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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.
Before we get to taking a look at some of the pictures that I have made of Keith, what I want to do here is step back for a few moments. One of the things that I like to do before I make a portrait of a person is I like to try to create pictures which somehow portray that person without the person in the frame. In other words, I try to capture these small details that somehow tell or reflect a bit about the person I am going to photograph. So what I want to do here is just walk through some photographs and share some stories and insights to some of these pictures, some of these pictures of Keith Carter's studio and home, his space, because I think that space, it creates an interesting portrait of him, and I want to start off with this photograph.
This is his studio sign Keith Carter Studio. This particular sign had fallen off a wall, and it broke in a number of different pieces. What's so interesting to me about this sign is that it tells a lot about Keith. He is one of those people who isn't afraid of imperfection. As a matter of fact, he embraces it; he finds the beauty within that. This sign is so telling about Keith. And as I continue to walk around, I notice there are so many things that included these elements of imperfection.
It was the patina, the passage of time that was really evident and beautiful, like this sculpture and these worn-out rocks and old pine cones. There were faces and sculptures really throughout his yard, and what was just so interesting to me was that you could see so clearly the evidence of the passage of time. So often we're afraid of the relentlessness of time. We want to keep things perfect and pristine. But Keith, he approaches things in a different way.
He sees the passage of time as beauty; the marks of time somehow make things perhaps even more interesting. And as I continue to walk around, I noticed things like old bird houses. There was just such a beautiful aesthetic to almost everything. And then there were these other elements like this sign in the background, CLOSED IN PURSUIT OF...ART, BEAUTY & TRUTH. One of the things that I found really fun about Keith is he has this great sense of humor. He has a lot of fun. He is deep and has these profound thoughts, but he is also just, he is just a ton of fun.
He is really enjoyable to be with, and that showed up in his yard. This also caught my eye too, because this little piece here is from Mexico. I know that he loves traveling to Mexico. It's fun to see some elements from some of his travels. And then into his darkroom. I have had the privilege of visiting a number of different photographers' darkrooms and studio spaces, and they're all completely different. What I like about this one is that here behind this enlarger are all of these different snapshots, photographs of Keith with some of his friends or photographs from workshops that he has taught.
One of the things that this made me realize is that when Keith is creating his photographs, he has all of these people in mind. It's almost like they're surrounding him, and I think all of those relationships they somehow are infused into his work. I think that's one of the reasons why his work connects with so many different types of people. As I continue to walk around his darkroom, I really like seeing that he had written these notes to himself. This one was fascinating: try to make pictures that are wise rather than clever.
And then another one: make pictures that are something, not about something. Make pictures where they stand on their own. They stand on their own. They have substance. They are not about something. They are something. Well, that's something that I had to take a picture of and think about. How does that relate to me as a photographer? That's a profound statement. Then underneath that particular shelf where that statement was written was this, and I like what it says: PRESS ON, nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. And then it goes on and near the end, persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.
And that is so true with Keith. He is one of those artists that just presses on. And what I love about this little sign is that you would think that once you know that message--it's a pretty obvious message; press on, keep at it-- you would think once you've heard it, you don't need to hear it again. You've got it, right? But no. We all hit those lulls, those flat spots, those dry spells, where we need to be reminded of these things. We need to read this every once in a while. Okay, I am in a flat spot, or I am in a dry spell. I need to press on.
I need to keep going. I love these sort of reminders that were just all part of Keith's darkroom. Here's another one: it's all about making choices. That is so true. That's what art really is. Should I frame the image this way or that way. Should I create an image which is dark and brooding or one that's bright and high-key and happy. It's about making those choices. It's about being decisive. And then walking out into a studio space, there were all of these prints which were hanging to dry.
Man, I love seeing those prints. What was fun about that is that's that final stage in that print-making process. The image has been made and now it's hanging to dry. It's almost done. It's almost ready, but it's upside down, just before you take it down, flatten it out and perhaps put it in a frame or get it ready for a book. It was fun to see again that process, thinking about that and imagining that from start to finish. And here is Keith's desk where his studio manager sits.
I've had the privilege of spending time in a number of different photographers' studio space, but I have never been in a space like this. The color, the texture, the tones, the furniture. Again, it reveals so much about Keith. Well, from there, I went into his home. This is one of the first pictures I made. This was the mantel. And what this made me think about was just this delicate and beautiful light. In Keith's space, there are so many windows, but none of the windows are bold and strong and overpowering; rather they are soft and inviting.
And all of these interesting artifacts, the aesthetic, it's poetic. It's beautiful. And the shapes and lines and forms, patina, the texture, again, embracing imperfection and perhaps even finding this hidden beauty there. It was like there's hidden beauty around every corner. This was in front of another window, and I just love the wilting rose. If you're going to put a picture of a rose up in your home, usually it's bright and full and blossoming. This one isn't.
These flowers aren't. Again, it's that passage of time. I am getting this insight into Keith about what makes him tick. What is he visually interested in? Here are some great old bottles, those blues, and greens, that color palette. It was just, again, it drew me in. And then here's another photograph underneath that area of this book and these old butterflies, and just how he would combine these small little details. Nothing was haphazard; it was all planned.
You can almost see the positioning of things and how it fits together. There are so many stories here. And then it was fascinating to see this book sitting on that table, this poetry book, by W.B. Yeats, one of my all time favorite poets. Again, here, it's that value; it's that value of poetry. It's also I think that value of the connection with the artist. As I toured his home and studio, it was almost as if there was this connection that was present.
He cared about the people who made these things. Everything, every item in his home and in his space, there was some sign, there was some token or some way of noticing that this was hand made, even to the signature on the book. And then here's a little bit more of a pullback perspective of that room. There is that fireplace mantle we saw, those bottles, and I love this perspective because this is kind of going back and looking into this room. It's so inviting. It's warm. It's welcoming.
It's one of those rooms you want to get into. You want to look at all those little things and notice them and take pictures and talk about art and poetry and life. Again, it's inviting. So as you can tell, this little tour of Keith's home and his studio and his space to me was telling. What I was trying to do was in my mind to create a portrait of him. Who is Keith Carter from this perspective? And oftentimes, by using my camera as a sketchbook, as a way to try to capture some of these elements, helps me get to know some, to get to know someone.
And by getting to know someone in this way it in turn hopefully helps me create a different type of a portrait, because once I get to actually making the portrait, I am not thinking about the surface; rather I am thinking about all of these different items, these elements of who a person is and how that shapes how they think and how they approach life. And that gives me some material to work with, so to speak, so that hopefully, I can create portraits which are a bit more authentic, honest, and true.
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