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Starting out: New York and other influences

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

Video: Starting out: New York and other influences

Keith Carter: When I was 24 I felt like I had learned as much as I could learn from the people in the camera stores around here, and the books I was reading. I had read Ansel Adams' series three times and I still didn't understand half of that stuff, but I was trying to learn to print from books, and there wasn't much being shown, even in Huston in those days. Nothing in my area. So I wrote the Museum of Modern Art, and I told them I was a serious scholar of photography and could I come visit their collection, and somebody wrote me back.

Starting out: New York and other influences

Keith Carter: When I was 24 I felt like I had learned as much as I could learn from the people in the camera stores around here, and the books I was reading. I had read Ansel Adams' series three times and I still didn't understand half of that stuff, but I was trying to learn to print from books, and there wasn't much being shown, even in Huston in those days. Nothing in my area. So I wrote the Museum of Modern Art, and I told them I was a serious scholar of photography and could I come visit their collection, and somebody wrote me back.

This is way before there was email. A kind intern said, "Well, sure, you come visit. Who do you want to see?" So I wrote back to them. Chris Orwig: Were you excited at opportunity? Keith: Oh! I was so excited. I got a letter from Museum of Modern Art, and they said I could come up. So I'd take the Greyhound bus to New York City, and it was a wonderful experience. I thought I had enough money to stay a month. I only made it a couple of weeks, but for three days a week, two hours a day, I could go to the Museum of Modern Art and put on white gloves and the interns would bring me prints and we soon exhausted the prints that I knew I want to look at.

I want to see what they looked like, because I want to learn the print like that. Chris: What was one print that you--do you remember--recall that you handled or that you -- Keith: Oh! Ansel Adams' Moonrise. Keith: I mean Ansel was enormously influential in the 70s. Chris Orwig: Sure! Keith: And those prints, I just couldn't believe. Chris: Was that breathtaking? Keith: Yeah, it was breathtaking! I couldn't--it scared me. I thought I can never learned to print like this, and then I saw a print by Wynn Bullock, which was really-- I thought that's gorgeous.

I thought you know they had a different patina to it. But then I go to the Metropolitan Museum, because I was running out of money and you can get into the Metropolitan Museum for free. I got to poetry reading, they were free. I want to Life Magazine photographers' lectures, because they were free, and I went to MIT. They had a retrospective of Paul Strand. I had never heard a Paul Strand, and I went every single day till I left. Those prints were dark. They were purple, red, kind of bluish.

I had never seen anything quite like it. I learned later it was gold chloride toning on warm-tone paper. But what just killed me was such a wide verity of subject matter. It wasn't just a one- trick pony doing this or that. They were portraits. So his wife's hand, her face. There were landscapes. There was architecture. There was everything that I loved, and it was treated equally, and they were dark and they were brooding. And I felt like, well, this is for me.

Ansel I just can't do, but this I understand, because I come from a dark brooding agricultural culture, and I love it. I make no apologies for it. It's a wonderful, wonderful base from which to put down roots and try and grow your work. Chris: So you're in the New York, and I imagine you have this pretty profound experience, but then you take the bus back.

Keith: All I wanted to do was just work. I just loved doing the work. I didn't care about making money. Later on, as my responsibilities as an adult grew, I cared about making a living like everybody else, but I was young, single, and I just wanted to make photographs. And to some extent that's still--with my excess time--that's still what I do. And the only thing that really counts to me is, do you get the work done? You can talk about it until you're blue in the face, but you've got to get the work done, and to get the work done you have to marshal your time, balance your life, and your financial resources, and it helps to have somebody that loves you and says "You need to stop this and go get do your work again," because life can take you in places you never thought it'd take you. But the last thing I'll tell you on this lengthy story is when I got off the bus, I got out of the bus station. This is before you had rolling luggage. And I had my one suitcase and I'm going down to the village to stay at the Hotel Albert which was the cheapest place I could find in the little books.

And I walk out of the bus station, I turn the corner, and there was a guy about your size with what's look to be a chalkboard, like a restaurant menu, on rope around his neck, and he was like a street guy and it said "Poems, one dollar" and I walked right by him and I'll took that ten steps and I thought, oh, that's bad. I said, my dollars were precious, but I thought, okay, I am in New York for the first time. I'm going to go back.

I'm going to buy a poem. So I gave him one of my hard-earned dollars and I bought the number one poem in his list of about 20 on that chalkboard, which was "Rock Your Ass Off." And that proceeded. His oration of "Rock Your Ass Off" was basically just to say that phrase at the top of this lungs about twenty, twenty-five times which I thought was a pretty good introduction to New York and the rest of my photographic world. You just might as well do the best you can do and rock your ass off while you can.

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