Journey to the South

Keith Carter's poetic, earthy images capture the tragic, lyric, lonely voice that is the South

Nature is an active force in the South. Indigenous live oaks, Spanish moss and the ever-present kudzu flourish. Snakes, possums and raccoons populate the countryside. The impenetrable atmosphere softens form; nature pulsates with a quickened cycle of life. This is not a passive environment, but one that imposes itself on the the men and women who live within it, people defined by a strong sense of place and obsession with the earth. The embodiment of this identification with the land is the flat, alluvial plain known as "The Delta," a tortured crescent of farmland in north Mississippi traditionally acknowledged as beginning in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel in Memphis and extending south to Catfish Row in Vicksburg. Integral to this sense of place is a veneration of the past and tradition, a veneration with the notion of family -- blood and friends (or familiar enemies) -- at its core. Virtually all the verbal narrative that has poured from the region in the past 60 years is powered by, and reflects upon, the ancient nexus of blood and the close relations of a rural/village world of family and neighbors.

It's simplistic to suggest that in this region, which has embraced a variety of artistic and literary styles, there could be a single Southern voice. However, the South has always held an attraction for people interested in great stories and prone to a certain susceptibility to illusion -- William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Carson McCullers, Flannery O'Connor, James Agee and Truman Capote are just a few who come to mind. We see in their works a wedding of magic and nature, a blend of myth and reality that finds its antecedent in the great Southern oral tradition -- chronicling a very real time or place, but also throwing in a dose of imagination for good measure. Their stories convey the tragedy and shared guilt brought by the endless legacy of slavery, the horrors of Reconstruction and a fragile, uprooted life.

Native photographers like Clarence John Laughlin and Ralph Eugene Meatyard often attempted to do in visual terms what the writers accomplished in words. In all their images -- human, architectural, landscape, surreal -- and in the photographs of their successors, these witnesses surrender to the South's demand to be seen and understood as a compelling, even noble story. And the South continues to offer an almost infinite braid of urgent stories, all waiting to be retold in fresh voices or to be uncovered as revelation.

What do these people eat? What do they grow in their gardens? Where do they worship? What animals do they keep? What games do they play? What is it about their lives that constitutes hope or joy? These are the questions Beaumont artist Keith Carter raised when he began photographing in Mississippi's Tunica County. One of the poorest counties in the United States, it lies along Highway 61, known as the Blues Highway for the scores of musicians who, like itinerant preachers, made their way out of the cotton fields and spread the blues gospel north. The spirit of these Delta people is in their music; Carter uses those roots metaphorically in the photographs, aiming to play his camera like a guitar or harmonica, bending a note here and there or hammering a chord into a rhythm.

Still, Carter doesn't go looking for objectively important themes. He is interested chiefly in what he sees, and what his camera can do with what he sees. His raw materials are light and time, and any examination of the work must start by observing how he manipulates them. These are the obsessions of Southern literature, too. Without pretending to occupy some high moral ground, the South's great writers address the sorrows of rootlessness and weakened attachments. The land is a great provider, they all say; it is the essential provider, and we fool ourselves to think we can put it behind us.

Taken literally, "On Higher Ground" -- the title of Carter's series of 40 black-and-white photographs at the Houston Center for Photography -- offers a penetrating vision of Southern reality. After all, the extractive nature of cotton farming is a process that can be as ruinous to the land as strip mining. As such, Carter's poetic images are not nostalgic or sentimental, but subtly evoke the brutal realities of Southern life and history (and its survival in the present world) at the level of the pain of individuals whose lives have been distorted or wasted. His subjects are not "the mute face" of much Southern documentary photography; they manifest a search for life itself. Like Walker Evans, whose images often walked the line between a literal photographic description and a faith in the validity of intuition, Carter's images possess a taut athletic grace, an inherent lyricism that gives them a life in metaphor. Even if Carter's subjects are humble people, they are never ordinary. They seem to endure a world which is far stranger and more fascinating than we can imagine, a wild and exotic land of stirring psychological implications wherein the reality we think we know is only a small part of the total picture.

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