preferred studio work, but he still wonders if he made the right choice.

His photojournalist friend, Brooks, said Baker should not worry. Brooks said Baker's studio work is top notch.

"His work is a whole different genre from photojournalism," Brooks said. "He has the opportunity to create an image out of his head. I document what I see."

Brooks said he has long been impressed with Baker's use of lighting, and he particularly commended Baker's portraits of women.

"He's done great studies of women, a lot of fashion work," Brooks said.

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