Anyone familiar with Keith Carter’s photography will have seen how often and how extremely Carter uses a common technique that’s referred to in various ways: limited or shallow depth field, bokeh, background blur, wide apertures, and so on. What it means is that most (or sometimes, in his case, almost all) of what appears in the picture frame is out of focus, blurry. And sometimes what is in focus and what is out of focus is quite different from what would be in focus and out of focus in most other people’s photographs.
In “Fireflies,” for instance, the focus isn’t on the boys or their jar of fireflies. It’s on a magnolia branch above them and off to the side. In “Orange Tree,” it isn’t on the white horse shown full-length, trotting by. It’s on a pair of oranges hanging in the top center of the frame.
Certainly, but not only, when Carter used that f/1.1 lens, his images had a lot of deliberate blur. If you ever took a basic photography course or joined a camera club, you were almost certainly taught that the principal use of such consequently-shallow depth of field is in portrait photography: to blur the background, so that the human or animal subject is the center of the viewer’s attention. Carter himself uses focus and blur for that purpose time and again with both human and (other) animal subjects.
What doesn’t get discussed, though, is that those blurry areas can have differing characters, different effects on a viewer, depending on who’s creating them and in what context. They’re not necessarily just there to get out of the way of the main subject. And so it is, strikingly for me, with Keith Carter’s photographs.
Nothing in art or the rest of life works in isolation. A poet knows that one unnecessary or misplaced unstressed syllable can ruin the sound and sense of a stanza. The great painter J.M.W. Turner, in a notable instance involving a Royal Academy of Arts competition, knew that just daubing a little red buoy into an expansive seascape could spark up the whole scene – and his small, last-minute addition caused a sensation among the competitors.
Everything in a Carter photograph gives emotional and psychological “color” to his out-of-focus spaces. In fact, the entirety of his life’s work gives a particular coloring of that kind to his blur. Let me give you a dramatically contrasting example in order to make this clearer: If he were not Keith Carter, but, say Joel Peter Witkin, how would his out-of-focus areas speak? Witkin is renowned for his visions of maimed or demonic or shockingly-cobbled subjects, some living sitters, some his own nightmarish assemblages.
What would all that make us feel when confronted with a fog or unreadable blur in one of his images? Don’t you think that our knowledge of his work might imbue those spaces with an ominous quality, might tend to put us a bit on edge, might suggest a vaguely threatening unknown?
And what about Keith Carter’s blurs, fogginess, bokeh? Some critics have referred to the character of his work as “magic realism,” and it’s certainly true that his blurring often suggests mystery, dream, the lack of clear boundaries between what was witnessed and what was imagined. But to me the most frequent and distinctive character of his fogs and blurs, radiating not only from the subjects around or over which they appear, but from our experience of his other works, is that of a softness, gentleness, tenderness, of loving sympathy and appreciation.
Keith Carter’s lighting is mostly soft, eased by blur. The gestures are tender. No one is mocked, or displayed with indifference. Just look at all of the photographs in which a human gently touches or embraces an animal, even if it’s dead.
Look at the photo of two dead “Hummingbirds” in a little box, nestled in a white bed of cotton batting.
The expressions on the faces of his subjects are gentle, patient, sometimes melancholy, never toothy Hollywood smiles or grimaces of rage. Carter did a project, published as a book in 1996, called “Heaven of Animals.” Hold that in mind, please, as we go on. . . .
Let me give you an example of Carter’s “cloud of mercy” from the first one of his photographs that I remember seeing, before I knew his name, and that moved me deeply. I can’t remember where or how, I came on a postcard of an image that you probably know if you know his work at all: “Lost Dog.” (It’s shown in large size at the top of this post.) I don’t think I’d prefer to deal much with any person who can’t find or feel anything inside himself to connect with that image.
The lost dog’s expression is all the more intense for the way in which his face comes toward us, filling almost the whole frame. The blur covering almost everything in the picture somehow conveys the sympathy and intimacy of the photographer looking at this forlorn canine, and it draws us into the emotion both of the artist and of the dog. The only thing that may be sharp in the picture is the dog’s left eye, and even that appears to be misted with incipient tears. In this context, for me, all the blurring in the photograph feels like my own vision blurred by watery eyes.
The dream of poetry: tenderness toward all existence.
When I was first going through Fifty Years, several times during the first week that I had it, and beginning to think about Carter’s use of blur and the tenor of his work, one of those involuntary associations that I’ve written about came to me: The memory of an experience that I had when my wife and I were on a trip to Israel. Come back here next month and I’ll tell you about that. And you’ll understand why. . . .
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 .