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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 earlier, it was fun to hear you talk about being at MoMA and thinking through looking at those Ansel Adams images and John Szarkowski being there, and I loved something that he said about Ansel which he said, "It was as if he had the same vocabulary available to us all. It was just how he arranged the words." And that gets me thinking, as we are talking about, poetry. Poetry is a big thing for you. Your images have this poetic cadence to them and communication.
How does poetry relate to image making for you? Keith: Well, I think that poetry, unlike prose, is non-linear. Certain words evoke certain images or sensations. And when I was young-- actually, I still do this today--but anytime I read something about a poet or poetry itself, I would change the word to photograph or photographym and the meaning would remain the same.
For instant I read E.E. Cummings advice to a young poet where he says, "Well, if you want to be a poet, you have to work harder than anybody who isn't a poet can possibly imagine." Okay, I'm 23 and I'm thinking, okay, I'm going to change his words. If you want to be a photographer, you have to work harder than anybody who isn't a photographer can possibly imagine. Chris, you can fathom the comfort and encouragement reading something like that gave me at that stage.
I mean I thought, okay, well, I know what I need to go and do. And today I mean-- For instance, if I gave you a William Carlos Williams so much depends upon the red wheelbarrow glazed with rainwater beside the white chickens. Famous short poem. If you were given that as an assignment, how would you photograph that? Would you document it? Would you make an installation with a red wheelbarrow and some ceramic chickens and red dirt? Would you make a conceptual picture? Would you make a video of it? I mean there are all kinds of interpretations, and language and the written word and in particular poetry always sort of fired me up.
It gave me a certain license to make pictures I didn't think anybody would care about but me, but it gave me a certain kind of courage to make those kinds of a pictures. That's the best way I can put it. Going to back to our earlier conversation, what makes you look at a picture more than once, that kind of thing? In the early days of poetry things were always orated, because nobody could read. So it'd be the priest or the tribal elder or what have you who would orate.
And poems were read three times. The first it was just like that. It went in one place, here. And the second time you heard it, like a song, it goes here, and the third time you heard it, it kind of infuses your whole body. I think that's the same with photographs. I mean sometimes you look at it, and that's wonderful, and you look at it second time, oh my god. That's really wonderful. Or the third time, that's devastating.
Or it jus doesn't work at all, like bad poems, or things that are just on the surface. And in our profession there is a host of colleagues that are technically brilliant, but the pictures, by my standards, all say pretty much technically brilliant. They stay on the surface. And how do you go beyond that? Well, that takes some experience. The other thing I would tell you, you say, well, how do you get better and that kind of thing, in our conversation.
And I tell this to students or colleagues read. Read widely, read deeply, read all kinds of things. It's like looking at all kinds of photographs. You start to build a vocabulary of thoughts, images, words, history, everything, and that has a tendency to find its way into your work. You can't really say visually any more than often you think, and you can't think anymore deeply than the sum total of what you read, or conversations.
It's all part of a linear process. So the other thing I always love was as Aristotle said, "The soul always begins a thought with an image." So when I read these things sometimes I will jot down in a little notebook. Oh! Put that in a picture someday, or something like that. So it gives you a certain license to think about the most ordinary things as extraordinary subject matter, and I try to do that often.
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