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Beauty in isolation: Jessamine’s Gown (1994).

Real People, Real Places

 

By Nadine Wasserman

Poet of the Ordinary: Photographs by Keith Carter

Esther Massry Gallery, College of St. Rose, through Jan. 17

A photographic image does not have to depict something out of the ordinary to appear extraordinary. Keith Carter is adept at transforming his everyday surroundings into images that are evocative and slightly surreal. His subjects are people, places, things, and animals, but they are anything but traditional portraits or landscapes. Each photograph is a whole narrative captured in an instant. The tale, however, is never straightforward and always reveals a sense of wonderment.

Carter is clearly influenced by an earlier generation of photographers such as Ralph Eugene Meatyard and Walker Evans. His visual language is also indebted to many writers and to the influential words of Horton Foote, whose statement, “I had to belong to a place,” inspired Carter in his early career. The East Texas environment in which Carter grew up and still resides is a rich resource for him. Much of his early work focused on its people, animals, and landscapes; and while in recent years he has pointed his lens farther afield, he always carries that sense of place with him.

Carter deftly uses both inanimate objects and live subjects as studies in the photographic process. But he is not just interested in the technical. He is seeking something more lyrical and expressive. His photographs, most often in black and white, use gesture, perspective, spatial relationships and blur to produce an ethereal and illusory quality. He explains that he discovered selective focus by happy accident while photographing two small boys playing in a creek by his home. One of the resultant photographs, Fireflies, is a signature piece. In it, two boys stand in a creek holding a glowing jar between them. One boy peers into it, mesmerized by the natural wonders within. To the viewer, the boys appear like mythical pixies in an enchanted forest.

Carter is technically a straight photographer. But he presents his subjects as more allegory than document. His sympathetic eye captures the complexity of even the most mundane subject matter. In Jessamine’s Gown, a neighbor’s fancy party dress hanging against a faded and stained wall becomes a stand-in for all of life’s joys and pains. Similarly evocative is a much earlier work, Toy with no Child, a study in light and shadow that depicts a toy airplane lying on a wrinkled bedspread. Its melancholic mood is reflected throughout the rest of the gallery even in more joyful or whimsical subjects.

Carter’s preference for the symbolic is noticeable even in his portraits of people and animals. In Meagan, a young girl dressed in her underwear looks straight at the camera, holding a dead bird in her cupped hands. Her expression depicts a knowingness beyond her years. The image is more an enigma than a portrait. Many of Carter’s portraits of children are similar. Often there are props—a ball of string, a painting, a mask—but there is very little frivolity. It is this somber mood and pathos that comes through even in Carter’s images of animals. A dog is seen from behind wearing a tattered cape, but we feel akin to his emotions just as we do to the boy in Turkey Feathers who has stopped his child’s play to contemplate something deep. The quiet, sad dignity of Lost Dog is echoed in the image of an older couple surrounded by the clutter of all their photographs on the wall behind them. This shabby beauty shows up in works like Oatmeal, which depicts an old theater, or Noonday, which shows a desolate baseball backstop full of holes.

Inanimate objects allow Carter to explore other avenues of visual metaphor. In Wishing Well, the shiny coins at the bottom of the well shimmer like stars in the sky. In Giant, a human figure strolls calmly past an enormous hand. Mooring Posts makes the city of Venice look like a toy. Carter’s strength is his ability to gain intimacy with his subject and thereby elicit emotions in the viewer. Like any good storyteller, he is able to exploit familiarity while presenting a new perspective. His affection for everyday moments produces images that are at once disquieting and comforting.


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