in isolation: Jessamine’s Gown (1994).
People, Real Places
of the Ordinary: Photographs by Keith Carter
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.