Interview with Keith Carter
The following interview has been made last July in Italy, in the historical town of Salo' on Lake Garda, where Keith Carter was keeping a workshop entitled "Visual Poetry". Lake Garda and its surroundings are also the subject of his new photographic project.
Q. From your point of view what is the difference between taking pictures and making pictures ?
A. Taking pictures is probably where most people start. At a fundamental level photography is much like pointing, and all of us occasionally point at things: look at that, look at that sailboat, look at that tree, etc. etc. So that would be an example of taking a photograph, I suppose. Making photographs is a different mental focus, on a fundamental level you can make things up, on another level you can deal with things that happen in a real world and change them just a little bit...I think there is a more focused and sometimes direct intent when you make photographs and I think the results are generally more coherent, or have a better chance of standing the test of time.
Q. How have you been introduced to photography ?
A. My mother was a photographer and she was widow very young. She had a small studio in a town in Texas where I continue to live, Beaumont, and she kept our small family together by doing portraits of children. I grew up around it but I never really paid much attention to it for boring reasons, mostly having to do with growing up, until I was about out of college and one day I walked in and she had some color portraits of children against the wall, and it was almost like the very first time I've ever really looked at her pictures. It was a cliche' picture of a little girl with a cat and a straw hat, with the light coming from behind, and that outlined everything...when she came home I said: “Could I borrow your camera to make some pictures ?”, and she said: "Well, sure", so I got some black and white film, I think I was twentyone, and I made some pictures then developed at a photomat place. I showed them to her and she said: "Well honey, you have a good eye, you have a nice sense of design !". Sometimes it takes just a little bit of encouragement to change the direction of a young persons’ lives, and I'm always aware of that when I find myself with young people listening to what I have to say, because it changed my life and set me in a direction that was very rich and fulfilling...
Q. Is there a moment in your professional life when you realized to have
found your inner voice ?
A. That's a good question... I don't know I could define a single moment, it
was probably more a group of moments. I can tell you that when I first
discovered photography seriously I was really on fire. I was able to
say things that were difficult to me to articulate verbally, I was able to
explore them in pictures, and thirty years later I'm probably even more obsessed now ...
Actually the moment in my photographic life that changed the way I
thought about my own pictures was when I had gone to a film festival to
listen to a playwright whose work I admired. His name is Horton Foote and his plays always took place in a small fictional rural community, everything that was important would happen in that little community, and he had grown up
in a community similar to that...
He was on a panel discussion with a number of academics that was very
boring, until it became its time to talk and he said: "When I was a boy in
my small town I wanted to make art, and I told to one of my teachers,
who was my favorite teacher: "I want to make some art" and my teacher
told me: "Well Horton, if you want to make art you need to know two
things" - and I was sitting in the audience at this point and I started to
wake up - he said: "You need to know the history of your own medium,
the history of your art" - and I thought: "Yeah, I understand that" - "You
have to know what come before you, and then you have to be a product
of your own time, you have to make art in your own generational way" -
I was sitting there and thinking "Yes, I understand that" and then he
said "but, you know, I worked for a while and then it became clear to
me that was not enough, I learned I had to know the history, and I had
to write in my own generational way, but I also had to belong to a place"
and I said, almost stood up in the audience, "Oh my God", my hair was
raising in the back of my neck..."Belong to a place"...
I live in a small place more urban centers make fun of, where art is not
necessarily the first thing in most people's minds, and I thought "Gee, I
don't need to go in some exotic locations to
make a meaningful picture, why don't I just play like I came from China
and I was transplanted into this culture, with this people and this
language and this landscape and this architecture and this music and all
these animals I've never seen before... why don't I try to belong to my
own place and make pictures that I really would like to make. I started
doing that and it was the first time that anybody started paying
attention to my work. So it's generally my advice to young people
everywhere, but particularly if you are from a smaller, rural culture:
"Belong to something"... people, a state of mind, a way of life, put down
some kind of roots if you want to make art, to help it grow.
Q. The place where you spent your childhood had an influence on your
A. Yes, very much so. I live in Southeast Texas, right on the Louisiana
border with a wide variety of ethnic groups of people, from african-
americans, vietnamese, what we call cajuns, and white anglo saxon
protestants such as myself, all of this in essentially a rural area with
overlapping religions, music, languages. In my early work I tried to use
all these popular culture influences, I thought it was a place where
language was used in a different way, where the costumes and
particularly the folklore was really extraordinary and very potent. For
instance in the black community there are always stories where there’s a dog ghost bringing somebody a medicine or leading children out of the woods to safety. I was electrified by this legend and I continued to photograph dogs for twentyfive years...
Q. Once you said you were "looking for the poetry of the ordinary, the
mysteries of the human spirit"...
A. Well, it's my belief, and I'm certain that's an arguable one, but I think
that you can make art just about out of any thing, that the raw materials
of art making are all around us and many times, at least in terms of
picking projects in photography, there are so close to you that you don't
even see them, the veils are not falling from your eyes.
It's not so much what you see, it's the significance that you see in
things that give them resonance. I like small things, I like small
moments that are almost elliptical, that are not necessarily
linear...they're natural things that happen in the world, but if you look at
them from a slight angle there's more than meets the eye.
Q. What about your project concerning Lake Garda ?
A. I'm embarking on a project on Lake Garda with my friend and very
talented colleague Mauro Fiorese, and our focus is to make photographs
revolving around the lake and its uses, its history. What we know
we do not want to do is to make the same kind of photographs that have
been made over and over very well, such as color photographs of
elegant villas and important ecclesiastical architecture... So we're
going to try to explore a little bit of the actual ancient history here;
what I'm particularly interested in is the use of the water, in my mind without water there's no life, everything that lives needs water,
so not only is this lake used for recreation but I'm interested in sort of
ecological use of the water, the lemon grows, the olive trees, how water
impacts the communities.
Q. You also kept a crowded workshop here at Salo’...
A. My colleague Mario Fiorese and I have just finished teaching the first
workshop they were aware here in Lake Garda, we entitled it "Visual
Poetry", and it included a fascinating mix of very interesting people,
many Italians, Swiss, a couple of Norwegians... and at least in my mind I
thought it was successful, you had everybody from a nineteen year old
to much much older. I think in a workshop it's a precious thing to have
five or six days where you're theoretically suppose to turn off your cell
phones, not watch television, and just give yourself over to thinking about and making improvements in work that interest you, in this case
photography... what we were trying to do was to go beyond making
cliche' or photographs that have been made over and over, enlarging
your own mind on what might be important or what projects would be
useful for you to work on, with respect to your own culture, your own
life. To improve technically, because is always helpful to have good
grounding, to learn your craft and then go break the rules.
Q. In the back of your camera you wrote the words "Never ever give up"...
A. That's true, I wrote that one day I was in New York and I was tired,
things were not going well with pictures I was trying to make and I told
to myself: "You are a professional, none of that counts, you're not
allowed to ever, ever, ever give up" ... I think pictures are important to
culture, not necessarily my pictures, but the art of photography is
probably the most important graphic medium of the last century, just as
the digital medium is rapidly becoming one of the most important media
of the new century.
So I think people like myself follow a great tradition, a long line of
people who for thousand years have wanted to leave marks that were
useful to their culture.