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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.
Keith Carter: You know I am thinking I need to oil my doors. Chris Orwig: (laughter) I like the sound of it. Keith: I do too. I don't know why. Keith: Here, let's start with the darkroom. Chris: Okay. Keith: Now as my colleague, this is a darkroom. Keith: Do you remember this? Chris: Yes I do. Keith: I still work in one. Chris: It's exciting to be here. Keith: You can smell the fixer, sodium thiosulfate, but I work in here three days a week when I am in town, and I print generally three hours a day, sometimes four.
And I can keep abreast if I do this on a real schedule like that. And outside, which I will show you in a minute, we have a digital darkroom, because the business, even though I am more in the art-oriented area, the business of art or photography is really digital now. I'm forever having to send digital files somewhere, reproduction, so on and so forth, so we do both and I have student workers who work 20 hours a week, several days Keith: a week here in the studio, two of them. Chris: Okay.
Keith: And some of them help me print and someone of them don't. Chris: Okay, so this is where the magic happens. Keith: It is pretty modest but-- Chris: But it's a space that-- Keith: Well, I shouldn't say this, because I am sure some people are going to laugh at it, but I've had everything in my career from my kitchen sink, to a closet, to apartments, to one of the small attic rooms when I bought this house.
Keith: This is the best darkroom I ever had. Chris: It's wonderful! Keith: And I can get a lot done here. And by most people's standards it's probably very modest, but hey, it's Keith: a kingdom to me. Chris: It has a lot of personality. Chris: And seeing--just as walking and seeing books and some other things around, it would be fun to talk a little bit about your books at some point. Keith: Sure! Chris: And what are some that you have here? I mean as long as we are in this space, we have a couple on the shelf. Keith: Well, sometimes you have collectors want certain prints. If they have been published then you want to make sure your print as close to the book as it was reproduced.
So I keep large files of master prints, but the papers change, et cetera, et cetera, as the years go by. So between my master prints and what's been reproduced in the books--that's why I have those here--and what I have written as a formula, I would go from there and try to match it. So this is about, I don't know, I guess maybe a quarter, or a little less, of our negative files.
These are things I am currently working on. Most of my negative archives I keep in a safe deposit box, or a couple of safe deposit boxes at our bank, and then we take them out as we need them. But these are things that are currently being worked on. Chris: Can we pull out one of the books and look at a picture with you? Keith: Sure, sure! Chris: Which one? Can you reach? Keith: Well, let's see. How about this one? See what's marked on in.
Oh yeah. This is hard to print. That's why-- Chris: Let's talk about this one. I love this. Keith: Well, let me show you. We were talking about books earlier. Here is a value of working with a graphic designer. I said, well, "Look, this will make a good cover. What do you think?" I don't do my own graphic design, and he said, "I can do something with that." It's got space for type, et cetera, et cetera. So that's fine, but look what he does. That's good. That's a graphic designer.
Chris: It's wonderful. I love that. I am just surprised of that. Keith: Here. Here's, can we make a cover out of that? Sure, let me show you what else I can do. That's a good graphic designer. That's not my area of expertise. Chris: How does that, giving that we've talked on other occasions too a little bit about the digital versus the traditional workflow, how does the traditional workflow, what does it mean to you, I guess. Or how does it affect the photographs you take? Keith: The traditional workflow? Chris: Yes.
Keith: You mean like a wet darkroom? Chris: Oh, I mean even here and you talk about how it's difficult to make. It's very rare that you hear someone say, I took a picture with my little digital camera and that was difficult. Keith: Right, well there are all kinds of aberrations that can creep in, despite your level of high level of craftsmanship, when you work with film and you work in a darkroom. And some of those flaws I just love. There's little things that happen. You look at the daguerreotypes or ambrotypes. You can see the maker's thumbprint holding the plate that's 160 years old. And I just--I personally love that.
I don't like perfect things. I don't feel comfortable with them and don't care to make them. And the thing about the digital world is amazing, and I love aspects of it, but the printing I still prefer to do in the darkroom personally. I think the papers are pretty. But that's changing. I mean, you are getting more attractive papers in the digital world. But what you consider digital, archival digital prints, or more or less they claim 200 years. But a properly processed, printed, toned, and stored silver gelatin print is 2000 years.
Now for a 22-year-old person collecting their first photograph they don't really care. Who can conceive of that? For a guy like me, I always cared. So there is no right or wrong. Digital is easier, and there is a lot to be said for ease of use. But I think the best photographers that you will train or I will train are going to few people who have a background both in the wet darkroom and understand the history of photography and know the new platforms.
I think it's really useful to do both, personally. Chris: So one of the things you are doing as well as experimenting with digital prints? Keith: Yes, I love digital printing. One of the things that it allows me to do is to print larger with greater ease, and I think that's a beautiful thing. I will also back up and say that the guys that invented photography, Niepce or Daguerre or William Henry Fox Talbot, they were looking for processes that would work. And even Ansel Adams, 40 years ago, 50, was drying prints in a microwave.
And I think it's a smart student, it's a smart colleague that takes advantage of technology. I am in with the digital world, but I come of age when the heart of photography was a camera film in a darkroom, and there is no reason to dismiss that. I love both for different reasons. Chris: Yeah, you are doing some innovative things. Keith: Let's see. I'll show you, yeah. So what I do is scan my negatives--let me move these over here.
I scan negatives at a high dpi, and then we print them out using the big Epson printer. And even with the good papers and toning very easily using a computer, they just Keith: look like digital prints to me and digital prints-- Chris: Sure, this one on the left, yeah. Keith: Yeah, the one on the left looks like-- and if you have a history in the darkroom, you like things to look handmade. And it's just not my temperament.
So I try to experiment a lot, and what I came up with was using materials that were not supposed to be put on digital papers, that had nothing do to with the digital world: stains and paints and transparent glazes and things like that. And that's what I did here, and that's two examples. That's a straight digital print. That's a good digital print. The tones are depressed. There is a patina of tonalities there that are really--for my aesthetics, much more attractive and in keeping with the picture.
Chris: You are brushing? Keith: Yeah, I brush them on. Sometimes I sponge it on. So essentially, you are taking film, when you are working with the newer technology, and then you are going back to hand-worked print-making techniques, so you are kind of in all three of the historical realms in some ways, or three of the historical realms. Keith: But for my money, I like the way this looks. Chris: Yes! Gosh! Without a doubt! Keith: Do you think so? Chris: Yeah, there is a strength to it, and even maybe a history.
Keith: Yeah. And we are taught to learn to print well, be it color or black and white, and you would, in a traditional darkroom, you'd print for the whites using the white of the paper base, and then you adjust your blacks, and that's a traditionally good print. And that's pretty much what I did here, but once you tone them, stain them, do something else, it depresses the whites. It changes it, all and it changes it visually, and it changes it emotionally. I was very excited with it, and my wife liked it and that was always a good-- But you know, I tell you, Chris, stuff like that, when I try to do something new, for me, it's always a little scary, because you know what's tried and true if you have some kind of a history.
You know what certain people prefer, but you step out on a limb and try something, sometimes some people react negatively to it. Sometimes they are in the world of commerce and sometimes people respond admirably to it. But I don't think that--in my mind I can't be concerned about how they are going to react. You just have to try to find new ways to express an idea the way you got it in your head.
So it's not brain surgery. It's just-- Chris: One of the things that fascinates me, Keith, is I don't know what it is, but the difficulty in what either in experimenting, trying new, or in printing something old but just that somehow that involvement or that commitment with an image, I don't know, for me it finally works. There is so much excitement. And it's fun to see that process and to see how you get--how you arrive at these photographs. That's inspiring.
Keith: Well, I think most of our colleagues would say they are happiest when they are actually working, and if it's working well, that's great, but anytime I think I've done some new work that I think is good, I am just like 48 hours of bliss. I am thinking, oh, it's good. Or even if I see a picture and for whatever reason I don't have my camera, I think, I should have had my camera, but that's good. I saw it.
It's like a perfect moment. That's a good picture. That's a good picture, or that's a socially useful picture, or that's an aesthetically redeeming picture in some way. I like just to know that I see them.
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