Photographers on Photographers: Lori Vrba and Keith Carter
For the entire month of August, photographers will be interviewing photographers–sharing image makers who have inspired them, who they are curious about, whose work has impacted them in some way. I am so grateful to all the participants for their efforts, talents, and time. -Aline Smithson
I first met Keith Carter ten years ago in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I had hit an all-time creative low and was thinking of throwing in the photographic towel but decided to give Keith’s workshop a try as one last desperate attempt to jump start myself. Having grown up in a small town just down the road from Keith’s southeast Texas home, we understood much of each other right away and became fast friends. He did in fact revive my photographic life that week and became a mentor of sorts as I got busy making my way as a full time working artist. Of course I have great respect and appreciation for Keith’s imagery but it has actually been his philosophies for how to sustain a creative life that I most value. I hear his voice in my head when I feel defeated or lost. It is his ideology I turn to when I am crippled by self-doubt. I would not have stayed alive as an artist without these truths and I am forever grateful to Keith for his wisdom and friendship.
Fast forward to this October and the Click! Photography Festival here in North Carolina. We have partnered with the Rubenstein Arts Center at Duke University and are proud to present the world premier exhibition of Keith Carter: Fifty Years, in tandem with the release of his thirteenth book published by University of Texas Press 2018. We’ve got a kick-ass outdoor installation planned with fifty large scale panels of imagery curated from the book. We are stoked to have Keith here for the celebration and as one of our keynote speakers. Check out the details on clickphotofest.org
Lori Vrba is a self-taught, film-based artist with a home studio and darkroom in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Her story-telling imagery is rooted in themes of memory, loss, revival, and the natural world. Her work is held in both permanent and private collections in the United States and abroad. Most recently, Vrba curated the exhibition “Tribe” for the Fox Talbot Museum at Lacock Abbey. Her first monograph, The Moth Wing Diaries was published in 2015 by Daylight and was named one of the top ten photo books of the year by American Photo Magazine. She is the co-founder of Pigs Fly Retreats and an organizer of the Click! Photography Festival.
Keith Carter is a distinguished artist, author, educator, and occasional musician. Keith holds the Endowed Walles Chair of Art at Lamar University in Texas.
He is recipient of the prestigious Texas Medal of Arts. Other awards include the Lange-Taylor Prize from the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, and the Regent’s Professor Award from the Texas State University System. Keith is a prolific artist whose work has been shown in over 100 solo exhibitions in thirteen countries. He is the author of eleven books: Fireflies, A Certain Alchemy, Opera Nuda, Ezekiel’s Horse, Holding Venus, Bones, Mojo, Keith Carter Photographs: Twenty-Five Years, Heaven of Animals, The Blue Man, and From Uncertain to Blue. A DVD documentary of his work titled The Photographer’s Series: Keith Carter was produced by Anthropy Arts.
Carter’s work is included in many private and public collections, including the National Portrait Gallery, Art Institute of Chicago, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, George Eastman House, Smithsonian American Art Museum, and the Wittliff Collections at Texas State University.
Lori Vrba: What brought you to photography?
Keith Carter: My mom was a single parent and had a small portrait studio. I grew up around photography. She would turn our apartment kitchen into a darkroom at night. I would stand on a chair and watch her develop prints in the orange light. I thought it was magic. I still do.
Most of my teen years were pretty shallow, spent mostly around surfing, guitars, and wishful thinking regarding girls. I was about to graduate college with a business degree and not much direction, when I borrowed mom’s Rolliflex twin lens camera. I made some black and white photographs of two men fishing on the river and showed them to her. She said “honey…you have a good eye – you have a nice sense of light.” Positive parenting set me on fire. Fifty years later I’m still burning.
Other than your upcoming book, what have you been working on that you are most excited about? I recently spent a month long residency in North Carolina photographing the Walt Whitman archives in the David Rubinstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Duke University. Ever ytime I opened a new folder or box of Whitman’s papers my heart skipped a little beat.
LV: You have 50 years under your belt. What keeps you going?
KC: It’s a beautiful experience to look through a camera at the world around you. You pay a certain heightened attention-you’re in the game. The work itself is meaningful. What I’ve done, and continue to do, is like writing your autobiography solely for yourself. It’s a small, cosmic record of who and what you love, of being alive in the world. Probably sounds kind of sophomoric, but that’s the way I feel.
LV: What defines success for you?
KC: I always wanted to stay in charge of my own life and decisions. From the get-go I didn’t want some dumb-ass pulling the strings. I wanted to explore and make pictures and hoped I could keep body and soul together doing it. I feel pretty much the same today.
LV: What is your greatest extravagance?
KC: I suppose it would be my family, travel, and books. Plus, I just purchased a new arch-top guitar.
LV: You describe yourself as an occasional musician. What instruments do you play and how does music effect your photographic life?
KC: I’m just a mutt player – mediocre. But I’m fond of acoustic instruments and play the stand-up bass, mandolin, and guitar. Music effects everybody’s life. Archeologists found fragments of 22,000-year-old flutes deep in the Upper Paleolithic caves of Southern France and Germany. Besides, I think there are harmonic similarities in music, photography, and visual art in general.
For instance, western music has 12 notes in an octave. Every piece of music you enjoy from rock to classical is made using those same 12 notes. I once wrote down my version of 12 “photographic notes” also available to everybody. Things like subject matter, depth of field, oblique angles, etc. It’s which notes you play – and how you play them that create melodies and pictures.
LV: Is there anyone on the current horizon that excites or interests you creatively?
KC: You bet. Lots of them. Two I’m fond of are Matt Eich, a younger, wry documentary photographer, and Evgenia Arbugaeva, with her slightly conceptual approach to arcane subject matter. I also like the way she skews color.
LV: When and where were you the happiest?
KC: May I dodge that one? The truth is I’ve been reasonably happy most of my life. My mom was a tigress in keeping us together when times were lean. I was married to Pat, a truly extraordinary and gracious woman for 40 years, and my kids and grandkids all remain close. I’ve enjoyed, and continue to enjoy, my career. I’m mercifully solvent, and my retrospective book will be out in the fall. I’m a pretty lucky puppy.
LV:What is your most treasured possession?
KC: Probably a snapshot of Pat in a yellow rainslicker, dancing a jig down a rural Irish pathway in the rain.
LV: Describe your perfect day.
KC: That’s a tough one. I’m pretty delighted just to be alive in the world. But if I had to define a perfect day, it would probably include good food, love, low levels of stress, an interesting walk, a bookstore, a little music, and the feeling of having just made a good photograph.
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