There is no other way to put it. Ralph Baker, street photographer, is simply not your average kind of guy. He lives in what he calls his "spaceship," a green-housed, alternative, post-apocalypticish living space wedged snugly between two Williamsburg residential/commercial buildings. Ladders connect "floors" together. There's the gadget filled "engine room" in the basement, his winter-proofed, multi-down-comforter-laced bedroom, and a cozy combination living room/kitchen area that tops the three-story iron-grated assemblage. Con-Ed supplies his gas and Verizon supplies his phone service.
I have known Ralph for five years now. We lived in the same building back in 2000/2001 and he would often wander by my loft - a loft he helped build - and show me with obvious relish his new digital cameras, his state of the art portable printers and - squinting through thick lensed glasses - the fruits of his trade, 8 x 11 or 5 x 7 pictures of nostalgically-frozen smiling tourists at Rockefeller Center or Times Square.
But it's a bit strange these days to talk to Ralph. He won't meet your gaze, even as he'll meet your mind, and he alternates, as he always did, between smart-assed, but good natured, cynicism and almost delusionally optimistic idealism. Always ready with a smile, possessed of an almost zen-like placidity, one might be forgiven for thinking Ralph crazy.
Afterall, at least until recently, Ralph has continued to ply his street photography trade although the NYPD has arrested him, by his own estimation, in excess of 100 times since 1966. Afterall, five years subsequent to our first meeting, this photographer's glasses are put aside. He doesn't need them anymore. The first time he'll know what I have written about him will be tomorrow or the day after when somebody reads it to him. Because, afterall, Ralph is now almost completely blind and insane enough, through pride, hope, optimism, idealism or self-love - choose any or all of the above - to think he can still live his life like a man who sees.
You're a street photographer, but you're legally blind...
Yeah, that doesn't make a difference though. My camera can see.
How do you know when you've taken a good shot or not?
Well, I only go places where there's a good picture. A person is only part of a picture. The picture is a location or an activity. The picture is a spot.
The pictures that you take, do your subjects know the picture is being taken by someone who can't see them?
No. Few people find out that I don't see them.
How do you get that one over?
I ask them to stand at the line [on the ground] and smile. Then I press the button and print. Then I collect the twenty.
And they seem to like the pictures?
I only do special photos, commemorative photos of locations times and events. The desire for the photo is already there.
What's your history with photography?
When I was little my mother gave me a polaroid camera and the film cost money so I had to sell pictures to get money to buy more film. And I did. And since then I've been doing pictures, pictures for money all over the country, especially in New York, of historical or what I see as important events.
Million Man March. That was a fun one. The Million Woman March was also fun. Street parties are fun. Some parades. St. Patties day parade is great. Thanksgiving Day parade is good too. Fourth of July...
How did losing your sight impact your livelihood?
I messed up a few pictures. When I first went blind, I couldn't tell I was blind, but I wasn't getting the full picture. I'd cut off a person and then I'd be like, "Oh, I didn't see them." So I switched eyes because one eye, it was gone. I could find stuff but I couldn't identify anything.
What's the problem?
My retina is dying. A kind of glaucoma. Actually two types combined, so I have almost no sight.
What do you see?
I see patches of light. Movements kind of. Shadows not so much. The value is light. Light to dark. The lighter it is, the better I see it, the darker it is and it, well, it doesn't really matter as much.
What do you see of me right now?
Of you? Your [silver] tape recorder. In your hand on your knee.
Do you see my face at all?
No. I barely see the recorder. I can see it because it's a brighter object. I have what's called scanner vision. If you can scan it, you can see it.
[Interviewer holds hand four inches from Ralph's face]
Can you see my hand?
So, how can you take pictures? I'm not sure I get this...
Well [speading hands out wide]. My camera sees from here to here. It sees in 180 [degrees]. And I only think in a 45. So everything in the 45 fits into 180.
You haven't been taking pictures for about a year. Why is that? Your failing sight?
The New York City Police Department has classified me, or actually my activities on the street... they have a new classification called "terrorist". It means you're subject to having the Federal Marshalls and the CIA come to your house and all those such things, as well as hold you for questioning for hours on end. After being subject to that kind of treatment as a possible something...
You've been arrested as a possible terrorist?
I've been detained to be questioned by the CIA for about six hours at City Hall - it was actually before 9/11. I've been detained in the subway station and questioned by people that are called to question people like me. And then I was arrested in a violent manner, my shoulders were injured, and I was treated as if I were being violent and the next thing is not to do it. So I'm not doing it.
Because you don't want to or because you feel that you can't?
I'm compelled to take pictures as a photographer, so it's not a want. It's a restraint. I don't deserve the kind of violence that the police department has been delivering.
How long have you been doing street photography?
And about how many times would you say you've been arrested?
Oh, it's over a hundred. There are different types of arrest. There are documented arrests. That's 100 Centre Street. Then there are ticketed arrests, which is 346 Broadway. And then there are apprehended and held until you see the judge arrests, which is community court at some street and 54th street. And then there are the times they pick you up and bring you to God's country and drop you off without giving you a ticket. Or they'll take your property and you can go find your receipt for it at the precinct. If you combine all of those, then it's actually well over 100 times I've been arrested since 1966. There's a year or two every now and then when I don't get arrested because I lay around and do nothing.
I understand you've fought this in court. Have you received any judgements in your favor?
No, not the City. They gave me a few dollars once and told me to hire a lawyer.
But the Federal Court, about five years ago, ruled that I cannot be treated as an unlicensed general vendor, that I have to be treated at least like an artist. And to treat me like an unlicensed general vendor was unlawful, unenforceable and unconstitutional. However, the judge stopped short of condemning the City and gave them an alternative that was to leave me alone and treat me like a vendor.
What effect did that have?
None. Less than none.
Things didn't get better even for a while?
No, They got absolutely worse. I got arrested on sight. More than before. But [laughing] they'd call me by name now and arrest me.
So, wait, let me get this right, they know you by name, you've been doing this for thirty years and they are holding you as a potential terrorist?
Well, it's police policy treatment. Everyone is treated the same and the new level of treatment is that everybody's under suspicion. And I do walk around with the camera and I do walk around with a bag or a box or...
So even though they know you by name and you've been doing this for thirty years...
Well the new guys don't know me, and they're the ones that knock me to the ground and put a gun to me and are like "Get him! Get him! Get him!". The old guys just kind of laugh at it.
The old cops?
Do you have any friends out there. You know, cops who say, "Gee, Ralph I'm sorry this is happening to you."?
I think most of them are dead now. I'm almost 60.
Ralph, I have to ask you. Do you think race has played a role in any of this?
I don't know. No, I don't think so. I would have to say no. This is a very special thing. Just mine.
In the last year you've been at both Bellevue and Rikers Island. Would you be willing to talk about that?
Bellevue is a nice place. I had a doctor, two social workers and a nurse.
How did you end up there?
Well, on my record it says mentally insane or criminally insane. It says something about that. From my initial investigations with the police, it says something about that I am dangerous to the public.
How so? What are they basing this on?
It's just based on the record.
Have you ever hurt anyone?
I've never been involved in any violent acts at all. On record or off record.
But you are deemed to be a violent person.
Violent and crazy, yes.
What do you attribute that to?
The policy of the police department is to exaggerate charges so that something sticks and the policy of the justice system is to negotiate. And because of that the police come up with as many charges as they can come up with.
How did you end up at Bellevue?
I was supposed to be sent to the hospital and they locked me up in jail. So then they saw on the record that I was a crazy individual, so then they sent me to Bellevue. I was there about 30 days. They deemed that I was safe to the public and not a danger to myself. And that I was impossible to medicate.
Because I refused to participate. I didn't feel it was necessary.
What were they trying to fix?
Paranoid schizophrenic. Bipolar. Grandiose complex and some other stuff.
Do you see these things in yourself?
I have been in contact with all these things, but I've never categorized myself that way. But all of these chemical imbalances have been attributed to some of the greatest people alive, so I don't understand any need for medication.
Did they know that you're blind?
They found out.
Do you think that might contribute to the perception that you're crazy? I mean, you look at people and you don't see them. But they don't know that. So that could lead to...
Well, if you're a policeman and you're coming up to bother me, well, you shouldn't be coming up to bother me in the first place.
Okay Ralph, but if you don't make eye contact and I'm a police officer, and I don't know that you're blind, I'm going to judge that in a different way than if I do know.
Good, but your first judgement should have been to leave me alone and your second judgement should have been to get me help.
How did you end up on Rikers Island
After Bellevue transferred me, then the court case couldn't be settled, and the sentence was time served, but I wouldn't plead guilty.
What was the charge?
Now what were you doing that they were calling menacing?
Same as usual. Nothing. I was pointed out by McCarren Park, walking down the street and next thing I hear is somebody scream "My kids! My kids!" and four or five cops jumped me.
Why do you think you were perceived as a menace?
The whole thing happened so fast. I never got to ask anybody.