Karl Baden’s photographs of Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge, on view at Cambridge Arts’ Gallery 344, envelop you like the street itself: clamorous and busy, a cavalcade of aspirations and degradations, mercantile flash and musty charms.
The photographer spent two years shooting the quintessential thoroughfare at the invitation of the Cambridge Arts Council. Baden, who lives in Cambridge, is best known for daily self-portraits he’s taken since 1987, but he’s a veteran street photographer. He has shot the world through his car windows; he has photographed commuters emerging from the underworld at the entrance to the Harvard Square MBTA station.
This installation courses over the walls. Everything seems wildly transient, and not just because we’re watching life pass by in supercharged colors. Baden masterfully uses veils and mirrors — smoke, weather, glaring lights, glass storefronts, and more — to describe a world as intangible as it is sumptuous.
He went inside the Origins store on Brattle Street and photographed passersby through the cosmetic shop’s slick signage — a troupe of lipsticks beneath a liquid, red-orange splash. That splash streaks across the face of one pedestrian; a second nearly disappears in the reflection of the store’s interior, where we can also make out the photographer’s form, still and ghostly at the center. The many levels of life glimpsed in, on, and through the glass suggest the many realities any one of us shuffles through at a given moment.
Other images describe Cambridge’s social texture block by block. In one, a man smokes a hookah outside Andala Coffee House, his face lost in a puff of smoke. Another is a portrait of a homeless person sitting in a ray of sun, holding a sign: “I am the one you ignore completely.”
The artist punctuates the bustle with deep, open breaths. Dark pedestrians in one shot move single file across Cambridge Common in the hush following a snowstorm. Snowflakes wink like stars over the Charles River in another image.
Baden set out to make documentary pictures. He ended up with a more ephemeral series inflected with his own vital sense of motion, beauty, heartache, and the many layers of life in Cambridge. We recognize our Mass. Ave. in his.
MASS AVE, CAMBRIDGE: Photographs by Karl Baden
At Cambridge Arts’ Gallery 344, 344 Broadway, Cambridge, through Feb. 14. 617-349-4380, www.cambridgeartscouncil.org