The Illusionist

He’s famous worldwide for finding mystery in the ordinary and magic in the mundane, but it was in East Texas that self-taught photographer Keith Carter first developed his dreamlike, haunting style. In his tenth book, A Certain Alchemy, his work is as spellbinding as ever.

Among his earliest memories is waking in the middle of the night from a pallet on the floor to see a small orange safelight above the kitchen sink, where his mother stands. He steps over beside her, then raises himself on tiptoes to watch in wide-eyed wonder as one of her photographic images slowly comes up in the developer. It is magic, indeed it is a miracle—and to this day, my friend Keith Carter has never gotten over it.

His father deserted his family when Keith was in preschool. Photography was essentially the only skill his mother knew that might put bread on the table, so she picked up her camera and opened a small studio on Calder Avenue in Beaumont. Her forte was children. She’d run $5.95 specials on the weekends, sometimes photographing as many as sixty kids in a single day, then stay up night after night making the five-by-seven black and white prints in the kitchen sink.

The little studio prospered, and in time Keith became his mom’s part-time helper. One day he chanced upon a photograph she had made of a girl wearing a straw hat and holding a basket of kittens. It was a cliché, of course, but it stopped him in his tracks. The image was backlit, and everything in it was rimmed in light. To Keith it seemed everything was radiating and glowing from within. It was a small epiphany: He had never before realized light—simple, everyday light right out of the sky—could be so stunningly, so supremely, beautiful.

That afternoon he borrowed his mom’s camera and began taking pictures of his own. Those first photographs were no better than one might expect from any beginner, but his mom would study them and say things like “You have a nice eye,” and Keith kept at it. He thumbed through photographic magazines until they literally fell apart in his hands, he accumulated a mass of misinformation from the guys at the local camera shop, he devoured every book on photography he could find, and he worked, worked, worked. He converted his apartment kitchen into a darkroom, just as his mom had done all those years before, and little by little he began building his own methodology. It’s important to understand that this was a young man working in the almost complete artistic vacuum of a modest oil refinery town in East Texas. There was almost no instruction or feedback. And though his photographs were becoming better than ever, he felt he was still essentially making versions of pictures that had already been done by other photographers. He knew he had not yet found his own unique way of seeing.

Eventually two events sort of fell on top of each other. Keith was in Mexico walking through an old cemetery. There were pictures everywhere, as there are in almost every cemetery, but Keith had already made those pictures dozens of times before and had no interest in making them again. Then he happened to glance up: Above him, the branches of a tree were festooned with tattered, windblown streamers. To Keith, they looked like wispy ghosts trying to take flight. He instinctively raised his camera to see what they’d look like isolated in the viewfinder, and he was instantly struck by the symbolism. No longer was he seeing the objects themselves, but rather the meaning—the human content—they represented. It was another small epiphany: Photography could do far more than the simple recording of external fact.

The possibility of making art loomed: He knew how to look now; he just didn’t know where. Shortly thereafter, at a film festival in Galveston, he heard playwright Horton Foote speak. Horton said that when he was a boy in Wharton, he had wanted to make art, and he was told that to make art you had to know the history of your medium. Keith nodded to himself. Yep, he thought, I know that. Horton went on: You had to be a product of your times and write about your own generation. Keith thought, yep, I guess so. But then Horton said, “But for me that wasn’t enough. For me, I had to belong to a place.” Keith sat straight up. He’d never really thought about it. He’d always blindly assumed he’d have to go across great oceans to far-off lands to make important pictures. But now . . . well, now he realized he was already living in one of the most exotic places on earth, a place full of history and variety and beauty and meaning and potential. It was like hearing his own heartbeat for the first time.

Keith took everything he knew and began applying it to what before had seemed the most ordinary of places. He was ready to be astonished now, and the world he had known all his life bent to serve him. He found wonder everywhere—in a fly on a backdrop, in a naked lightbulb hanging on a twisted wire, in an old woman watering her grass with a garden hose. His was a democratic way of seeing, and he placed no hierarchy of values on his subjects, made no distinctions in terms of importance. For the first time, he felt he was finding his true self as a photographer.

It’s a decade and more since Keith found his eyes while wandering through that little Mexican cemetery. His images are regularly celebrated in exhibitions all over the world now. Major collections—both public and private—treasure his prints as they do their holdings of other masters. Prestigious galleries everywhere vie to represent him. Certainly Keith finds all this attention pleasing, but I do not believe he will ever find it entirely satisfying. At heart he is a working man; he’s up at first light each morning with his talent and his tools, trying to make art out of whatever the world and his imagination conjure up at the moment. If there is a satisfaction for Keith, it is in the never-ending search to see

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