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Keith Carter and the Cloud of Mercy, Part 1 of 3

“Radio Flyer” by Keith Carter

First: I love Keith Carter’s photographs. Let me say that again: I love Keith Carter’s photographs. That has nothing to do with opinion or analysis, but rather with the grateful, felt experience of receiving gift after gift.

I love the man, too, who speaks to us in his recorded interviews and lectures: gentle, uncommonly humble, charming and sincere, intimately passionate about art and his fellow creatures.

If you’ve read what I recently wrote here about the legal concept of “verbal acts,” then you may understand that my professions of love for Keith Carter’s photography and his recorded person are verbal acts intended to lead you to his work and his words, like a warming, sparking fire in a cold forest or a moon sending light through a black sky. All his books are wonderful, but if you were thinking of choosing one, I couldn’t recommend too highly the newly-published Keith Carter: Fifty Years from University of Texas Press.

For those of you who don’t yet know Keith Carter’s work and his bio, I’ll say just that he grew up and lives and works in Beaumont, a little town in East Texas, and that he’s drawn for his photographs from all the features and cultures of the region: from folk-tales, Afro-American art, Mexican culture, the local wildlife, and more. He frequently says that he’s “self-taught,” but it’s probably less true for him than it has been for many other splendid artists. Keith’s mother, confronted with the need to provide for herself and her child, started and successfully ran her own business as a local portrait photographer. She may not have had a doctorate, but I’m sure that Keith learned from her. And beginning from his youth, Keith, it’s plain, has studied photographs and writings about photography with a fervor to match or exceed any scholar’s.

The subject matters, techniques, and extraordinary virtues that his photographs have reflected over the years have been striking in their number and variety.
His works have, for instance, been

graceful, conventionally beautiful

“Caballos Blancos” by Keith Carter

or touchingly ironic

“George Washington” by Keith Carter

or fantastical

“Meangan’s New Shoes” by Keith Carter

But where I want to take you is to a quality more central to my purpose here, by a bridge of thought that will take us, both figuratively and literally, in the last part of this posting, to the Holy Land.

I’ve found more and more as I get older that I can learn more by simply watching the thoughts that come into my head than I would have by any exercise of my intellectual faculties. Anyone who has meditated much, or simply observed what comes into our heads, can see how much of our thoughts and feelings come without our having called them, from who-knows-where, and how much they can show us, not only about how we really feel about a thing, but about truths that we can only be given, not generate ourselves.

I’ve made my entranced way, slowly, through Keith Carter: Fifty Years a number of times now. During one of those viewings, a recollection of certain lines by the poet Galway Kinnell came into my head, from his book-length poem, The Book of Nightmares. I later found that I had altered his words slightly, unconsciously, revealing more exactly what the photographs that I was looking at were making me feel. These are the words as they came to me:

The dream of poetry:
Tenderness toward all existence.

For those of you who already know and love Keith Carter’s photographs, you’ll understand in your heart and spirit why such words would come into my thoughts. In my next post, I’ll take up some of the further thoughts and feelings to which those words and those photographs took me.

Lawrence Russ View All

Was the Alfred P. Sloan Scholar for the Humanities at the University of Michigan. Obtained a Master of the Fine Arts degree from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where I was selected as a Writing Fellow in Poetry by the Program faculty. Have published poems, essays and reviews in many magazines, anthologies, reference works, and other publications, including The Nation, The Iowa Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, Parabola, OMNI, and the exhibition catalogue for Art at the Edge of the Law at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum. Received a law degree from the University of Michigan, and have changed the law and created educational programs in the fields of arts law, historic preservation law, and public construction and contracting law in the State of Connecticut. My photographs have appeared in international, national, regional and state juried exhibitions, and have been selected for awards including Honorable Mentions in the Architecture, Fine Art (series), Nature (series), Open Theme (series), Portrait, and Seascape categories from the international Fine Art Photography Awards, and an Honorable Mention in the Fine Art-Other category from the International Photography Awards. Photographs of mine have been selected for exhibition or publications by or in the 2019 International Juried Exhibition of the Center for Photographic Art (Carmel, CA), 2019 International Competition of The Photo Review, the 2019 Open Exhibition of the Center for Fine Art Photography in Fort Collins CO, F-Stop Magazine, Shadow & Light Magazine, Black Box Gallery in Portland OR, Praxis Gallery in Minneapolis MN, the Darkroom Gallery in VT, PhotoPlace Gallery in VT, A Smith Gallery in TX, the New Britain Museum of American Art, and many other journals and venues. My work has also been selected for inclusion in the Flatfile Program of Artspace New Haven (CT). My photography website is at www.lawrenceruss.com .

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