John Baeder

John Baeder is one of the most prominent of the photo-realists. He is particularly well known for his depictions of diners and American roadside culture. He was born in South Bend, Indiana in 1938 on Christmas Eve and grew up in Atlanta, Georgia. His fascination with roadside culture began at an early age; while watching small towns rush past a train’s dining car window, he became enthralled with these environments. As a young boy John Baeder would ride his bike around and photograph old relics with a Baby Brownie camera, in particular old cars, whose gestures caught his attention. Baeder was taking photographs long before he was painting. In the late1950s, as he traveled between Atlanta and Alabama during breaks at Auburn University, he became captivated with the back roads of America; his fascination with the structures grew with each trip. In the late 1960s, Baeder started collecting postcards and photographs of roadside America and urban environments, developing a sensitivity for the beauty and value found in roadside iconography. 

In 1960, Baeder began to work as an art director for a New York advertising agency in Atlanta and eventually, he moved to New York where he enjoyed a successful advertising career through the early 1970s. He also continued to photograph the environments of the tri-state area in his spare time and it was during this time that his love for diners emerged. One of his offices was located across the street from the Museum of Modern Art, and Baeder found the photography department a respite and inspirational. Berenice Abbott, Ben Shahn, Walker Evans, and other Depression-era WPA (Works Progress Administration) photographers particularly influenced him. In 1972, Baeder decided to devote himself full-time to working as an artist and he left the advertising field. He was offered his first exhibition later that year at OK Harris Gallery in New York. Although his artistic reputation was quickly cemented in the early 1970s by the success of his paintings, Baeder has always depended on his photographs as the photo-realist qualities of his painting demonstrate.

John Baeder has compiled a photographic oeuvre as illustrious and as brilliant as his work with paint. His photographic range is much broader than images of American diners and extends past the imagery associated with the back roads of the great American roadside. His newest photographic series of still lifes offers a departure from the subjects he has become known for and instills a more personal and biographical element into his work. The still lifes are both statements of his connections to the objects in the images creating poignant personal narratives and an exploration of the genre that he so admires. Baeder was influenced by his passion for 16th and 17th century Dutch, Spanish, and French still life painters, and in particular Chardin and Luis Melendez, all of who utilized the special qualities of northern light just as Baeder does in his still lifes. He pushes reality and illusion as in his photo-realist paintings with faux elements and hints of biographical information from his vast collections of such items as model vehicles, bottles, and books. What started out as a search for the “quintessential American still life” has evolved into a close examination of the artist’s own life.

Baeder often photographed the places he wished to paint, working from his own photographs to compose his paintings. Originally serving as source material for his paintings, Baeder’s photographs are now considered as stand-alone works of art. As the artist himself says, “There are some photographs that scream to be paintings, and some that just want to be photographs.” The photographs are records of very specific places, things, times of day, times of year, and eras with an uncanny knack of capturing the light of the moment. The photographs encapsulate not only the architectural detail and presence of structures, but also a sense of the moment showing the cars that are present at the time or the signs that may be in the windows. The lack of people in Baeder’s photography does not reduce the narrative aspects of his work, for as Peter Frank writes, “The absence of human beings in Baeder’s art emphasizes rather than diminishes its humanity.” For Baeder, a single moment stretches into a story and creates a sense of something happening, about to happen, or having happened.

John Baeder’s love for American roadside culture led him to write books on aspects of that culture concentrating on diners, gas stations, and motels that would stimulate public appreciation for these small, often overlooked places. One such book, Gas, Food, and Lodging: A Postcard Odyssey, Through the Great American Roadside, pays homage his inspiration, the roadside postcards. Baeder’s paintings and photographs are included in permanent collections of such institutions as the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Yale University Art Gallery, the Indianapolis Museum of Art, the Milwaukee Art Museum, the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, the Morris Museum of Art in Augusta, Georgia, the Tennessee State Museum in Nashville, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the Denver Art Museum. In 2009, Baeder was awarded the Tennessee Governor’s Distinguished Artist Award. John Baeder’s work has helped make the diner an American icon; his art serves as an aesthetic record of the quickly disappearing American roadside culture that so engaged him.

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