A Poet of the Ordinary : Art: Keith Carter’s photographs, now showing at G. Ray Hawkins gallery, reflect an affinity for rural Americana and for ‘unsung heroes.’
“I was once at a lecture given by the writer Horton Foote, and he made the observation that in order to be an artist you have to belong to a place, and that idea really hit home with me,” says artist Keith Carter, a Texas-based photographer whose work is on view in Los Angeles for the first time, at the G. Ray Hawkins Gallery through Sept. 3.
“I realized that I’d been scattering myself and running away from Beaumont, Texas, where I was raised, but that deep down I really loved it. So, I decided to just let it course through me--and that’s when I started making the pictures I wanted to make.”
Carter’s affinity for the rural South permeates every picture he takes, and it’s been central to each of the books he’s published. In “From Uncertain to Blue,” published in 1988, Carter explored small Texas towns, while “The Blue Man” out four years later, focused exclusively on east Texas. His 1992 book, “Mojo,” examined black folklore of the South, while Carter’s next book, “The Heaven of Animals"--slated to be published next year by Rice University Press--is a series of portraits of Southern people and animals.
“It’s not a popular idea around here, but I believe this is an extraordinary region,” says the 46-year-old artist, speaking by phone from Beaumont, where he lives with his wife of 20 years, Pat, and a dog named Rosie. “And, the thing that distinguishes the South from the rest of the country is its black culture--it’s a palpable presence here in everything from folk art and religion to music and language, and it moves me deeply.”
Working in black and white, and citing Henri Cartier-Bresson and Eugene Atget as seminal influences, Carter favors a classical style of photography that’s a bit out of vogue at the moment, but never really loses its audience. Conceptually straightforward and unabashedly beautiful, Carter’s timeless, graceful pictures are like the photographic equivalent of comfort food--looking at them makes you feel better. Some of Carter’s pictures were clearly caught on the wing (this is particularly true of his pictures of animals), others are carefully composed and lit. All, however, are freighted with mystery and tenderness.
“People’s lives are a lot more fragile than most of us want each other to know, and that region of fragility is what I try to illuminate in my pictures,” says Carter, who’s taught photography at Lamar University in Beaumont for the past five years.
“I like imperfection--people with crooked teeth or a woman whose slip is showing--and I’m interested in the poetry of the ordinary. It’s not a terribly original thought, but I have an abiding love for ordinary people and unsung heroes. It’s what moves me the most, and I need to be moved in order to take pictures.”
Born in Madison, Wis., the eldest in a family of three children, Carter has lived in east Texas since the age of four, when he was introduced to the camera. “I grew up around photography,” recalls Carter, a soft-spoken gentleman who says wonderfully Southern things like “I beg your pardon” and “Thank you, ma’am.”
“When I was four, my father deserted our family and left my mother to raise us,” he continues. “Prior to marrying, she’d traveled around the Midwest photographing college girls, so she opened a studio and took pictures of children as a way of supporting us. At night she’d turn our kitchen into a darkroom, and my sister and I would lie on pallets on the floor watching her work. She didn’t consider what she was doing art--she saw it strictly as a way of supporting the family--but I was entranced by her work when I was young.”
It wasn’t until he was 18 when it occurred to Carter that he might want to take pictures himself, but when the idea hit, it hit with a vengeance.
“Up until then I’d had no involvement with fine art,” says Carter, who’s essentially self-taught, “but I was lucky enough to befriend a sculptor in Beaumont who had a great art library--which, needless to say, was a rarity in these parts. His books really lit a fire under me. Then, when I was 25, I took the bus to New York and spent a month looking at the photography collection at the Museum of Modern Art. That experience left me completely obsessed, so when I returned to Beaumont I got a studio with no phone or air conditioning for $75 a month, and just worked and worked. After about 10 years of that, I finally began to arrive at a style of my own.”
Carter supplements his income as an artist with commercial work, and he’s done album cover photography for several musicians, including Merle Haggard, George Strait, Los Lobos, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and R.E.M. (Michael Stipe’s admiration for “Mojo” led to Carter’s work being seen on R.E.M’s next album due out late this year.) One might assume such liaisons would make Carter something of a celebrity in the small town of Beaumont, but such is not the case.
“Nobody takes me seriously here or cares about what I do--and I don’t lament that fact because it allows me to get a lot done,” Carter says, laughing. “This is an insanely peculiar place, and that’s a big part of the reason why I don’t think I’ll ever exhaust the South as the subject matter for my art.”
* The G. Ray Hawkins Gallery is at 908 Colorado Ave. in Santa Monica, (310) 394-5558. Gallery hours are 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.