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Growing up, black and white, and the power of portraits

From: Narrative Portraiture: On Location in Texas with Keith Carter

Video: Growing up, black and white, and the power of portraits

Chris: Keith, it's a huge pleasure to be here Chris: Thanks for having us! Keith: It's good to see you again. Chris: Yeah, I'm excited to be here and what a a chance to sit down and talk about photography and art and creativity. So my first thought for you is triggered by a quote by Frederick Buechner who said, "The place you're called to is where your deep gladness and the world's hunger meet" and somehow it seems like you have this calling of photography. It's part of who you are, how you live. And how did that come about? Keith: Well, long story short, I grew up around photography.

Growing up, black and white, and the power of portraits

Chris: Keith, it's a huge pleasure to be here Chris: Thanks for having us! Keith: It's good to see you again. Chris: Yeah, I'm excited to be here and what a a chance to sit down and talk about photography and art and creativity. So my first thought for you is triggered by a quote by Frederick Buechner who said, "The place you're called to is where your deep gladness and the world's hunger meet" and somehow it seems like you have this calling of photography. It's part of who you are, how you live. And how did that come about? Keith: Well, long story short, I grew up around photography.

My mother was a single parent, head of a household before it was quite as fashionable it is today, and she was photographer of children. And some of my first memories are being five and six years old and my mother turning whichever apartment we were living in at the time, the kitchen, into a darkroom. And my sister and I would have palettes on the floor and there would be an orange light, and every now and then I'd get up and stand on a chair and watch a print come up.

It was just magic. Then later on, in college, I rediscovered photography again, and I'm essentially self-taught. Even though my mother was a photographer of children, in a lot of families she was involved in making a living, which was formal portraiture or outdoor portraiture, color photographs. I was completely interested in black- and-white photography, and I didn't care anything about making any money.

I didn't care anything about commercial work. All I wanted to do is make my own pictures. And I'm sorry to tell you that 35 years later that's still my mantra, which is not a good thing to tell students. Chris: And started off in the black-and-white context and continued to work in that. Tell us about black and white and why black and white? Keith: The thing about black and white is it's a huge, huge part of the history of photography and even though the default for your generation and the students you teach is color now, it's not lost to me.

It's like looking at something for the first time. If I make a color portrait of you, there aren't that many surprises to me. The color looks pretty much the way I hoped it would look, but if I make a portrait of you and it's in black and white, it becomes a whole different palette, and tonalities change. Hues change. The word portrait comes from old French, the 16th century, and it was East Texas pronunciation portraire, and it essentially was an engraving or a painting or a drawing of head and shoulders person.

I think that is too narrow. I think we need a new definition of the word portrait or portraiture. In my world, I try to treat everything as a portrait. I could photograph your open notebook with all your handwriting, and I would treat that not as a still light, I treat it as a portrait. I could photograph a dog. I could photograph the Queen of England and I try to treat them all with the same sort of attention.

And in my world, a portrait is anything. It can be a face. It can be a hand. It can be of feet. It can be just an elbow, anything like that. Portrait is something you pay a certain intense attention to and give a certain depth, a certain width and breadth, and there is a certain respect for what's before the camera. The thing about photography that I find so beautiful is that the raw materials of photography are time and light.

All photographs, be they digital or as we say now analog, are small discrete parcels of time, a 60th of a second, a 250th of a second. But for me it's time like in a certain elemental sense of memory in pictures. You make pictures of your daughter. She won't be that in five years. And there is time, light, and now you look at it, there is a sense of memory going on in ways that you can't even fathom, let alone articulate.

And I think all that's bundled into portraiture, period portraiture. I think it's a highest calling, I think out of all the genres of photography and its inception from 1839 on, the one genre that hasn't made great inroads or leaps of aesthetic beauty or intelligence or coherence is portraiture. This is an opinion. I don't see that much in the magazines and often in books that stays with me.

It's more temporal kinds of things. This is a terrible thing to say because I have great colleagues that do wonderful, wonderful celebrity portraiture, and part of it is just my own aesthetics or likes or dislikes but celebrity portraiture, I enjoy it. I look at Vanity Fair cover. I enjoy it. But it's like eating--for me-- it's like eating M&M's candy, and then it's gone, and that celebrity is gone and something in popular culture takes his place.

But some of the portraits that Nadar did in the 1800s, or Julia Margaret Cameron, today are still as riveting and powerful and potent and educational and aesthetically pleasing and timeless. They never go out of style. It's not based on temporal style. It's almost something hard to articulate. It's just a certain power.

Some of the greatest, greatest portraits--this is my own taste Keith: my own aesthetics-- Chris: Sure! Keith: --are not of the rich and famous. They are of people you really don't have a clue who they were or who they are. I mean Julia Margaret Cameron. Of course we know now that they were her nieces or handmaidens or that kind of thing, but they were ordinary people. Or you look at Mike Disfarmer.

And that's an interesting comparison because I think--I mean those are farm people that come in on weekends, and they just break your heart, not because he was a great photographer, because he wasn't. I mean because he was using what appears to be orthochromatic film and because those people are not used to being photographed, and they have the look. They just stare straight at that camera, no subterfuge, no kept teeth, no this or that, and no brilliant Photoshop work.

It's just this unbelievable look, and it's, to use your word, it comes from let's call it the soul. Chris: Again, from my opinion, it transcends, the content. In other words, it's a particular person, a particular place, but all of a sudden, it's more than that. Keith: Well, haven't you ever made let's say a portrait, since we're talking about that, haven't you ever made a portrait, you didn't think you've done as good a job as you'd hoped, and all of a sudden you're surprised.

There is something there that goes beyond what you thought, and vice versa in my experience. Keith: When I make a portrait, if I think there's something really worth doing here and I'm using film, I will do a minimum of two rolls, and often sometimes I'll do four, because in the darkroom I have a canister that will hold two rolls of film and a canister that will hold four, so it's a practical matter.

But often I won't change hardly anything. I'll just make 24 or 48 exposures and things just barely shift, and there's just one out of that where something creeps in, and it's elemental, and it's just--it meets all my requirements.

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