KEITH CARTER: Imperfect Beauty

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On my frequent walks through the neighborhood, I often see the same elderly couple who, like me, are on their way to or from the wooded park nearby. For several years, only the woman would exchange cheerful hellos with me; the man didn’t even look up. Then one day, he smiled at me. I think of moments like this when I look at Keith Carter’s photographs, the simple moments that make up our days during our brief stay on Earth. These words from him sum it up for me: “How do you find a way to say what an extraordinary experience it is to be alive in this world? That is the kind of subject matter I try to work with.”

Paradise. From Uncertain to Blue. Paradise, Texas, 1985 © Keith Carter

Paradise. From Uncertain to Blue. Paradise, Texas, 1985 © Keith Carter

Carter finds the way in his photos of a man standing beside a wheelbarrow tucked between trees, a small dish of blackberries heaped pyramidal and a child soaring on a rope swing. Themes of children, mythology, folklore and the anthropomorphic animal world, the religious aspects of people’s lives, the places we go and how we live — they all speak in his work. “I’ve always been and continue to be more interested in things that happen in the real world rather than the conceptual world. I come out of the real-world documentary tradition, but I don’t practice straight documentary photographs anymore,” says Carter, 69, who is more recently known for his use of selective focus and antiquarian experimental photographic processes. He’s lived in the small, Southeast Texas town of Beaumont near the Louisiana border all his life. Though he’s traveled the world, “I’ve never tried to make photographs that look like they’re made in a certain place, but as if they could be made anywhere, because in my mind they could be.”

“Anywhere” lies “at the ragged edge of the human psyche,” as Carter puts it. I ask him what he means. “People’s lives, in my experience, are imperfect, and they’re fragile. And I think the awkward moments are what I kind of look for in many respects. For instance, I was at a gala museum function the other night, a black-tie affair, and a waiter stuck his white-gloved hand in front of me with a bottle of wine; and it was the white glove, the silhouette of a black dress and the shape of the bottle itself that made the picture. That’s what I call those lovely askew moments in time, where the world is at once mysterious and at the same time perfectly objective. That’s what I look for.”

His photos are imbued with reverie and memory, metaphor and hidden meaning. Their selective focus leaves an enigma in the blur, for the viewer to finish the story. “The pictures I try to make are slightly internal, and I think of them as sort of my journal, in terms of what it’s like to experience this world,” says Carter, who uses a modified Hasselblad and a Canon digital. “If I’m taking a walk and attuned to everything, that’s wonderful, that’s all well and good. But if I’ve got a camera in my hand, I’m in the game, I pay a different attention; my senses are highly attuned to any kind of emotional or visual aberration or affirmation.”

Says photographer John Paul Caponigro, “Keith finds the extraordinary in the ordinary, and that tends to lend substantial insight. His visual poetry comes from and creates a deep emotional connection and a powerful recognition that ‘this is the way things are,’ even if you can’t say, intellectually, exactly why that is. There’s also a warmth and humor that Keith has in abundance — he has one of the biggest smiles you’ll ever see — and it translates into his work without it becoming comical.”

Jack Witt. From Blueman. Woodville, Texas, 1987 © Keith Carter

Jack Witt. From Blueman. Woodville, Texas, 1987 © Keith Carter

Carter views his work not so much as individual images but rather in-depth projects; and he is usually involved in two to three at a time, taking about two years to arrive at a series’ roughly 70 cohesive images. He has published a dozen monographs. Caponigro describes a book by Carter as “more like a collection of poems that

[Pablo] Neruda or [Ezra] Pound might write. You can rearrange the sequence of images and they still connect to each other, and there’s often a synergy with two photographs in proximity.”

Photography books played a key role in Carter’s budding interest in the art form, sparked by his mother. Single and supporting three children (their father had abandoned them when he was five), Jane Carter did informal black-and-white photographs of children and families (and later in color) outside in natural light, beginning in the mid-1950s when male-run formal portrait studios dominated. By age five or six, Carter was helping her in the home’s makeshift closet darkroom, sliding prints around in the developer.

Years later, as a student at the town’s Lamar University studying business administration (“a good fallback,” a businessman that his mother was then dating told him), Carter worked parttime framing his mother’s pictures. In one of them, of a girl in a straw hat holding a basket of kittens, he saw for the first time how beautifully a photograph could render daylight. He borrowed his mother’s Rolleiflex camera, made some pictures and showed her his photo of two black men fishing on the Neches River. “Honey, you have a good eye, you have a nice sense of light,” she told him. “It set me on fire,” he explains. “It gave me confidence.”

Read More in Photographer’s Forum :: Spring 2018 / Vol. 40 / No. 2

By | 2018-02-28T08:00:58+00:00 February 15th, 2018|