Keith Carter: Fifty Years

“Conversation with a Coyote,” 2014

Last year, the University of Texas Press published Keith Carter: Fifty Years, which compiled five decades of the photographer’s search for the soul in the ordinary.

The collection of 250 images takes readers on a visual journey through a dream world that Carter often captures in the quiet realities of daily life around his adopted east Texas hometown of Beaumont.

While Carter, whose highly collectible work is in museums from the National Portrait Gallery in Washington to the George Eastman Museum in Rochester, New York, does explore the world camera-in-hand, he vows to never end his love affair with the South and its rich storytelling traditions.

Digital Photo Pro: How were you able to take a diverse body of work from your five-decade career and present it so seamlessly between two covers?

Keith Carter: It took me about a year thinking about what happened when and which were the most powerful images I’ve made.

What you did in 1992 takes on a whole different feel when you look at it in 2018. I got opinions from a handful of people that are close to me and started trying to lay it out. I learned you’re not always the best judge of your work.

Over a period of time, you can be. But particularly when it’s new, it’s good to have other people’s opinions.

The layout isn’t in chronological order because memory doesn’t work that way. We jump back and forth every 20 seconds between something that happened 10 years ago, 20 years ago, that sort of thing.

So I tried to lay it out and make sense of it where there were certain comparisons even though some images were 30 years apart. Sometimes it was symbolic. Sometimes it was visual. Then, I worked with really good designers at Pentagram and got their opinions. They were so helpful in part because they looked at it from a different standpoint.

Sometimes we’re too close to our own work. Only distance can give a perspective.

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The book starts with a wonderful quote from Jack Kerouac from his original scroll On the Road, which essentially was when he and a friend were on their way through Louisiana heading toward Texas to go to Mexico to misbehave wildly. They crossed over the Sabine River and into Beaumont. He writes about being in a Hudson [car, in the dark of] night and crossing over “the evil old Sabine River” and wanting to get out of “this mansion of the snake,” which is what he called my hometown. And I just love that. 

Keith Carter: Fifty Years
“Under the Moon,” 2017

How did you end up in Beaumont, having been born in Madison, Wisconsin?

My family migrated here when I was around 4 years old. My dad, who, at the time, was an attorney, did make the trip down from Wisconsin but left when I was 6 and went to Alaska before it was a state. I didn’t know that at the time. It was a little bit mysterious, and probably bad behavior was involved. I never saw him again. Then, he drowned up there when I was 11, but my mother didn’t tell me until I was 16. I wish I knew the entire backstory, but I don’t.

Do you think this had a major effect on your work since your photos explore life and death and aging, the reality of our existence on this planet?

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I think a psychiatrist would probably find parallels. It’s not something that I think about a lot or lament in any great way because in those days if I asked my mother about him, she would never, ever badmouth him. So I was never twisted up too much about it. She would say, “Well, honey, he loved you dearly. He just had to leave.” It was one of those Southern gothic stories.

A few years ago, I went up to Alaska on a job and visited where my dad was buried. I found that fascinating. But my history is here in Texas. I just happen to have been born in Wisconsin. I’ve been back once to give a keynote talk at a photo festival in Madison and loved it. There’s nothing not to love about it.

But the thing about east Texas…it’s surreal: It’s full of Cajuns, rednecks, white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, Mexican mythology, black folktales, Vietnamese industry. You have all this stuff in a rural culture with all the ensuing folklore, legends, accents and music. I’ve tried to wrap that all together and look at this place with brand-new eyes.

Did your mother encourage your photographic pursuits?

My mother was a photographer of children and had a professional studio. So I grew up around photography. But I didn’t pay too much attention.

Keith Carter: Fifty Years
“Renaissance Mouse,” 1998

When I did get interested, she encouraged me: “Well, you have a good eye, you have a nice sense of light. Take more photographs.”

That propelled me. But the big thing for me happened after about a decade of working as a portrait photographer and trying to make my own kind of pictures: I went to a lecture by Texas playwright Horton Foote at the Galveston opera house during a film festival. It was an electrifying experience. (My wife, Pat, was a huge fan as well.)

The lecture was a panel discussion. But when it was finally Horton’s time to talk, he said, “You know, when I was a boy growing up in Wharton,” which was a tiny agricultural town in Texas, “I told a teacher I wanted to be an actor or an artist.

He said, ‘Horton, that’s going to be difficult in this community, but you need to know a few things.’”

I’m paying attention at this point.

“‘You have to know the history of the medium you want to work in.’” I thought, “Yeah, I kind of know that.”

Then he said the teacher told him, “‘You also have to be a product of your own time. You don’t want to act or write plays the same way people have always done ‘em, you want to do them in your generational way.’” I thought, “Yeah, I kind of know that too.”

Then Foote said, “I went to New York, and I went to other places, and I had some success, but I learned that for me that wasn’t enough.”

Then there was this pause, and Foote said, “For me, I learned I had to belong to a place.”

And when he said that, it was like being struck by lightning. I just sat up straight in my opera seat and thought, “Oh geez, why is it that I think I have to go all around the world to make a photograph that somebody is going to look at? Why don’t I just try and belong to my place that most people make fun of? Why don’t I learn the legends? Why don’t I learn the mythology? Why don’t I learn about the communities?”

I went home so invigorated, and that’s when things started to change. I felt like, “I’m going to belong to this place  for better or worse.” I still travel widely, but what I found is when I go somewhere, I basically take my own place with me. It was a wonderful epiphany.

Keith Carter: Fifty Years
“Fireflies,” 1992

And up until that point, you were shooting pretty straight portraits?

I was doing my own work as well, but what I was doing—at that time there wasn’t that much shown, especially in my region—I was learning from books. So, whomever’s book I got a hold of, I would wittingly or unwittingly emulate them. So for a while, I became Walker Evans or Joel-Peter Witkin. But then after leaving the opera house, I thought, “OK, all bets are off. Let ‘em make fun, here’s what I’m gonna do.”

I just started photographing things like dead coyotes hanging on barbed wire in a rice field, a raven in a tree or some poor bedraggled hound dog on a dirt road.

How would these end up having a surreal feel to them? Your images are pathways into a dream world.

“Photography is not about the thing photographed. It is about how that thing looks photographed.” That’s a Garry Winogrand quote.

When I start a project, I look at somebody’s work that’s similar, just to see how things look.

I read a quote by poet Wallace Stevens where he said, “Poetry must resist the intelligence almost successfully.” I have that on my darkroom wall. (When I read something about poetry, I change it to the word “photography.”) There are times to trust your intuition and not overthink things.

Early on, I fell in love with the square format of the Hasselblad simply because, to me, everything seemed equal. It wasn’t horizontal or vertical. I fell in love with the democracy of that format. In those days, I did everything at ƒ/22 and often on a tripod. That in itself dictates a certain kind of image.

Also, I wouldn’t photograph things straight on…I’d tilt a little bit, or I would shoot from an oblique angle.

I fell in love with Eugène Atget’s work [because] he just couldn’t place his camera in front of anything. It was always at an oblique angle.

Atget didn’t necessarily think he was doing something in an artistic way… 

There’s that very famous photograph where he’s across the Seine photographing Notre Dame with a tree dissecting the frame. He was a commercial photographer in competition with other commercial photographers in Paris, and every one of them would go around to the front of Notre Dame—as they should—and do a very clean, sellable photograph.

And he goes across the Seine, gets an oblique angle, then bisects it with this black tree. Of course, every one of those other photographs is forgotten today.

He was self-taught. I don’t know if that had anything to do with it. It was like he was inventing another language. That had a huge effect on me.

Keith Carter: Fifty Years
“Evermore,” 2016

What equipment are you working these days?

I still use my Hasselblad, and I still use film, but now I also use a Canon EOS 5D Mark II. I just make the viewfinder square by changing the ratio. When you download the files, you still see the whole image, but what you composed was square.

If I do commercial work, I vary the lenses. But for my personal work, I only use the lens, which pretty much sees the way my eye sees: the 80mm on the Hasselblad and the 50mm f/1.2 on the Canon.

I don’t want to get away from film, because it’s my history, but I think the digital world is angels on the head of a pin, completely miraculous.

Yesterday, I was out trying to find a place called “The Devil’s Pocket,” which I thought had an intriguing name. I took the digital camera. Now that I found it, I’m going to go back and take the film camera. Sometimes when I travel, I’ll just take the digital. If I shoot color, I’ll use the digital.

Are you still making traditional prints in a darkroom?

I do use Ilford papers, but I also make pigment prints on, with a Canon printer. I also do wet-plate collodion with an 8×10 Deardorff and an 1870s Petzval lens. It’s an 1860s process. It has an ISO of 1. It’s a mixture of ether, alcohol and guncotton.

Generally, you make a plate, a tintype or a glass plate. A glass plate is an ambrotype, a tintype is on metal.

I only do it occasionally. The exposures are generally from about 6 to 15 seconds. When you do a portrait, people have to have a brace or lean up against something. There are no cheesy smiles.

They have to stand there and look at the ends of the earth. It’s a look that you don’t get anywhere else in terms of the process. I’m also really fond of the aberrations. It’s hard to make one really perfect. Back in the 1860s, they took such pains to make great plates. We go the other way now to make them look full of aberrations. As I said, I try and guard against perfection.

In my workshops, I emphasize that if you want to really get good, learn the history of our medium. Learn what came before us. We stand on the shoulders of giants.

For more on Keith Carter’s work, go to keithcarterphotographs.com.

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