Jay L. Baker, City Hall photographer who became the first African American official state photographer, dies

Jay L. Baker pauses after taking a photo that included Mayor Martin O'Malley in 2003 at City Hall.

Jay L. Baker, a Baltimore City Hall photographer who later went to Annapolis and became the first African American to hold the position of official Maryland photographer, died of complications from Alzheimer’s disease Sunday at Gilchrist Center Howard County in Columbia. The Ashburton resident was 64.

“He always kept his eye on Baltimore and photographed its history, joy, tragedy, high and lowlifes, and all the sadness in between. He was able to capture the moment and you didn’t realize it until you looked at it afterward,” said Martin O’Malley, a former mayor and governor


“He was a kind and unobtrusive gentle man who was always cognizant of being a witness to history and intense human action,” he said.

Said former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke: “He [Jay] was a great photographer and a delightful person who enjoyed public service. He was energetic and loved what he was doing, and subsequent mayors encouraged him to be the best he could be.


“We had many great times together and he captured the diversity of the city, which I really appreciated. He also realized the importance of capturing the crucial moments in the city’s history.”

Dudley M. Brooks and Mr. Baker, who lived nearby, were drawn together as 16-year-olds by their mutual interest in photography.

“Jay was very good at portraiture, and he understood the mechanisms of how a photo was constructed,” said Mr. Brooks, former assistant managing editor for photography at The Baltimore Sun and the current deputy director of photography at The Washington Post.

“When you want to do a photo, you want to put people at ease, and Jay was very good at getting them to relax and reveal themselves and always getting the picture,” Mr. Brooks said.

Jay Lamond Baker, son of James J. Baker, a Westinghouse Electric Corp. worker, and Naomi Baker, a Baltimore City Department of Social Services caseworker, was born in Baltimore and raised on Dennlyn Road in Ashburton.

His interest in photography began in his youth and was stimulated by a veteran Afro-American Newspapers photographer who lent him a camera, showed him how to develop his film, and gave him pointers.

While he was a student at Baltimore City College, his work appeared in the school’s yearbook. After graduating in 1976, he earned a bachelor’s degree in photography in 1980 from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

He began working in advertising and commercial photography, where he posed people and products for furniture catalogs.


Mr. Baker then established his own commercial photography business, which he owned and operated until going to work in 1986 as an industrial photographer at Westinghouse Electric Corp. in Linthicum.

Laid off in 1995, he took time off and tried to figure out what he wanted to do next.

Mr. Baker returned to work in 1997 when he took a position with the city’s bicentennial committee, and his photography caught the attention of then-Mayor Schmoke, who appointed him his personal photographer.

With his trademark vest and two cameras slung around his neck and shoulder, Mr. Baker stealthily entered a room and anonymously melded with the crowd.

“He gets to be the fly on the wall,” then-Mayor O’Malley told The Sun in 2004.

“Here’s what I remember: He took up little space. He was so laid-back that you wouldn’t know he was there,” Larry S. Gibson, a Schmoke campaign manager and longtime University of Maryland professor of law and civil rights activist, said.


“He captured all events in an artistic and visual way, but made sure he was never part of the event,” Mr. Gibson said. “Some photographers are bossy, but he always went with the flow and captured the moment.”

Mr. Schmoke recalled summoning Mr. Baker to his office to take a picture of him with a mentee who was going off to England as a Rhodes scholar.

“It was a picture of Wes Moore, and I keep it in my office. It was Jay Baker’s way of reminding me to be nice to interns,” Mr. Schmoke said with a laugh, recalling the photo with Maryland’s current governor.

When Gov. O’Malley went to Annapolis in 2007, he appointed Mr. Baker the official state photographer, the first African American to hold that position.

“He had the magic and was such a perfectionist, even when he was working the click line when people have their picture taken with the governor or another official,“ Gov. O’Malley said. “He saw the spontaneity of the moment and captured it.”

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“For 15 years, he took our [family] picture for the annual official Christmas card, and you can imagine the drama Jay went through that day trying to organize three women and their hair and three guys,” the former governor said with a laugh.


“Jay knew how to get where he needed to be in order to get the picture and he did it all very smoothly,” Mr. Brooks said. “He understood his subjects and he knew that politeness and kindness always worked. So combining that and his technical skill, especially in his use of lighting, resulted in really great compositions.”

After Gov. O’Malley left office in 2015, Mr. Baker returned to Baltimore and City Hall, working for his last mayor, Catherine Pugh.

Mr. Baker retired in 2020.

In addition to photography, Mr. Baker enjoyed traveling with Morgan State University and had visited Africa and Rio de Janeiro.

A funeral service will be held at 10:30 a.m. July 1 at Vaughn Greene Funeral Home at 8728 Liberty Road in Randallstown.

He is survived by a brother, Jerold L. Baker of Baltimore; two sisters, June Baker Kane of Elkridge and Jacquelyn Baker Johnson of Baltimore; and several nieces and nephews.

Jay L. Baker pauses after taking a photo that included Mayor Martin O'Malley in 2003 at City Hall.