Dog Ghosts and Bottle Trees

Wherever he looks, East Texas photographer Keith Carter finds mojo magic.

Keith Carter casts a clear and cordial light on the fantastic. For the past two and a half years Carter has been looking for and photographing mojo. “Mojo,” an African term meaning “spirit” or “soul” encompasses everything from voodoo to fundamentalist Christianity. But to Carter, who heard the term all his life growing up in East Texas, “mojo” means magic. He’s interested in anything that glows—images that seem to have an inner light.

For example, the dog with the shining eyes is no ordinary dog but a dog ghost. In certain parts of East Texas, people believe that their dead loved ones return as dogs to watch over them in times of great need. Dog Ghost is a photograph that is also a parable about creation. Carter placed an ordinary dog in the original biblical setting—a garden—and then, like God, he stood back and watched the creature take its own course.

East Texas is a kind of Eden, primordial and erotic. Most people dilute East Texas by misidentifying it as Southern, cutting its strength in half. They smell the magnolia blossoms and hastily label the area as sensual and inviting. But the hidden white flower of the swamp is the wild and insatiable pitcher plant, which sits all day in steam, devouring insects. Carter gives us East Texas at full strength; mud, water, and woods make up the ideal climate for mojo. Mojo carries sexual as well as spiritual implications. Sunday Morning, his photograph of the open-faced country girl with the lace collar, standing at the edge of the wild thicket, is a study of East Texas eroticism. The girl is a human pitcher plant.

One day Carter was walking along when he saw a man bent over at the waist, his body swaying back and forth. Carter had no idea what the man was doing (mojo is always mysterious) but he stopped and took the photograph. “I wish I had gotten closer,” says Carter, “but to tell you the truth, I was scared to.” The “bent man” looked up when the camera clicked but then immediately returned to his hanging position.

In voodoo culture, objects of protection are called jujus. Carter met up with many kinds of jujus: red pouches filled with herbs, brooms over doorways, a knife and fork carefully laid in the shape of a cross on clean white bed sheets. The most powerful juju of all, Carter learned, is the Bible. He looked for the secret spiritual lives that country people lead. The woman waving garlic stalks against the sky is presumably shooing away evil. (“Garlic is good for what ails you,” says Carter.) On the road to Crockett he saw a tree decorated with bottles. Bottle trees are like dog ghosts. Both are vessels for the spirits. “The theory,” says Carter, “is if you put brightly colored bottles on the tree, the bottles will attract evil and the bad spirits can’t get out.”

He learned that spontaneity is its own reward. Another day Carter met a small black boy with watery eyes and asked permission to take his picture. The boy agreed. Carter then asked if the boy had a picture of Dr. Martin Luther King. “No,” said the boy, “but I have a picture of George Washington.” In Carter’s picture, the boy clutches the heavily lacquered frame of George Washington’s picture. “That just about broke my heart,” recalls Carter. Ultimately, mojo is power, and the power at work in these photographs is that every time the heart of mojo is touched, the power expands.

These images reflect Carter’s own character: insistent but nonjudgmental; self-revealing but never cynical. “I do these kinds of photographs for my own internal sustenance,” he says. Carter has lived in Beaumont since he was three years old. His father deserted the family, and it fell to his mother to hold things together, both financially and emotionally. Jane Carter started a photography studio, earning a living for her family by photographing children.

As a boy, Carter worked as a framer in his mother’s studio, but he didn’t take up photography in any serious way until he was a grown man of 21. Now he is 43 years old, and his work is divided into three parts: He teaches photography at Lamar University; he owns a commercial studio in Beaumont; and he makes photographs that matter to him on his own time. His first book, From Uncertain to Blue, was about small Texas towns. His second book, The Blue Man , was specifically about East Texas. A third book, Mojo, comprising these and other prints, will be published by Rice University Press next fall. The collection will be exhibited at the McMurtrey Gallery, 3508 Lake Street, in Houston from March 7 through April 11, in conjunction with Houston’s FotoFest.

On a wall in his darkroom in Beaumont, Carter has tacked the following saying: “Try to make pictures that are something rather than about something and try to make images that are wise rather than clever.” His mojo photographs are consistent with that philosophy. These images are not so much about mojo as they are mojo. The stories contain a part of the magic; the photographs hold the greater part.

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