“TO TELL THE TRUTH,” CONFESSES KEITH CARTER,“I started this project just to have the pleasure of visiting zoos.” As one of the country’s best-known and best-selling contemporary photographers, the Beaumont resident has the clout to photograph any subject anywhere he wants, but his most highly lauded work has originated in Texas. For his most recent series, Carter set out to capture on film the captive residents of eleven zoos and preserves across the state, from the ever-crowded Houston Zoological Gardens with its multimillion-dollar Wortham primate center to the modest, privately owned, nonprofit Exotic Cat Refuge and Wildlife Orphanage at Kirbyville.
“Zoos are under fire right now,” Carter points out. “The question being, is it cruel to keep wild animals in captivity? I have an enormous affection for animals, and have all my life. And yet I love zoos. They’re enormously appealing, and they’ve come a long way, from bars and moats to custom-made environments. But I didn’t want to photograph zoos as a whole; I wanted to photograph the animals, on the same level, in the same way, as I do people.”
The results are startling. Although all of Carter’s zoo portraits bear the poetic ambiguity that is his hallmark, the series’ range of emotions left him, as he puts it, “torn.” The portrait of a stretching tortoise is winsome, even joyous; an image of an alligator with its keeper is surprisingly stately; and a shot of a gorilla in a night cage is “almost inflammatory,” Carter says. “I was amazed by the mysterious and astonishing moments that came my way.” Perhaps Carter’s furred, fanged, and feathered subjects sensed he was simpatico: “I don’t see a major distinction between them and us in the ways that count.”