Keith Carter: The Persistence of Creativity
May 02, 2010
Keith Carter's recent exhibition at the Catherine Edelman Gallery in Chicago included images from his eleventh and latest book, Fireflies: Photographs of Children, as well as many of his best-known images of horses, moths, and the lush environment of East Texas where he lives. The gallery also debuted images from a series that marks a new beginning, both in Carter's work and his personal life. "Natural Histories," a collection of murky and mysterious images of people moving amidst the wreckage of airplanes, is Carter's first foray into digital imaging. He began working on the series a little over a year ago, after he was diagnosed with ocular melanoma, a rare form of cancer, in his left eye.
Doctors recommended Carter, who is 61, have the eye removed. Instead he opted for radiation treatment. "Doctors told me that I'd lose my sight from radiation damage in two days to ten years." Since finishing the treatment in April 2009, he's lost about 50 percent of the vision in the eye: his sight is sharp at the top, but cloudy in the middle and bottom of his view.
A photographer with an eye disease is, he observes, a little ironic. "You just want to look up at the sky and say, 'You think this is funny?'"Still, Carter's good cheer remains unchanged. "Once you find out it's not going to kill you, you realize that if this is the worst thing that happens, it's not so bad. Every morning I open my eyes and I still see light in my left eye, outlines. I think this is really wonderful."
Carter, who focuses his camera with his right eye, documented his treatment, taking self-portraits of his swollen eye socket as it recovered from multiple surgeries. Then, facing six to eight weeks of recovery, he decided to use the time to teach himself Photoshop. "I wanted to show myself I could continue to work, and that this isn't completely debilitating."
Carter is a lifelong lover of what he calls "the romance of the darkroom and film." But months before his diagnosis, he had decided to learn about digital imaging, and had scanned the negatives from two series of images in his archive. One, which he calls "The Boneyard," was taken in 2000 at the Air Force's repository for out-of-service aircraft. Located on the outskirts of Tucson, it is where planes are stripped for parts. "To me they looked like great anthropomorphic creatures in the desert."
The other set of images was shot in 1990, when choreographer Michael Tracy commissioned Carter to photograph a performance piece called "The River Pierce." During rehearsals, Carter became intrigued by performers whose bodies were slathered with mud. "I took pictures of them just for myself," he says. "Those mud people were wonderful. They appealed to all my sensibilities. And they were naked, which I thought was kind of fun." Last year he decided to place those primitive-looking people into his images of ruined and rusting technology.
With only a rudimentary knowledge of Photoshop, Carter began compositing and toning the images digitally. "I tried to take two bodies of work done a decade apart and form them into some kind of coherent, implied narrative," he says.
To collectors of Carter's work, which is in the collections of the Art Institute of Chicago, George Eastman House, Houston Museum of Fine Arts and other institutions, his move to digital might seem radical. "Like many men and women of my generation, I love negatives and film and everything transmitted by light," Carter says, and he continues to print about three days a week in the darkroom. "But at the same time, there are some things the digital world makes more palatable: not only the seamless collaging, but the idea of printing bigger." With digital output, he explains, "You're not confined by the size of your sink and your trays. Digital printing has opened a whole new area for me that I find exciting." His Natural Histories prints are 36 x 36, more than twice the size of his silver gelatin prints.
Though the darkly toned images of Natural Histories suggest a post-apocalyptic landscape, Carter believes they tell a story of perseverance. "You have this community in the desert, and there's something spiritual there, there's no violence. You have this conflict between great grounded airplanes and people building community almost in a tribe-like fashion." It's not difficult to see Natural Histories as a parable for the persistence of Carter's creativity in the face of debilitation, but Carter himself feels that Natural Histories follows in line with his earlier images which express his wonder and awe of nature. "At least in my mind, they've all been about hope in some way."
"Keith has certainly one of the best outlooks on life that I've ever known, before eye problems and after," says gallery owner Catherine Edelman.
She calls Natural Histories "an important body of work for Keith." When she selected the images to exhibit for his recent show, she says, "If I was only going to show his gelatin silver prints of the past, it wouldn't have addressed what he has gone through." What the series shows, she says, "is what you can do when forced into hibernation."
Carter is busy teaching�he holds the Walles Chair of Art at Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas�lecturing, shooting and printing. "If you're past 30 you know things happen to people, and people deal with them all different ways," he notes. "You just want to get on with it, you want to do good work, you want to love people."
He pauses a moment and looks out the window of his studio. "I'm looking at a red bird and a mocking bird in my yard. What more can I say?"
© Courtesy Joan B. Miller / Magnum PhotosWayne Miller, LIFE Photojournalist Dies
© Gerald Mabee/Brent Foster Photography & CinemaFrames Per Second: Pitching Video Storytelling
©Ali EnginFaces Portrait Photography Competition
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