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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: Here we are at Keith Carter's home and studio in Beaumont, Texas, and Keith, thanks a ton for having us here. Keith Carter: It's a pleasure! Okay. Chris: Let's go inside. Keith: Company. Chris: Thank you! Wow! Chris: So tell us a little bit about this space here. Keith: Well, my wife and I have lived here for 32 years now, and when I came to Beaumont I wanted to open a portrait studio not in a storefront like a shopping mall, my goal was to try and live and work in the same place but not trip all over your professional work all the time.
So we had some outbuildings I could use as a studio and et cetera, et cetera. So essentially the plan is work more or less. Chris: Very neat, and there's so many different little artistic things here, fascinating eclectic mix. Who is behind all of this, you, or your wife or-- Keith: Mostly my wife, Pat. She asks my opinion here and there, but I think most artistic people are not just photographers, are inveterate collectors of some things, be they books or antiques or artwork of some sort, and over the years our taste have changed.
We have an eclectic taste, and we love to live with things that give delight to the eye. So our plan was, at least for us, since we're the ones here all the time, is to try and put things everywhere that delight the eye, and it's a wide mix. I don't put my own work up, or very rarely, simply because I mean I love my work, but I love doing the work, and I don't find it that stimulating once I've done it on a daily basis.
I find other people's work much more stimulating. Keith: So we have a signed book by William Butler Yeats. Chris: Where is that? We have a signed portrait of Jackie O. This one right here. Keith: which I gave to my wife on our anniversary and it's just beautiful. And just things--a lot of them are just smaller hidden things. But most people love their houses and if you spend a lot of time in one place, it takes on your personality.
Chris: It does. It's fun for me, I mean, to see the art books and all these different objects. So many of them seem like they are from your pictures, and it seems like I'm also seeing so many--if we walk around a little bit, so many gestures and forms and colors, and I mean these different-- Keith: You see a lot of hands. One of the things I've always loved are the paintings in the caves of Lascaux, those Upper Paleolithic paintings where you see many, many animal motifs, but in almost all those caves in southern France and parts of Spain they'll have hands on the wall.
And 16,000-18,000 years ago something drove us deep into the earth. They make these beautiful paintings, but they would put handprints on the wall, and it wasn't like somebody being a bad boy or girl and sticking their hand in paint. They are in darkness, and they are blowing pigment around their hands. So I always say you can make argument, that's probably the first positive-negative print. Chris: Yeah, wow! Fascinating! Keith: So I collect hands, I put hands everywhere.
Chris: And it seems to be such a kind of embracing the passage of time, that something can become, like this little object, more beautiful with time. I don't know if I'm Chris: reading too far into that, but-- Keith: No, it goes back to part of our conversation. Keith: Photographs are made up of time and light and memory, and we both like fragments of things. We have a running joke that if it's old and broken we'll like it, and I've always liked antiques, so has Pat, and eclectic artwork.
So I have paintings and graphics and santos, or parts of saints, or animal motifs. Things you love. It's probably no different from your house. These are just things you love. I find them stimulating. Keith: This house was built in 1926 for what we were told was the lifelong male bachelor secretary to one of the oil families.
Keith: Beaumont is known for its oil industry. Chris: Okay. Keith: And it was not probably built for children, but it was built well and interesting. So it's a modestly scaled house, and this is our dining room. And a lot of our-- we collect some portraits. Berenice Abbott's portrait of Atget. I have Walker Evans' portrait of James Agee around the corner, or Edward Weston's Pepper. But the things I really--the one I really love, that might be germane to what we're talking about earlier, is this portrait of Abraham Lincoln. And I have two versions of it.
The one on the right is a silver gelatin print of the original print, of which this is struck from the original print. And the story behind this is it was for many years thought to be the last living portrait before he was assassinated, and subsequent scholarship shows that maybe it's not. It's the last studio portrait. But what I love about it is--well, first of all, it's Abraham Lincoln.
Okay, and it's Alexander Gardner. It's made in--depending on who you talk to, either April or a later, a month, in 1865, but this is the actual size of the glass plate. It's wet plate collodion, and Gardner made it in Washington, DC, and it's right before the end of the Civil War. And you can see how tired he is. He's just haggard and weary, and it's very short depth of field, and it's an oblique camera angle, so the camera is not just straight on.
It's tilted slightly, and you have this sharp falloff, and you have to process the portrait at the same time you make it. And something happened. Despite the craftsmanship that Alexander Gardner possessed, he broke the plate. They struck one print of this, of which that's a reproduction from the one print, and then he threw this plate away, and then Lincoln is assassinated, and he Keith: realizes the historical value and retrieves the plate. Chris: Wow! Keith: And now it's one of the more sought-after portraits in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington's Smithsonian.
Keith: And this is struck from the original glass plate. Chris: Wow! Fascinating! Keith: And it is beautiful, but the thing I love about this, Chris, is the best of portraiture crosses all kinds of lines, and it's both a document. It's a portrait. It crosses lines of sociology, anthropology, and for me even, theology, and it's the crack, the flaw that changes the psychology of the picture.
It wouldn't be nearly as powerful picture for me without the flaw, and there are all kinds of reasons probably for that, but I think it's quite beautiful, and I wouldn't have the same feeling had it not been broken.
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