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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: All right, this is a photograph I made in Venice, and it's dawn in Piazza San Marco. Two hours later there will be a thousand people and a million pigeons. But at dawn, there was nobody there except one Japanese tourist and me. And I am extrapolating now, but he was just utterly stunned. He was looking at the beautiful, beautiful palace in the fog, and he was standing there like he was utterly stunned.
He didn't move for probably three, four minutes. I probably did a whole roll of film, but only on one exposure, did some of the pigeons all of a sudden fly by. Now, I thought, well that might be an okay photograph and so I come back, I developed film, it is, but there's no contrast. It's foggy. It's dawn, so it's kind of hard to print, and then I don't know why I came up with this. I decided to vignette all four corners, but that's like three minutes of burning per corner.
Keith: You remember burning in a darkroom? Chris: Yes. Keith: And for those of you who are Photoshop gurus, the Burning tool comes from the darkroom burning tool. So I dodge him, I dodge through here a little bit, I burned the top here, and then I spent three minutes burning each corner to kind of vignette it, which is sort of paying homage to many of the early 19th century photographs when they used view cameras and the lenses weren't long enough to cover the plate and so they vignette. I kind of like that look.
Chris: Can I ask you another question about this? Keith: Yes sure. Chris: You said to me once, something a few years ago, that a good photograph is one that expresses something, has some emotional expression. I'd be curious to hear from your perspective what this one expresses. Keith: Oh, from me immediately, it was just a sense of all, a sense of wonder, a sense of this moment in time where he is having some kind of epiphany.
I mean that's what came to me was his body language. He is just standing there like that and staring at that. A lot of times when I'm working, I don't really dwell on the wise as much as I just believe, if you have an instinct, make that picture. But after a while you train yourself, whether it's black and white or color, you can see how things are going to photograph. It's not specifically pre-visualization, but you can see how things can photograph or are going to photograph.
It's an overused word. It was magic to him, and in my romantic mind I thought he's never been here. He got up at dawn like me, and not that many people do, just to come see it. I like this book a lot. It has bodies of work that I never anticipate would get printed. These are photograms, or shadow pictures, which was sort of an homage to William Henry Fox Talbot who came up with a calotype and shadow pictures.
So I take a great blue heron and put it on a 20×24 sheet of printing out paper and lay it in the sunlight, and then I'd used a lot of arcane chemistry. This is on I call good luck, you know again where you're using all kinds of strange toners. I was trying to replicate the colors that Talbot got in those early experiments. And then a portraiture, some portraiture.
And then at the end of this anthology of ordinary things that the more you look at them aren't quite so ordinary, odd-shaped window, moving curtain. But then, I believe we've discussed this earlier, my mom was in the latter stages of Alzheimer's, so I would go up to--she lived three hours north of here, and she was at home.
Anyway, to make a long story short, I'd take a dark cloth and I would duct tape it to wherever she was sitting, and she didn't know anybody, and I would just make portraits of her, and she would rock a lot, and her hands would move like birds all the time. As we were mentioning earlier, I think of that as every bit as much of a portrait as I do there.
So I am glad I did these. And then she passed away. So I was just trying to make some kind of personal narrative there. So that's how. Chris: How about a different type of a book, as long as we are here? Keith: Well, here is a book I did a long time ago that I still like called The Blue Man, based on a story I'd heard of a man who was blue and lived in a small town in East Texas.
When I did this book I was in my sort of Southern Gothic mode of pictures. I always liked it because it didn't have a photograph on the cover, which you don't ever see in the photography book publishing world. But it's about the 13 counties surrounding where I live. And it's not celebrity portraiture. It's people that don't use moisturizer at all. Chris: And how are you interacting, say, with these people as you are capturing these? Keith: Well, here's a one-armed man with a hoe in his garden, and in these rural areas, they would always have gardens.
And I found it a good way to start a conversation. I'd ask them what they'd have in their garden, and we'd talk about these things, and then I'd ask if I could make a portrait. So I did a lot of people, I did a white horse in the moonlight, and that was about a one-minute exposure where it just kept grazing. And then-- Chris: Beautiful! Keith: Oh really? Thank you! Or geologic things or landscape-oriented things.
It's just about a region that nobody pays too much attention to, but I found really exotic and beautiful in strange ways. And then I came across a man who rehabilitated wounded and orphaned animals up north of where I live today, and I would go up and set up a background that I painted with angels and clouds where all these animals and birds were, and made sort of metaphoric pictures that nobody likes, but anyone except me.
A Jerusalem burro and a fawn that his mother had gotten shot. So it's about this region and all its sort of tawdry beauty and strangeness. And eviscerated deer. You were asking me earlier, do I ever have any photographs that I regret making, and I told you no, I don't have any I regret making, but there have been some regretted not making, and I think you would probably ask any photographer that.
But I make a lot of photographs that are really seemingly about extremely ordinary things. And this is a landfill in the town of Silsbee, Texas. And I just happened to--well anyway. I make this photograph. He is the caretaker of the landfill. It's a Sunday morning. I like the picture a lot, and I photograph a lot of people from the back, simply because it makes you think about what they may be thinking of.
And I place sort of metaphoric things in there sometimes, although in this case it was simply a documentary photograph. But once I was on my way to Houston after this book came out and I stopped at a roadside place to get some coffee, it was called Stuckey's, and this well-dressed, well-fed man in his white shirt and tie came up and asked if I was Keith Carter, and I was surprised and I said, yes, and he said, well--he had daughter with him too. He said, well, he was on the chamber of commerce in Silsbee, Texas, and they had passed around my book and of all the beautiful things in their town, why did I choose to photograph--he used an ugly word--at the garbage dump.
You know from his standpoint, there is a-- I see what he say and of course. He's got his daughter standing there. You know you can never explain it to him in any way, shape, or form. So I said, "Well, I thought it was beautiful, but I understand your point." And I said, if you guys want me to photograph Silsbee you could hire me. Keith: That didn't go anywhere either. So that's basically--but that was a different period of time. You know your work changes as you change.
Chris: It seems like we should look at something with animals in it while we are here as well. Keith: Well, that one yeah. Chris: Do you mind flipping through this one? Keith Carter: No, not at all. Chris: All right, before you open this one up, tell me a little bit about how you started the project. Keith: Physically? Chris: Yes. Keith: Well, I start a project by naming it. Chris: Okay. Keith: It helps me to have a working title, which may be backwards, and I won't get into that, but I give myself a name for this thing, and it gives me parameters to work around.
I am going to call it this, so that sets up a certain psychological profile in my head of the kinds of pictures I want to make. And then I buy myself a new portfolio box. And in those days I would buy burgundy, because I found it very exciting, and it's a beautiful color and I use it. You can see often I use this. I used it on one of my typography and things like that. And I just start and I put the title on there and I just start making photographs and filling that box. And when you start a project and you give yourself a couple of years to finish it, it's like writing a novel.
Things change, and they go in unexpected directions sometimes. Even though you have a matrix in your mind, you know what you are trying to accomplish, things happen. And I learned a lot. I mean I used to ride, but I am not a huge horse person, and the last thing that real horse people want to hear is, "I just like to look at them" when they ask you. Chris: Right sure. Keith: But I just like to look at them. Chris Well, let's see some of these. Keith So, anyway I went around making photographs, but I tried to do my own kinds of thing, like an Appaloosa which look like a map of the world.
It was like a universal thing. And no make this sort of cliched photographs, a horse and a wolf. I was in Carrera near where Michelangelo quarried his marble, and somebody told me there is a guy that had horses up on the side of the Keith: mountain, and also he had wolves. Chris: Wow! Keith: So I went up there to find him, and I really like this photograph. And just different types of things, be they equestrian, be they curious horses, horses in churches, kids and horses, skinny stallions.
So that's how that project started. I did a book on dogs too, but you can look at them as hackneyed cliched subjects, or you can look at them as completely differently finished consciousness that live in a world so unlike yours. And if I to do that, I have a better chance of making pictures that have more to do with a real expiration of the subject than just simply calendar art.
That's what I try to do.
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