Erik Baier studies communal living in his new photography series, COMMUNE, recently at the BigTown Gallery in Rochester.
In some cases, Erik Baier has become good friends with the people living in the communes; they share stories and food, they become invested in and supportive of his project. In other cases, they avoid him, making a wide path around him and his “picture making.”
“It’s their loss really, I’m a fairly interesting and funny guy,” says Baier, the photographer behind the lens of the COMMUNE series recently featured at the BigTown Gallery in Rochester, Vermont.
The photos, which to date have been captured in Vermont, North and South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, Kentucky, and as far west as Texas, depict the dwellings present in these exclusive communities. Some of the homes featured are made of wood, woven sticks, animal hides, adobe, tarps, paper crete, tires with rammed earth, cloth tents, vans and gutted school buses—the mediums vary widely.
Yet while the materials used to create these homes might differ from what is typical, Baier points out the many similarities between commune residents and the general population. “They are more or less like everyone else. Most prefer the comfort of their community and neighbors, but the outside world, not so much,” Baier says. “I suppose that’s one of the draws they have to live together.”
Due to this hesitance towards outsiders, it sometimes takes Baier months to open the doors to these communities. While some have internet presences, many more were referred by commune dwellers who had lived somewhere else previously. Luckily, Baier is very good at opening doors, and also at old-fashioned persuasive letter writing.
It makes sense that Baier would be drawn to capturing uncommon homes—he and his wife live in a 200-plus-year-old former school house in Rochester. “We both liked the idea of living in an unconventional structure,” says Baier. “Living in two school buildings that are mysteriously fastened together, plus a new painting studio/darkroom/office structure I added a few years ago, has made this unique, if not odd, building very purposeful.”
Baier, who was quite popular on the exhibition scene during the 1980s, started taking pictures at age ten and entered the school of The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston at 19. After having been featured at galleries throughout the country and in a few publications, Baier dropped out of the scene and continued to mainly make work for himself, until recently. Now he’s considering making his COMMUNE series into a book.
While seeking to peek into the private lives of these commune members remains a goal for Baier, who is by no means done with the COMMUNE series, he also enjoys his privacy at home in Rochester. “I love knowing most of the townspeople by their first names. I love the quiet and being able to have a day with no human interaction, then the next day being fast forwarded in a car driving somewhere to meet strangers, who then let me make pictures of how and where they live.”