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Keith Carter is an internationally recognized photographer and educator. Born in Madison, Wisconsin in 1948, he holds the endowed Walles Chair of Art at Lamar University Beaumont, Texas. He is the recipient of two National Endowment for the Arts Regional Survey Grants and the Lange-Taylor Prize from The Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University. In 1997 Keith Carter was the subject of an arts profile on the national network television show, CBS Sunday Morning. In 1998, he received Lamar University's highest teaching honor, the University Professor Award, and he was named the Lamar University Distinguished Lecturer.

Eight monographs of his black and white photographs have been published: From Uncertain To Blue, 1988; The Blue Man, 1990; Mojo, 1992; Heaven of Animals, 1995; and Bones, 1996. A mid-career survey, Keith Carter Photographs- Twenty Five Years was published in 1997; Holding Venus and his eighth book, Ezekiel's Horse, were published in 2000.

Called "a poet of the ordinary" by the Los Angeles Times, Mr. Carter's haunting, enigmatic photographs have been widely exhibited in Europe, The U.S., and Latin America. They are included in numerous permanent collections, including the Art Institute of Chicago; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; the George Eastman House; the Museum of Fine Arts of Houston; and the Wittliff Collection of Southwestern and Mexican Photography at Southwest Texas State University.

From an Essay written by Bill Wittliff

Among his earliest memories is waking in the middle of the night from a pallet on the floor to see a small orange safelight above the kitchen sink where his mother stands. He steps over beside her then raises himself on tiptoes to watch in wide-eyed wonder as one of her photographic images slowly comes up in the developer. It is magic, indeed it is a miracle - and to this day my friend Keith Carter has never gotten over it.

His father had deserted when Keith was still in pre-school. The Episcopal Church gave his mom enough money to keep her little family intact until she could get back on her feet. Earlier, before marriage, she had made a bit of a living photographing college and sorority girls in the Midwest. Photography was essentially the only skill she knew that might put bread on the table for her daughter and two young sons, so she picked up her camera again and opened a small studio on Calder Avenue, there in Beaumont. Her forte was children. She'd run $5.95 specials on the weekends, sometimes photographing as many as sixty kids in a single day, then stay up night after night making the 5x7 black and white prints in the kitchen sink. It was tough going, but she never complained, never once uttered a bitter word against her former husband for leaving them in this fix. Whatever void his absence left in his children's lives she filled as best she could.

The little studio prospered. In time, Keith - then half-heartedly limping toward, of all things, a business degree at the local college - became his mom's part-time framer. One day he chanced upon a photograph she made of a little girl wearing a straw hat and holding a basket of kittens. It was a cliché of course, but it stopped him in his tracks. He got down on one knee for a better look. It was not so much the picture itself that had grabbed him, but rather the light. The image was backlit and everything in it was absolutely rimmed in light. To Keith it seemed everything was radiating and glowing from within. It was a small epiphany: he had never before realized light - simple everyday light right out of the sky - could be so stunningly, so supremely beautiful.

That afternoon he borrowed his mother's camera and began taking pictures of his own. In truth those first photographs were no better than one might expect from any beginner, but his mom would study them and say things like, “You have a nice eye,” or “That's an interesting composition,” and Keith felt encouraged and kept at it. He thumbed through photographic magazines until they literally fell apart in his hands, he accumulated a mass of misinformation from the guys at the local camera shop, he devoured every book on photography he could find and he worked, worked, worked. David Cargill, a sculptor and friend, became a mentor and made his vast art library available. Keith soaked it up like a sponge. Cargill would talk to him about artistic things like form and space, about a three-dimensional subject and putting it on a two dimensional surface. Keith had to go to the dictionary to look up dimensional. Cargill showed him books on Vermeer and other artists who painted much as a photographer sees - then Cargill loaned him Henri Cartier-Bresson's The Decisive Moment. It was the first book of really serious photography Keith had ever seen and it electrified him and expanded his still-forming sense of what photography could do. Here was form, concentrated use of space, with pathos, content - all infused with intelligence. The realization came rushing up that photography could be art -  and the idea set him on fire. He knew what he wanted to do with his life now. He wanted to make art…

He kept working.  He converted his apartment kitchen into a darkroom just as his mom had done all those years before.  He made every mistake it's possible to make with film and paper and chemicals, but some of those mistakes showed him interesting ways to go - ways not in the magazines and instruction books - little by little he began building his own methodology.  He lived and breathed photography.  Everything else in his life pretty much took second place, though he still traveled with his mother when she made her twice-a-year trips around the state to photograph the children of her growing clientele.  He loaded her film and played the clown to make the unruly little monkeys keep smiling long enough for their likenesses to be taken.

At this point he'd never even seen a fine black and white photographic print so he sold his bettered old Triumph motorcycle and bought a Greyhound Bus ticket to New York.  It took tow butt-bouncing days to get there.  He found a cheap room in the Albert Hotel down in the Village then spent hours each day poring over the luminous prints of the masters in the Museum of Modern Art: Ansel Adams, Alfred Stieglitz, Weston, Atget, all of them - even his hero Henri Cartier-Bresson.  As it happened the MOMA opened a retrospective exhibit of Paul Strand's work while he was there.  Keith had never heard of him, but he simply couldn't get enough of Strand's prints.  They were, many of them, dark and brooding; they were textured; and, though they were black and white, they had an aura of color about them.  They were so beautiful, so appropriate to the various subjects, and oh, so very personal.  They were exactly how Paul Strand saw the world.  They were as much Paul Strand as were Strand's own fingerprints - and to Keith they seemed a mark still far beyond his grasp.  But he shoved his doubts into some dark and out-of-the-way corner and kept at it.  It's important to understand that this was a young man working in the almost complete artistic vacuum of a modest oil refinery town in deep East Texas.  Beyond his magazines and books and the occasional visits with David Cargill there was no instruction and no feedback - and then came Pat...

There's a saying I like enormously: Whatever you're looking for is looking for you, too.  The catch, of course, is recognizing it when it pops up in front of you.  Keith knew almost at first glance that Patricia Royer Staton, formerly of Trinity, Texas, was his other half.  Pat is a lady of great charm and wisdom and humor and independence; she is a lover of poetry and music and animals and art and good conversation - and she is a keen and sympathetic observer of art and good conversation - and she is a keen and sympathetic observer of all things human, whether high or low.  So is Keith - and like Keith she wasn't afraid of work.  And work they did, though there were times when hacking out a sparse living shooting weddings and advertising layouts and children's portraits left Keith precious little time to pursue his own dream.  It was frustrating; sometimes Keith would think maybe he should chunk the whole damn thing and just get a job.  But Pat would tell him over and over, “No that's why we're going through all this, for you to make your own pictures.”  Her confidence in Keith cannot be overstated, nor can one overstate the influence that confidence had - and still has - on Keith.  “Your pictures are important,” she'd insist. “Keep making your pictures.  Don't stop.  You're getting there.”  And he was: his pictures were better than ever before and, too, through experiment and endurance, he'd become a master printer.  But he felt he was still essentially making versions of pictures that had been done before by other photographers.  He knew he had not yet found his own eyes, his own unique way of seeing - and he knew too that until he did he had about as much chance of making real art as he had of hitting the moon with a handful of dry oatmeal.

Then two events sort of fell on top of each other.  He was down in Mexico walking through an old cemetery.  There were pictures everywhere as there are in almost every cemetery anywhere, but Keith had already made those pictures dozens of times before and had no interest in making them again.  Then he happened to glance up: above him in the branches of a tree were festooned with tattered wind-blown streamers.  To Keith they looked like wispy ghosts trying to take flight.  He instinctively raised his camera just to see what they'd look like isolated in the viewfinder and he was instantly struck by the symbolism.  No longer was he seeing the objects themselves, but rather the meaning - the human content - they represented.  It was a fine moment; indeed it was another small epiphany: photography could do far more than the simple recording of external fact...

He photographed in a fiery heat for about fifteen minutes, knowing full well the pictures wouldn't really be very good, but sensing that he had just taken the first step through the door into that larger realm of his own seeing.  Henceforth, the “thing itself” held little interest for him.  He knew what he was after now: the inside of things, the symbolism that registers not so much in the intellect, but rather resonates in those deeper and more authentic chambers of the subconscious.

It was his first glimpse through what would soon become his own true eyes and the possibility of making art loomed: he knew how to look now, he just didn't know where.  Shortly thereafter it would be that fine gentleman and celebrated playwright Horton Foote who would inadvertently tell him...

Keith was at a film festival in Galveston, fighting to stay awake at a panel discussion and wondering what the hell he was doing there anyway.  Then it was Horton's turn to speak.  Horton said that when he was a boy in Wharton he had wanted to make art, and he was told that to make art you had to know the history of your medium; you had to know everything that had come before you.  Keith nodded to himself.  Yep, he though, I know that.  Horton went on: you had to be a product of your own times and write about your own generation.  Keith though, yep, I guess so.  But then Horton said, “But for me that wasn't enough.  For me, I had to belong to a place.”  Keith sat straight up.  “Oh Jesus, belong to a place…”  He'd never really thought about it.  He'd always blindly assumed he'd eventually have to go across great oceans to far-off lands to make important pictures.  But now…well, now he realized here he was already living in one of the most exotic places on earth, a place chock full of history and variety and beauty and meaning and potential…It was almost like hearing his own heartbeat for the first time and he said as much to Pat.  She gave him a funny look, surprised he was just now catching on to what his own piece of ground had always held and was holding still.  “Well, yeah,” she said.

But for Keith it was a revelation, and he took everything he had learned over the past fifteen years and began applying it to what before had seemed the most ordinary of places and things...

He was ready to be astonished now, and the world he had known all his life bent to serve him.  He found wonder everywhere - in a fly on a backdrop, in a naked light bulb hanging on a twisted wire, in an old woman watering her grass with a garden hose.  All things became equal before his lens.  His was a democratic way of seeing and he placed no hierarchy of values on his subjects, made no distinctions in terms of importance.  To Keith, a person or an animal or a tree or a shimmering reflection in a body of water were all notes in the same grand symphony.  For the first time he felt he was really finding his own true self as a photographer.

On their tenth wedding anniversary Keith and Pat hatched the idea of traveling to a hundred small Texas towns - each with a catchy name - and making one, and only one, photograph in each.  Most of the towns - towns with names like Earth and Splendora and Rising Star - were way out there in the middle of nowhere.  There were no hotels, sometimes not even a hamburger joint or a public restroom - and there was no time ever to just sit around and wait for the best light.  They'd hit town, find the picture Keith wanted to make, shoot it in whatever light was available, then go hightailing it on down the road to the next town.  The on-town-one-picture commitment they'd made forced Keith to try things with light and composition he'd never dared try before.  What he found in the process was creative license and freedom - and a whole new confidence in his own abilities as well.  He knew now he could make a picture anywhere, anytime, and under almost any circumstances.  In 1998, the pictures were published in From Uncertain to Blue, Keith's first book.  Horton Foote wrote the introduction, and Pat documented the whole adventure in a beautifully written section of notes which accompanied the images.

Several years later, in 1992, Keith made “Fireflies,” in my view his first truly great, truly transcendent image.  It is a photograph of two young boys in a creek bottom.  They are learning over a jar held between them.  Light glows from inside the jar - the magic light of the fireflies the boys had captured at dusk on that warm summer evening.  It is a picture of your brother and you.  It is a picture of all of us when were still new in the world, still able to be mesmerized by the most ordinary and daily of things.  It is a picture to conjure memories that in most of us have lain dormant for an eternity - remembrances of having once been at one with the natural world.  Only a glance at “Fireflies” and we're back there again, our eyes full of wonder, walking barefoot through that continuous miracle that is life, and we are exalted by the experience.  That is what art at its most sublime can do.

Other important images followed.  Keith was trying to express ineffable things now, things like his love of music and myth and mystery, things like the internal lives of animals, things like those fragments of universality that can sometimes be gleaned from between the lines of great poetry.  The resulting photographs were not so much asking you to observe, as before - now they were inviting you to participate, to open the door and come on in.

Look at “Garlic” or “Giant” or “Alice;” look at “Cosmos” or “Luna” or “Horse and Wolf” or “Holding Venus” or “Sky and Water”…It's not that these pictures are telling you things you didn't already know, but rather that - like “Fireflies” - they're reminding you of things you've deep down always known but somehow forgotten, because life has a nasty habit of simply becoming too daily, too dependent on thought at the expense of feel. These photographs fill you up and become a part of your inner life, depending on the depth of your own capacities.  The proof is that the first response to the best of Keith's images - and to all great art - is almost always an instant YES, and instant recognition of that which was already there inside you on some profound connecting thread that runs through the very core of all of us as fellow travelers on this spinning globe.  That's how great art in any medium slips past all boundaries of time and space and cultural differences to deliver the goods.

It's a decade and more since Keith found his eyes while wandering through that little Mexican cemetery.  His images are regularly celebrated in exhibitions all over the world now.  Major collections - both public and private - treasure his prints as they do their holdings of other masters, including, yes, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Paul Strand.

Prestigious galleries everywhere vie to represent him.  Amateur and professional photographers alike pay hard cash to attend his workshops; students fill his classes at Lamar University; magazine editors seek him out for portfolios and articles; and there's never the lack of a publisher for his next book.  Certainly Keith finds all this attention pleasing, but I do not believe he will ever find it entirely satisfying.  At heart his is a working man; he's up at first light each morning with his talent and his tools, trying to make art of whatever the world and his imagination conjure up at the moment.  If there is a satisfaction for Keith it is in the doing of the work itself, in the never-ending search to see deeper and fuller into the heart of the matter.  This is a risky business; it's much easier to fall flat than it is to succeed.  All true artists live daily with the fear that they may not be up to the challenge.  Some reach certain plateaus and rest on their past accomplishments.  Others embrace their fear and use it like a whip to drive themselves ever forward toward what finally may well be unobtainable anyway.  This is what Keith ahs always done and is doing still.  His most recent effort - photographing graveyards of military airplanes and ships - is a prime example.  Where others see these mothballed behemoths as nothing more than decaying remnants of the past, Keith dares to see in them fellow-creatures - fellow-creatures that once soared and sailed and voyaged perhaps heroically, but that now lie broken and abandoned, desperately gasping for one last great breath of air like some heartbreaking empire of lost souls.  Just possibly, one might argue, these images represent memories of our own future...

I do not know where Keith's passion to see will take us next.  I do know Pat will be the first one there with her always insightful and honest reaction to the work; and I know too that hit or miss or in-between, Keith will soon be off again on his great adventure of making art.  That is his bent: to keep moving, to keep working, to keep challenging himself to go ever deeper, to keep risking the horror of losing his way because there's no map or chart beyond his own instinct to guide him - and there are never, ever, any promises at the end.  Believe me, you've gotta have a lot of ass in your britches to live with these kinds of uncertainties on a daily basis.

So what is it that so relentlessly drives Keith Carter?  For a certainty he has a soul-deep itch to create, to make art, to elevate others and be elevated himself by the issue of his own gift - but I cannot say from what source that itch in Keith or in any other great artist comes, though there are times I am convinced it is self-chosen before the artist ever draws breath and the wish granted by some benevolent god.  Finally, of course, it is unknowable - it is one of the great mysteries.  And perhaps the proper response to such great mystery is simply to stand there in awe of the work - as I do of my friend Keith's - and gratefully accept its blessings.

(Bill Wittliff, Austin,Texas)

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