Fifty Years, by Keith Carter – Learning by Looking

The new book Fifty Years offers a wonderful opportunity to explore a sampling of the complete career of a single photographer. When that photographer is Keith Carter, such exploration is especially satisfying because for the last fifty years, Keith has produced work that is sometimes exemplary, and is always interesting. Even if you’re not taken by Carter’s style, diving deep into a single photographic career is a valuable exercise.

It can take a long time, and a lot of work, to develop your own style. During that process, you can find yourself worrying about all sorts of things from “am I repeating myself?” to “is this a cliché?” to “Is this a dead end/have I taken a wrong turn?” In addition to sapping your confidence, such thoughts are a distraction – they keep you from doing the thinking you should be doing when you’re working. What can be difficult to understand is that everyone has these thoughts, and no one follows a simple, consistent, linear path when pursuing any creative endeavor.

Obviously, no photo book is going to present a photographer’s failures. To prepare a retrospective on an entire career, a photographer – and their editors – looks for representative samples of the best work from particular stages. So while you won’t see contact sheets or rejects in this book, you’ll still be able to see the ways that, through the years, Carter has pursued different kinds of subject matter while, through it all, developing a particular photographic vocabulary.

Obviously, there are photographers that are known for particular things – Sally Mann and Richard Avedon for different approaches to portraiture, Robert Frank for photo essays, and so on. As you look through Fifty Years, though, you won’t see a single subject matter or approach. While large sections of the book presents Carter’s documentation of small Texas towns, another section presents stylized images of taxidermy and insects. However, through all these images you will see the development of a consistent approach to these unrelated subjects. Visually, Carter’s journey over fifty years makes sense. Carter’s eyes see, for want of a better word, mythologically. Informed by technical skill and a deep understanding of photographic history, he has developed a visual style that brings this mythological view to just about any subject. This book has a strong atmosphere about it, but it’s an atmosphere defined as much by approach and visual sensibility as by subject matter.

After a while you might think “oh I get it, he likes a lot of texture and blur,” but that’s too simple an assessment, for even his images that possess sharp focus and lack texture still maintain that Keith Carter “atmosphere.” Further, it takes a profound level of photographic artistry to understand when you can render a subject completely out of focus and still have an image that works.

You should buy this book because it’s a strong, important work from a major contemporary photographer. But as a student of photography, you should spend time with this book because it presents such a good example of the importance of constant photographic exploration and experimentation. Seeing the result of that process might help you with some of your own concerns as you try to develop your own photographic vision. Furthermore, simply trying to find an explanation for creates the feeling of atmosphere in these images will provide some great lessons.

I should say that I worked on the production of this book (something about which I’ll have more to say later) but I don’t get any kind of royalty from sales – I’m not pushing this book because of possible profit, but because it’s a great book. (The New Yorker agrees.)

You can order Fifty Years, by Keith Carter, from Amazon.

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