Carters Magic

Elizabeth McBride

Mojo, photographs by Keith Carter and introduction by Rosellen Brown. Houston: Rice University Press, 1992. 124 pages. $39.95

A true account of the actual is the rarest poetry, for common sense always takes a hasty and superficial view. -
Thoreau

Born in Wisconsin, Keith Carter was transplanted as a very young child to Beaumont, Texas, where, except for small intervals, he has lived and worked since. This East Texas culture remains the center of his imaginative world even today—however often he travels—a definitive world of mystery and absolutes, and most important, of imagery: seductive, spiritual, and sensual. It was into this imagery and the world it represented, whether through information or myth, that he became immersed, deeper and deeper, as he lived and photographed. The pictures that have resulted testify to an intense dedication and faithfulness, to an affectionate vision of extreme clarity.

From Uncertain to Blue
, Carter’s first book (1988, Texas Monthly Press), matches the names of small, decaying Texas towns with photographs that, although compelling on their own, take on additional layers of meaning when titled. Names such as Peerless and Birthright and Blessing and Elysian Fields inspire insistently rural photographs that concentrate on people, animals, and nature. Some of the bravest selections are Splendora, a study of blank planked walls meeting in loneliness in the corner, and the excessively sentimental Fate whose insistent morning glories climb up and over a window sill, filling a tumbling down house with fresh life.

The structure of this book dictates choices that could be too obvious, but are usually imaginative visually and conceptually, their simplicity pushing toward and unaccustomed honesty. And each confronts humans with the power of nature. Not only Fate, but Fearless, a woodland scene, depicts nature as overwhelming man’s constructions, which could only fall back to inconspicuous heaps, drowned in a dark primordial mix of lichens and mulch.

Perhaps the most surprising, most secretly urgent aspect of carter’s work, is the emptiness and violence that is portrayed. In From Uncertain to Blue, this aspect is minimal. A town seems deserted. A house is falling down. A string of flags is hung on a line—the American flag, the Rebel flag, and the skull and crossbones. A dog is caught in the act of eating the legs of a squirrel, whose head and eyes remain disgustingly intact.

Carter’s second book, The Blue Man, published by Rice University Press, was photographed almost exclusively in Southeast Texas. More composed than his first, more calculated, and even more saturated with death and violence, the book represented a breakthrough, lifting the veils that mask the natural world (including its human inhabitants) in all its cruel beauty and exquisite horror. But in exchange, Carter gave up a certain richness, the presence of everyday life amidst the magic. In Boy with Birds, Hardin County, a young blond boy with jaggedly cut hair holds a snake around his body, displaying a scar on his torso and a tattoo above his right nipple. The image seems somehow off, as if we are uncovering another, more potent and frightening universe.

Other images support this reaction: a full-sized man dressed in a surprisingly threatening rabbit suit, trash piles ignited by fires, ghost-like horses, and the brutal scenes of slaughtered animals. In contrast to the excruciating beauty of blooming trees and of animals playfully photographed against heavenly painted backdrops, another atmosphere emerges: one of divisions, of life lived at the margins, of a beauty that both uncovers and hides superstition and disease. But by alternating images of nature, people, and objects, Carter unites the three, creating a dark and mysterious but fully realized world.

Carter’s tendency to avoid interpretation continues. Man in Thicket is a study of dark and light, mostly dark, of a man whose entire head seems hidden by leaves and twigs, whose torso is either covered or shadowed, whose only obvious body part is a leaf-covered arm. Such an image, allied both to paganism and male self-awareness, could be either terrifying or steadying. We are knocked off balance by our incomplete understanding, so much so that it can be disturbing to look at these pictures, but that’s as it should be.

Mojo
, Carter’s latest book (1992, Rice University Press), presents, without a doubt, the best of his work. The settings range from East Texas to Mississippi, from Louisiana to Mexico, but the book successfully absorbs the variety of images one might expect. The identification of human and animal life seems intensified, while all the work seems richer and more eloquent. Human images are closer, more personal, the characters of their owners clarifying through carefully chosen details.

Because of its exceptional value to the book, the essay by Rosellen Brown should be mentioned. Weaving itself into and out of the photographs, creating a world of recognition that both translates the work and speaks its own language, this essay supports and expands the quality of Carter’s work. Writing in an uncommonly clear and sensitive style, touching the very depths of the photographic work, Brown has made a commentary of sheer poetics. It is rare to find an introductory essay that is a work of art but does not overshadow the work it considers. It is rare to read anything that taps so surely into the secret life f art and offers it to the public life, including the reader in worlds we could otherwise only distantly perceive.

In Mojo Carter fully realized the potential of working with sentimental images. He uses sharp, cutting lines with ever increasing skill. The clear curve of a butterfly wing against the soft dark skin of an African-American man (Atlas Moth) raises provocative questions. What is beauty? Are humans fated to dominate? Who will inherit this poor injured earth? Or is this another kind of juxtaposition, a mystery, metaphoric, and metaphysical? Straight lines, and clean, curved ones also, exist for Carter now not only to penetrate through the thick, highly romantic imagery, but to connect the concrete to the abstract. They move vertically, horizontally, and on the diagonal. It may be the sharp point of the tooth of a dog against its blurry fur. It may be the woman in Garlicwith her back to us, throwing the garlic out with her two hands, letting it float and rise, connecting the earth to the sky.

Carter employs light and dark, black and white, with breathtaking dramatic appeal, varying from high contrast to a lack of it, as in the almost totally dark and completely enveloping image of the African-American man in the black tee-shirt (Raymond), whose torso is covered with the crawling kittens, which constitute his family.

It would be ignoring part of the book’s content not to comment on Carter’s portrayal of the communication and affection between blacks and whites tat is real and that has existed for generations. But that is only part of the story—the Southern Myth. And there is a natural, intelligent sensitivity to Carter’s work that reminds us of this. The brilliant use of skin as object, skin as aesthetic value, is part of the inclusion of another kind of magical realism in his work, that which demands that we reconsider our first impressions, that which makes photographs seem to mean one thing while allowing the opposite to come to the surface. Such photographs force us to face the racial injustice that has long prevailed. It is the very affection that brings into high relief the more common occurrence—the racial tragedies of our lives, the many way s we have lived opposed to each other, in ignorance and hatred.

Metaphor depends as much on the differences of the objects compared as on their similarities. Thus, when Keith Carter both mystifies and clarifies qualities held common between two things, complexity is created. Anddepth, the potential for interpretation, naturally expands. The dark and the light, the magic of Carter’s work (the word is used literally here), its power almost to hypnotize, its flirtation with a spirituality, which is so complex it might be either God-like or demonic, are used to penetrate into meaning.

Setting up a series of disagreements, he brings them into resolution. What distinguishes his work from that of others are the extremes of the disagreements and the success and power of the resolutions. In Mojo, Keith Carter has combined the natural surface strength of From Uncertain to Blue with the perverse undercurrents ofBlue Man. Mojo is his strongest book yet, the darkest, the most honest and serious, the most accomplished.

Elizabeth McBride is a Houston writer who publishes poetry, fiction, and non-fiction.

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