East Texas and its residents haven’t always been given a fair shake in the media. Whether it’s through a reaction to the accents or to the politicians, these places and the folks who call them home aren’t often shown in a favorable light. Sometimes it takes someone familiar with the subjects to focus a just lens on them. That’s exactly what photographer and Beaumont native Keith Carter did with the pictures published in Texas Monthly’s October 1989 cover story and photo essay, “The Soul of East Texas.”
At the time of the essay’s publication, Carter was on his way to art-world stardom. He had released one book of photography, with designer DJ Stout, who was Texas Monthly’s art director from 1987 to 1999. That book, From Uncertain to Blue, was designed by Stout and published by the now-defunct Texas Monthly Press in 1988 with an introduction by award-winning Texas playwright and screenwriter Horton Foote.
Carter says the inspiration for the series—and the foundation of his work—was crystalized in conversation with Foote, who, the photographer paraphrases, wanted to write a moral and spiritual history of a place. The effect on Carter was immediate. “I sat bolt upright when [Foote] said that,” he recounts. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, yes, that’s exactly what I want to do.’ ”
Shortly after From Uncertain to Blue was published, Stout approached Texas Monthly’s then–editor in chief, Gregory Curtis, with the idea of doing a lengthy photo essay with some of Carter’s newer pictures, which were shot primarily in East Texas. They were all going to be included in Carter’s second book, The Blue Man, which Stout was also designing. (Stout went on to be a frequent collaborator with Carter, designing several of the artist’s books, including his 2019 retrospective, Keith Carter: Fifty Years.) Stout recalls the magazine project as a milestone in his career. It was his first time overseeing a major photo essay and photo-driven cover for Texas Monthly. “It gave me some clout to do more at the magazine because it was so favorably accepted,” he says.
More importantly, “it showed the power of photography to tell a story,” Stout says. Indeed, Carter’s images of the quotidian life of East Texas spotlight a rough-hewn pride for the time and place. One such photo is of a young Jefferson County man wearing rubber work boots and a pair of small gym shorts. The subject is posed holding a basket of white eggs in his right hand and a blind rooster in his left.
“Fox Harris, Beaumont,” another photo in the essay, features the eponymous Black gentleman in his Sunday best standing on stilts in front of his collection of folk art in his own backyard. He used the stilts, which Harris called “tom walkers,” to clean the taller objects in the collection. Harris looks confident and proud, and the picture elicits a smile from the viewer. These images sum up the photographer’s work, Carter said during a recent phone conversation. “I’ve always been really interested in the miraculous, ordinary lives of ordinary people.”
related video: Texas Country Reporter
Watch Texas Country Reporter’s interview with Keith Carter from 2012.