Drawing with light: Carter develops magic along with negatives

There is something magical about the mysterious transition between the conception and the realization of a photograph. The development of a painting is easy to follow, as the brushstrokes build off one another and gradually layer the canvas, burying white beneath tangible colors. But photographs hide behind layers of lenses, disguising themselves as negatives and playfully capturing light. The best photographers master not just the technical skills of the art, but the magician’s touch. Like magic, photography is the art of illusion and perception, a connection that few artists understand as well as Keith Carter.

Last Wednesday, the Lecture Committee sponsored “Ordinary Magic,” a slide show presentation given by Carter as part of the fall lecture series. Carter’s substantial body of photography, all done in black and white, has earned considerable critical acclaim, from inclusion in the permanent collection at the Art Institute of Chicago to grants from the National Endowment for the Arts. For over a decade, Carter has held the endowed Walles Chair of Art at Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas.

Carter was born in Madison, Wis., but he has called the Lone Star state home for most of his life. His appearance is a dapper blend of Texas charm and East Coast intellectualism, from his engraved silver belt buckle to his tortoiseshell glasses. His Southern drawl is strong but gentrified. Though the final results of Carter’s work are visual statements, he emphasized the importance of language to the artistic process: “We live at the level of our language. Whatever we can articulate, we can imagine, develop, fulfill.” Indeed, for what was advertised as a slide presentation about visual magic, the evening took on a decidedly linguistic focus during Carter’s introductory remarks. He explained the origin of the word “photograph,” which is taken from the Greek for “light” (photo) and “drawing” (graph). Drawing with light. Nothing else could describe Carter’s work quite so well.

In all of his photographs, Carter conveys a haunting sense of quiet wonder, as if he wanders the world in a state of perpetual curiosity, camera in hand. And in a culture saturated by images, Carter’s pictures linger and endure, imprinted in the mind of the viewer, reaching out to memory, reawakening childhood visions. Carter confessed to a deep love for the raw elements of photography: “time, light and the persistence of memory.”

When he began taking photographs after college graduation, Carter was drawn to the magical caprice of the form. “I always thought it was an uncertain alchemy. You took precious metals, arcane chemistry, mysterious chemistry and you waved the camera like some kind of magic wand. You murmured a few hopeful words and on a good day you could conjure up some kind of proof of a dream.”

In keeping with his eye for wonderment, Carter speaks with the kind of sincere humility that never seems condescending. During a visit to Europe, he came across an alabaster cast of Mozart’s hand at a small museum and was awed by the sight. “It just stopped me in my tracks. Mozart’s right hand. I’m a small man with a small hand. His hand was smaller than mine, and it was really thin and really nervous.” Carter is a rare artist in that he is awed by the ordinary; artists have a tendency to gravitate towards the strange and the unusual, hoping to show the audience something fresh and distinctive.

Carter, in contrast, searches for familiar images and translates them to an alternate universe of enigmatic light and perspective. Rather than providing answers, his photographs tend to arouse questions. Uncertainty hovers like a ghost in all of Carter’s best work, particularly “Levitation” and “Giant.”

Doubt and ambiguity appropriately complement the themes identified by Carter as always in the back of his mind: “living in a failed Eden, the search for magic in our lives, wishing for a hopeful, peaceable kingdom, falling for temptation.”

Part of the magic of Carter’s photographs lies in their documentary approach. Though many of the images become theatrical or allegorical in Carter’s hands, he rarely stages his shots, preferring to visit settings that catch his eye. “Most of the time I dwell in the real world. I always tell myself: I just want to make one useful image today,” Carter said.

Modern technology has dramatically altered the artistry associated with photography, which once revered realism as its highest calling. “What is photographic intention, and what is photographic truth? In the digital world, all bets are off. But I don’t think there are any rules,” Carter said.

But as much as technology has changed photography, it remains a very private way of making art. There is something magical and almost secretive about the interactions between a photographer and his equipment, from his camera to his darkroom. According to Carter, the most important thing is “finding a natural way to work. Photographs are your intellectual and your sensual life, if you want to practice at a high level.” In short, if it’s not natural, it won’t ring true.

The elements of photography are simple to define, but their sum total eludes classification. In Carter’s view, at the end of the day, photography is not guided by technical expertise, but by gut instinct: “When I look in the viewfinder, it either sparks me or it doesn’t.”