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September 2001 Cover Story

A Failed Eden and A Hopeful Kingdom
The Magical Photographic Wizardry of Keith Carter

By Kaizaad Kotwal

Photo © Courtesy of Keith Carter

An Ambivalent Texan

"Start your article with that," he says during our phone interview from Beaumont, Texas. "I want to tell you right off that I didn't vote for George Bush." Keith Carter, who has been photographing images for well over 28 years, has lived most of his life in Beaumont in a state he claims he was once proud of. "You know," he continues, "I used to meet people anywhere and be very proud to say, 'Hi, I'm Keith Carter and I'm from Texas.'" "But now," he admits, "I have to do this Jekyll and Hyde act, and when I introduce myself to people I say, half-proud and with some ambivalence, 'Hi, I'm Keith Carter, I'm from Texas and I didn't vote for George W. Bush!'"

Carter was born in Madison, Wisconsin, but his folks moved to Texas when he was three years old. The transplanted Madisonian's first moved to Houston, but "very quickly" went 80 miles east to Beaumont on the Texas-Louisiana border. Carter's entire existence has revolved around that town of 80,000 ever since. "Like many people of my generation, I went to public school there," he says, eventually graduating from Lamar University with a degree in business management "for lack of any other focus."

Twelve years ago, Carter returned to his alma mater to take up an endowed chair (Walles Chair of Art) as a full professor in the photography department. Carter's is one of only two endowed chairs in the arts in the entire state of Texas, lending full credence to the notion that the arts are simply not valued in Texas, or any other part of this country for that matter. "I suppose this is so," Carter answers about the paucity of endowed chairs in the arts, "because the arts are frequently underfunded, understaffed, almost always under fire from the right and not seen as relevant to contemporary life."

Carter seems to be a deeply political individual and particularly passionate about issues like the arts and the environment. But he is political in a quiet sort of way. You would never know the fire in his belly for such issues by just listening to his genteel, soft, mellifluous voice. Carter, who loves poetry for many of the same reasons he loves photography, speaks in very poetic English. He is eloquent, articulate and intelligent, qualities that flood through each of his images.

A Mother's Camera and 13 Oak Trees

At 53, Carter, a self-taught artist, finds that he is even more enchanted and entranced by his medium today than he was almost 28 years ago when he began to discover the magic that is photography. Carter's mother Jane, who sadly has been fighting the demons of Alzheimer's for the past five years, was also a photographer. "I grew up around it," Carter says, "but I didn't pay attention to it 'til I came out of college." One day he borrowed his mother's camera, took a few pictures, and showed the results to his mother. "'Honey,' she said," recalls Carter, "'you have nice sense of composition and light.'" From that moment onwards, he says, "I caught fire and never looked back."

Carter still has a lot of his mother's negatives but very few prints. Jane was a single mother, who unlike her son "didn't have the luxury" of using photography to make art. "She had to hold a family together," he explains. The young Carter used to assist his mother, who remains one of his biggest supporters. "She still gets very excited about my work," he adds, "especially if something big happens."

One of Carter's other greatest supporters is his wife of 25 years, Patricia ("who also didn't vote for Bush"). The two met when Carter "wandered into the offices of the Episcopal Church" where Patricia was working as a secretary. Carter is not particularly religious, nor has he ever been. "Like many people of my generation," he said, "at the time I met Patricia I was involved in transcendental meditation, and I wandered into that office just by chance and fell completely and madly in love with her." The couple have no children and live in the Old Town district of Beaumont in a stone house that was built in 1927. "It's the most interesting house," Carter gushes, "one of only two stone residential structures in the entire city. It was built for one of the male secretaries to one of the oil fortunes in the area."

Carter came upon the cottage-style house with a high-pitched roof and huge beams 20 years ago "by complete accident." Since then, he and his wife have turned the house into a sort of artist's complex. Secluded within the sheltering beauty and awesome enormity of 13 great oak trees, the house has seen additions of a studio and a new master bedroom over the last several years. "Twelve years ago, when I sold a large group of my photos to a museum for the first time," shares Carter, "I built on a studio to the house." That sale of 50 images to the Tyler Museum in Texas, was the start of great things to come for this accomplished and unique artist. Carter's work exists in museum all over the world, including prestigious institutions like The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, The Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, The Getty Museum in Los Angeles and the Eastman Kodak collection among many, many others.

Alchemy, Alakazam, Abracadabra

When photography emerged as a viable medium of capturing "reality" in the nineteenth century, people became transfixed by the way in which the picture was just like the real thing. Even today, the ability of film, still or otherwise, to capture this ephemeral thing called reality, is the fixation of the masses. That view of this magnificent and magnanimous medium is rather myopic, completely missing the magic that is photography.

Carter agrees with this assessment and becomes very poetic when speaking about the "completely magical thing" that this medium is. "Think about it," he says with the enthusiasm of a child discovering the magic of chocolate for the first time, "you take light, some precious metals and some chemistry, wave the camera like a magic wand, murmur certain words and there you are." Sometimes this magic yields great things and sometimes it doesn't.

For this photographer, who is happiest when he has new work, the medium of photography is "a way to articulate issues that you can't in other ways." The issues that Carter is interested in articulating are archetypal ones. "I am interested in the ragged edges of the human psyche, about the human condition of living in a failed Eden, and the prospects of living in a hopeful, peaceable kingdom." It is clear, from Carter's lyricism in speaking about photography and its nexus to the human condition, that he is, as a photographer, part artist, part philosopher, part poet and part documentarian of the human spirit.

"I am interested in capturing the idea of living life with grace and finding the sublimeness in the planet, in animals and in fellow humans." Carter argues that he tries to balance in his work two somewhat disparate forces – that of remaining "externally objective and internally boundless." Even though Carter intuitively understands what that means at a gut level, he admits that he's not sure he can articulate that very well. "It's nebulous," he claims. "But take poetry" he continues, trying to explain the dualism of external objectivity and internal boundlessness, "the pleasure is in how the words work on you psychologically and what they do to you. They allow you sometimes to know things that you already knew but at other times, they allow you to know things that you didn't know you knew." For Carter, his photographs, like poetry, "allow room for the viewer to finish the story and to move around the imagery in a boundless way."

Straight from mouths of babes and horses

Carter's mother Jane used to photograph kids quite a lot, something that has unconsciously slipped into Carter's oeuvre, manifesting itself in some of his most accomplished, astute and poignant images. "In all my works I try and tell a certain truth," he claims, "and one of the elements I find important in the medium is the pervading sense of memory." Kids, for Carter, are the perfect subject matter because with them one is always in a place of instilling a memory or beginning a memory. "I love to work with kids because they are fascinating in the way that they don't think like adults." He is continually surprised by how intelligent and aware of things kids can be. To date, Carter has had eight books of his work published, starting in 1988 with From Uncertain to Blue. In one of his more recent collections, titled From Ezekiel's Horse, Carter focuses on DaVinci's claim that "Horses were God's most perfect design." What DaVinci was referring to was the amazing hulk and bulk of the horse's body supported by four thin and spindly legs, yet being able to move with such speed, power and grace. For Carter too, the "horse is an extraordinary animal." And indeed, even outside of its mindboggling physiology and physiognomy, the horse has transformed the ways in which cultures and civilizations have been shaped. Carter notes that "Fifty-five million years ago, this continent was covered with horses, and then about ten thousand years ago they almost completely disappeared, we think due to the Ice Age and over hunting." "Do you know how the horse was reintroduced to America?" he asks, his professorial leanings showing through. "Columbus, on his second voyage, in 1494 came over with twenty-one stallions and ten mares."

Carter devotes From Ezekiel's Horse entirely to these amazing creatures. The title, according to Carter, came from a little boy on a visit to an Argentinean ranch. "I was at this schoolhouse there, where kids went to study three days a week. They would come from the outback on horses and tie the animals to the rails. There was this one kid named Ezekiel who took the globe in the classroom, took it apart and put half the world on his head to make this rest of the class laugh. He was performing because I was the Gringo there." This photo of Ezekiel is a stunningly simple yet evocative image, just like the story that Carter tells. "Before I left," Carter continues, "he wanted me to take a picture of him and his horse."

Stories in every image; images in every story

This self-taught photographer loves literature and loves to tell stories via his pictures. Carter admits that most of his influences are not from an academic background but rather from pop culture and literature. He continues to be influenced by books he read when he was in his twenties including Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, The House of Breath, and The Grapes of Wrath. For Carter, these books helped him understand that "ordinary lives are never ordinary nor have they ever been. Flashes of heaven can appear as easily as your own reflection in the water but you have to be ready to see these flashes of heaven in the very ordinary."

Carter believes that with maturity his work emerged. "My own work began in some respects when I was in my late thirties and early forties when I became myself," he notes. One of the big influences on this new and lasting sense of self was playwright and fellow Texan, Horton Foote. "He had a big influence on how I thought about a sense of place. I used to think that in order to make a significant picture I had to go to a significant or exotic place in larger eyes."

Foote's marvelous plays helped nudge Carter closer to the truth that "everything happens in small places, just on a different scale." "I learned from him to look at my own place," Carter says. Indeed, many of his images are culled from the amazing narratives found in his own county, state and the South at large. In the landscape of both detailed smallness and unending expansiveness, Carter has captured an amazing array of images of the land, its people, its other life forms and their interconnectedness to each other.

"I try to treat all living things with a certain sense of democracy," he explains, "within that ideal of all creatures great and small." In recent times, Carter has started to explore that organic sense of democracy beyond the confines of own backyard, taking many trips abroad. His most recently published book, Holding Venus, is a series of brilliantly accomplished images taken in Italy, France, Scotland, Wales, England and Ireland.

Until recently, Carter had never really traveled abroad except via the medium of foreign films, something he teaches at Lamar University. For him, these films are a way of traveling to a far away culture, especially in a town like Beaumont where the local multiplex, like all of its kind across America, "plays nothing but blockbusters and often the same film on three and four screens at the same time." Carter loves "the spirit" of foreign films, partly because, in his estimation, "European, Eastern-European and Far Eastern people don't think like white, Anglo-Saxon Southern people."

Fitting in in Beaumont

It would seem that this culture in Texas and Bush country would be totally at odds with the sensibilities of an artist and humanist like Carter. His work can be somewhat esoteric, and in Texas, where at least the conservative folk tend to thrive within well-prescribed rules and mores and by a strictly proscribed set of values and ideals, that "internal boundlessness" of Carter's pictures might be completely missed there. "Yes, they do get it," he explains when I ask if his work is appreciated in his own backyard. Talking about the 2000 exhibition at the museum in Beaumont, Carter says that the galleries were packed "but once it's over people go back to their work, back to their lives." He understands that "art is not the first thing on people's minds there, and it's really gratifying when anyone pays attention."

"If you're not in the arts," continues Carter, "you're not in the center of society, you're really an outsider and people aren't comfortable around outsiders." "My concerns are different from those of my contemporaries here," he adds, "and not to denigrate anything but they all want to hunt and fish and golf, and their lives are centered on family and children and church while I don't make forays into any of those areas particularly well." But Carter is quick to add that his homeland, like any other, is filled with "kind-hearted people living next to the most vulgar sorts."

While Carter is one kind of Texan son, at the other end of the spectrum is the homegrown son that is George W. Bush. However, Carter doesn't even consider Bush to be Texan at all. "In fact, he is a silver-spoon-in-the-mouth Yale, Connecticut kind of frat boy who is not sympathetic to the common people at all," says Carter. Even Midland, a heavily oil-based community, which is Bush's home away from his elite New England roots, is, for Carter "so far removed from the mainstream." Carter's venom towards this President, "who wasn't much of a governor and certainly isn't presidential material," is unabashed and unmitigated. "Every single policy that he has and espouses, from the environment to the lack of support for the arts, is short-sighted."

I asked Carter if his radically different ideologies make it somewhat isolating to dwell in that state. "Not really," he counters. "Thankfully there are more than half the people out there like me, since he didn't win the popular vote!" While Carter doesn't claim that Bush outright stole the election, he maintains "there is an element of that there, especially with everything not being out in the open." "I love Texas," he concludes. "He gives Texas a bad name!" Perhaps one of the reasons that Carter vehemently criticizes Bush is because, as he says, "I don't suffer fools quietly!"

Dwelling within esoteric: On fine edges of clichés

Carter works almost solely in black and white, saving color only for commercial photography which he does from time to time. In the photography world, for the most part, there is a large divide between art photography, which asserts its legitimacy via the monochromatic universe of black and white, and commercial photography, which sells its wares via the over-saturation of colored imagery. "The American public demands saturated color because it's more fun to look at and it takes less thought," he espouses. However, Carter also admits that it is completely possible to create great artistic photography with color, as is being done by photographers like Richard Misrach and William Eggleston. "For me though, color is simply not the language that I speak as well."

If one had to distill Carter's amazingly complex oeuvre down to certain basics, it could be assessed that the three overarching stylistic concerns in his work are minimalism, surrealism and a sense of time (and timelessness) that seems deeply linked to the minute machinations of memory. While photography has been overly heralded and misused as a medium of capturing reality, Carter intuitively seems to understand the inherent or "built-in surrealism" of the medium. "You take time, light and memory," he explains, "as the raw materials and the results are unforeseeable and unstructured for the most part in what is ultimately captured."

One of Carter's earliest mentors was sculptor David Cargill who critiqued many of the artist's early images. "He would take my pictures," recalls Carter, "and he would crop them. 'Be ruthless with space,' he would tell me, 'because if it doesn't say anything then take it out.'" That sense of ruthless space and transcendent time exists beautifully in all of Carter's images, many of which have such a Spartan sensibility, all of which Carter hopes are meant to "resonate internally with the viewer." He hopes that his images are "grounded in intelligence and grace and not in some overblown sense of rhetoric."

It is precisely this new way of seeing things that removes Carter's work from any sense of cliché and stale redundancy. One of the more unique ways in which Carter captures his subject matter is the use of multiple fields of focus within the same image and on the same planar level. These photographs, imbued in a sense of mystery and with a lack of a completed sense of descriptive power, float in and out of focus in the same field of view. For Carter, this technique is "a way of calling attention to the innocuous or seemingly ordinary parts of the picture, the parts that the maker finds significance in. It can elevate aspects of a picture to something more coherent."

In an image of a pair of women's shoes, lying on the ground, presumably having been discarded by the wearer, one in focus the other slightly blurred, one can garner an entire life history – of both the woman and her shoes. This image is greatly reminiscent of Van Gogh's rendering of a workman's boots in which every brush stroke is imbued with the grandness of human existence. And while many of Carter's images have deep thought in and behind them, he is also prone to a certain wistfullness and a wry sense of humor.

These images, inspired by his love of many anonymous nineteenth century images, when film speeds were slower and artists were working with shorter depths of field, also work towards imitating the way in which human vision functions. "If you are in a room and focus on a chair then everything around the chair is truly out of focus but the brain and the eye compensate and make it all seem like it's in focus. I am trying to make pictures that are like vision itself."

Hue of things to come

As Carter stands on the threshold of entering his third decade as a serious and immensely accomplished photographer, he has already set his eyes on some future avenues to explore. It is not uncommon for him to devote several years to building up a portfolio around a central theme or a cohesively metaphorical ideal. "It's like making a small film or writing a novel," said the man who has been so inspired by the written word.

In fact, his current exploration, minimalistically and mystically titled "The White Project" is straight out of the pages of the classic Moby Dick. "There, in chapter forty-one," Carter explains, "there are two sentences about the mythological and religious significance of the hue white when the writer talks about the 'whiteness of the whales.'"

He is also experimenting with a series of nudes, something he has rarely tackled in his large body of work. And it is precisely that, large bodies, that he is interested in exploring. "I am sick to death of perfect bodies," he says with genuine exasperation, "because it has very little relevance to what I know."

Of course, what Carter is alluding to is the oversaturation of the photographic marketplace of black-and-white nudes of males and females with perfectly chiseled bodies, what he calls "some babe with a good body or a guy with a large endowment and muscles." These images, that flood our surroundings, eventually turned into greeting cards and posters, are done in black-and-white simply to give this cheap eroticism an air of legitimacy. "It's so derivative and it's been plundered over and over," he notes, "not to mention the fact that it's too easy, too cheap. I want more out of myself and my colleagues' work."

That age old quandary about what separates a nude from a naked body, philosophized about since the time of the ancient Greeks and before, is for Carter a distinction about intentions. "A nude doesn't make me think about the naked body as the first thing to come to mind. Rather I am taken into other realms beyond and including a pleasure in the nude form." Carter gravitates more towards real humans, more rounded and natural, as opposed to the artificial realities of steroid induced muscles and silicone padded body parts. His nudes will more closely resemble the zaftig and lush bodies in works by Lucien Freud, Francisco Botero and Irving Penn.

Carter recently returned from a "stimulating and inspiring" photographic excursion to Prague where he was artist in residence at Charles University. He found this ancient city to be very "photographic friendly," from the people and their love of music and literature to the astonishing Baroque architecture. "I was in the darkroom one day," he fondly recalls, "and I heard the sound of horse hoofs on cobblestone outside. Now that's a perfect moment." He should know, having captured so many of those perfect moments over the years in an astute, amazing, and arresting body of images.

Carter's work will be on view at Mauritz Gallery in Columbus, Ohio, through October 2001. A reception will be held Friday, September 21 from 7 to 9 pm.

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