Fierce, Fierce Beauty

Discovering the secrets of Keith Carter's photographs

<i>Black and White</i>, 1997
Black and White, 1997

The room was packed to triple capacity, some 230 people squeezed into corners, doorways, aisles, and crouched at the speaker's feet, to hear what photographer Keith Carter had to say. What it was, was a brief and exceedingly intimate history of photography. With the help of a slide projector, Carter took a 21st-century crowd at the Austin Museum of Art back 150 years to a time when this medium was new and communicated to them the awe and fascination that it held for people then. As the screen flashed one sepia image after another -- sober-faced maidens in dark, heavy dresses, mustachioed gentlemen in vested suits, still lifes of antique furniture and glassware, even a carefully posed canine -- Carter pointed out the ways in which these pictures captured life as no one had seen it before. "Photography took the most innocuous items -- a milk bottle, a part in someone's hair -- and gave them a fierce, fierce beauty," said Carter, and in his words and in the urgency that shaded his soft Southerner's voice, you could hear a sense of wonder, the very one that informs his work.

Carter spoke in connection with the exhibit of his photographs currently at AMOA, and in light of his words, how apt its title proves. "A Poet of the Ordinary" describes Carter to a tee. His subjects for the most part belong to the everyday world -- horses, dogs, birds, vases of roses, children, furniture, light fixtures -- but in capturing their images on film, he composes odes of mysticism and art, pictures that tell a story of their subject with the distilled purity of expression seen in great poetry. At the foot of an ancient stone staircase, a child stands, his face hidden behind a mouse mask. There is a story here, a tale about the eternal playfulness of the young and the passage of time, and yet we cannot puzzle out every detail of it: Why the mask, why a mouse, what thoughts run through the child's mind? Even with the most static images, such as the still life Blackberries, a narrative seems to whisper to you, to tease you with its history: Do you know who picked these berries? Have you seen where they grew?

"The full weight and mystery of your art lies in the relationship of you and your subject," Carter told the audience at AMOA, addressing them as if they were photographic colleagues. Carter's relationship with his subjects exists on a plane of the fundamental and universal. His children radiate the curiosity, wonder, and spiritual innocence native to every child since time immemorial. His animals project qualities we associate with them in myth: loyalty in dogs, menace in ravens, majesty in horses; they might have stepped out of Aesop's fables. And you can see in Carter's portraits of these creatures a relationship that is personal and grounded in respect for their intelligence and personality -- not the cheap anthropomorphism of cartoon animals but the individual presence belonging solely to each creature and its history in time.

The sense of the extraordinary within the ordinary -- the dignity in a beast, the mystical in a child, the cosmos in a wishing well -- may help explain the phenomenal turnout for Carter's AMOA talk and the increasing attention he draws nationally and internationally. ("A Poet of the Ordinary" is a touring show organized by the George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film.) Carter's photographs are not only accessible to everyone, but the wonder and mystery they celebrate in this world and the universe are understood by everyone. As playwright Horton Foote has said, "Keith Carter has the gift of taking things we have seen all our lives and giving them another dimension ... A beauty that you can't easily be rid of." Foote is a soul mate of Carter's not only because of their roots in and love for Southeast Texas (Carter in Beaumont, Foote in Wharton), but because of their mutual need as artists. When a young Carter heard Foote speak at the Galveston Film Festival, he realized that, like the writer, he "had to belong to a place." In a fitting turn, Foote will be in Austin this week to help celebrate Carter's exhibition at AMOA.

Carter's images are distinct enough to be recognizable on sight, and his success is such that he could continue snapping images in his signature style for the rest of his days and do very well for himself. But he chooses to explore new subjects and new ways of making images. At AMOA, Carter showed samples of his recent work with sun prints, made with special light-sensitive paper and gold and platinum rather than silver. The results are luminous: an antique handkerchief that appears to glow with the essence of its long-deceased owner, animal bones so white that they seem to represent the creature's soul more than its earthly remains.

A few of these spectacular images can be seen in an exhibition titled "Ordinary Magic" that opens this weekend at the Stephen L. Clark Gallery. The show surveys Carter's latest work, including images from the Boneyard series seen in the AMOA exhibition (photographs taken in an airplane junkyard), as well as portraits of elephants, scenes from Prague, and a few giclees made from his original sun prints, one of a blue heron and one of a butterfly. Clark has been handling Carter's photographs for quite a few years, but it has not stopped him from being amazed at Carter's images. Images that he has looked at a thousand times will pop out at him and reveal something new, share another secret. He knows Keith Carter is something special. That's why he wasn't surprised at the overflow audience for Carter's talk. "I promise you, he says, "there could be some well-known photographers in New York that wouldn't draw that kind of crowd." end story

"Keith Carter: Poet of the Ordinary" is on view through Nov. 10, at Austin Museum of Art-Downtown, 823 Congress. Call 495-9224.

"Keith Carter: Ordinary Magic" will be on view Oct. 19-Nov. 30 at the Stephen L. Clark Gallery, 1101 W. Sixth. Call 477-0828.

An Evening with Horton Foote: The Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright reads from his works on Tuesday, Oct. 22, 7pm, at the State Theater, 719 Congress (co-presented with Austin Theatre Alliance). Call 495-9224, ext. 292 for reservations.

Dana Friis-Hansen and Betty Sue Flowers, AMOA's executive director and the director of the LBJ library and literary expert, discuss "A Poet of the Ordinary." Thursday, Oct. 24, 7pm., at AMOA-Downtown, 823 Congress. Free with museum admission.

First Saturday Tour: Complimentary tours of the exhibition in participation with In The Galleries Austin. Saturday, Nov. 2, 2pm, at AMOA, 823 Congress.

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