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In the Narrative Portraiture series, photographer and teacher Chris Orwig explores how to use location and natural light to create images that tell stories about their subjects and produce a strong emotional connection.
In this installment, Chris travels to Texas to visit with Keith Carter, a fine art photographer and teacher, and has a conversation with Keith about his work, outlook on art and photography, and suggestion that photographers commit at least two years to a personal project.
The course continues with a pair of portrait shoots. Keith photographs Chris and describes his process and creative decisions along the way. Then the cameras are swapped and Chris creates a portrait of Keith.
Finally, Chris reviews the photography he took, and discusses the gear he used and the lessons he learned while visiting with and photographing Keith.
Chris Orwig: Tell us about creating a book. Keith Carter: Oh! Books are fun. I love books. I love typography. I love trim size. I love papers. Now that has nothing to do at this point with making the photographs. I'll make the photographs first. But then when you get embroiled in putting a book together, I would look at things that you liked. It all comes down to the ever-loving dollar and how many copies you're going to do and that kind of thing. But once you figure those things out-- and the nice thing about being alive in this decade is there are so many opportunities for publishing and self-publishing, things that 10 years ago were unimaginable.
Everybody can do a book. And probably for a number of our colleagues the Holy Grail is to have a book published of your work. Well, number one, you've got a have a body of book. And if you can get a large publisher or scholarly press to publish it, that's wonderful. They have distribution sources, et cetera. If you end up publishing it yourself, well, I think that's a marvelous thing, because you can do it.
Somebody told me once, he said, well, "If I do that it's just like a vanity press." I said, "Well, I don't look at it like that at all." I mean look at all of the small town histories that somebody wrote. Nobody would have ever published that unless they did it themselves, through what was unfortunately called a vanity press. That work would be lost. That history would be lost. That obsession that person had would be lost.
They found a way to get it out there. The other thing about books in my experience is, at least in the artwork, that's a fairly narrow spectrum of people who get books, and the book world is changing, but books have a tendency to find their way into the right hands. It's really odd. People who love books, who love photographs, or love whatever genre, they're always on the look out. And somebody says something, or it goes viral on the Internet or what have you, it's a whole different ball game.
Practically, what I do is I go out to the university to the big gallery on the Sunday. I lay out all my pictures. Or sometimes once I edit them down, I lay them down on my studio floor. I think of them as small auteur films where I did the work. I'm the cameraman. I'm going to edit this the way I want it. I'm going to make the film the way I wanted to make. Most of my subjects are small, esoteric groups of projects that are hardly meaningful to that many people outside of myself, at least that's what I thought. I see now that that's not exactly the case.
Anyway, I lay these out and I try to create an implied dialog or else some kind of implied narrative, sometimes with several small bodies of work, sometimes with one whole project. When you lay them all out, you can see the holes. When you're doing the work, you don't see holes so much. But boy, when they're all out there printed, naked on the floor, and you walk around, and you're trying to put it together the way you think it should be put together to say somebody intelligently "What was on your mind?" and hope it's about more than just what's on your mind, you'll see the holes. And then you say, okay, well, I need to go back and do this or that just doesn't work, or that's just not a good picture.
It is fun to do. I think it's really-- I can't do it on a computer screen. I have to get the PowerPoints and the Keynotes all the time, but I can't do it when I put a book together. I can put together a lecture and move it around, Keynote or PowerPoint, but no, I have to look at prints and it may be old-school, but I have to have to look at it. Chris: I like that though. I like that. So with your experience with teaching, why is that you think that certain students make it and others don't.
Keith: I think some work harder than others and some of them just catch fire. I think if you give a student--if you give the right kind of student who's ready for it a proper introduction to the big, bold, beautiful, glorious world of making marks, marking systems, which photography I think is probably the one of the most important of the graphic arts, period, if you give them a proper introduction then they just sometimes catch fire.
But we've all seen students who struggle and can't really make great photographs and some that just hardly put any effort into it and their pictures are pretty good. And then I've seen students who struggle and make great photographs. But the ones who get out of school and they don't have that support system of their colleagues, of their critiques, of their teachers being on their ass all the time, that becomes a narrow hierarchy of what I call aristocrats that keep working.
It's just a handful--it fulfills many aspects of their life, the process itself. You have to love to do the work. You have to find a way to get the joy out of doing the work, you know?
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