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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: So I'm coming to you as mentor and friend and colleague and say, "Keith, I feel good about my photography, but I want to dig. Help me out." Keith: Well, I'd first say, "You gonna buy me a beer on this?" Chris: Yes! (laughter) Keith: Let's go get beer to talk about this. Chris: A couple of beers. Keith: Let's go get some coffee. We'll talk. I'd tell you a couple of things. I'd tell you that if you're talking about your personal work, which is probably why you got into this in the first place, certainly is my motivation, I'd tell you to pick a project.
You need to find a project, and you need to give yourself a reasonable amount of time to complete that project, and you need to complete that project, to actually get it done. But it's the relationship between you and your subject matter upon what rests the full weight and mystery of your art. What you find interesting in the world, what you find, given the context that growing up in Northern California, coming from the family you come from, the education you have, the books you read, the colleagues you have conversations with, what do you find interesting? And then you need to explore that subject.
And I try my own world to explore the vernacular. I live in a place where art is not the first thing on people's minds, where the most beautiful birds build their nests, where the most vulgar people live next door to the kindest-hearted. It's not that dissimilar from quite a few places in this country. However, there are all these overlapping scenarios, from folklore, to religion, to food, to agriculture, legends, African- American legends that make a lot of the things interesting around here.
You have all of this stuff and music overlapping in this culture, and within that little microcosm, it's like one square foot of dirt in what's called the Big Thicket National Preserve, 20 miles north of here. If you dig into that dirt, you find so much stuff going on, life, and if you put it under a microscope, all bets are off, what you find. The thing I'd tell you is to rein it in.
Don't look at the great big picture so much. Find one little genre that adds sustenance to your life, give that subject matter some kind of resonance, and give yourself a reasonable amount of time. Chris: How much time? Keith: Give yourself two years, and I want to see 45 photographs. Chris: Two Years, 45 photographs? Keith: You can do a nice small book of 45 photographs, a nice exhibit, and you can do it in two years. Chris: And the other thing I hear you're saying is, I mean what's implied, is take in time, kind of parsing out, just taking time to articulate my interest, where I'm at as far as geographically, what's there, and finding that square of dirt so to speak.
Keith: Yeah. If nothing else I try to be practical. What can you actually get done? You have two children, a wife, extended family, and responsibilities, and you have a full-time profession. What can you give up, or what can you rebalance and actually get done? That's an adult decision. That's a tough thing to do.
In my world, I give up things a lot, and I have a lot. And I don't feel like I've lost anything, but there are a lot of things that I haven't gone and done because I'm a narcissistic guy trying to get some work done, and I can only get it done by not going to that, or by taking this two weeks and going and doing this or that. You have to be a little selfish in the arts with your time, not with your love, but with your time.
Chris: Okay. So I take this and let's say I'm a year into it and I hit a flat spot. I hit a wall, and I say, "Why I'm doing this. The images--the 25 I have." I don't if this happens to you, but sometimes I get my photos back, or I process them or whatever it is, I am just kind of devastated, deflated. I'm in that lull. I call you up, 12 months from now. "Keith, thanks for your assignment, but no thanks." Then what you do say? Keith: Well, I'd say, "Well, quit whining for god sake.
Hitch up your pants. I mean give me a break here and get back to work." You've got to finish it. It's impossible, virtually impossible to make a qualitative judgment as to whether or not this body of work you're absorbed in is going to be successful or not while you're in the middle of it. It's impossible. All you can do is talk yourself out of it. Oh! I don't have enough time. Oh! It's been done before.
Oh! My friends don't like this. Oh! I'm not doing a good job. I don't have the money. This is too much time. All you do is talk yourself out of it. You know, it's like you got this little black angel on your shoulder whispering that stuff in your ear all the time. And I don't want to hear it. You know what? I just don't want to hear it. You've got to finish it, and then you make a judgment as to whether or not it's successful. But let me tell you something. You notice I'm pointing my finger at you.
Chris: Yeah. Keith: If you do fifty photographs on this assignment in two years, you're in an aristocrat. You did it! You did what most people will never do and you did it for the best of all reasons. How can that be time ill spent? If they don't meet your requirements, well, hell, join the club. That's most of us. I go back to Ansel. He said 12 photographs a year is a good crop or something for a photographer. And I read that, in the 70's I thought, man, I do 12 a week, what you're talking about.
I see now, 35 years later, the guy knew what he was talking about. Just how do you define good or articulate or coherent or sustaining, but if you do it, yeah, it makes you an aristocrat. You did it! That's what I'd tell you.
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