Journey to the South

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

Of course, Carter has explored worlds of separate selves and shared landscapes before. His first series, "From Uncertain to Blue," documented small, decaying Texas towns, and the portfolio "Blue Man" examined the communities and piney woods of deep east Texas. More recently, Carter journeyed through rural Texas, Louisiana and Mexico, as well as Mississippi, to produce "Mojo," an anthology of images dealing with the cultural, religious and folkloric possibilities revolving around people, the animals they live with, their rural magic and the ways they spend their time.

"On Higher Ground" continues the psychological complexities of "Mojo" by presenting both the myth and the reality. In the end, however, we must feel of the thing and decide for ourselves, then make our own stories from the visible facts. this sentence doesn't seeme to follow from the last Who is this tormented old woman sitting in a chicken pen and plucking a bird? How much longer can she go on? Why am I asked to watch? The visible facts of a fruitful place are likely to weave a tapestry of smaller tales of human blood and interactions of kin. Only by immersing himself in the community does Carter master a hard kind of witness, the long and unflinching gaze at family facts, the near-adjacent plights of neighbors.

Carter shows us that the South is both a lie and a reality in all those portraits of cotton fields back home and sweat-dappled laborer's brows. That's why Carter, and other contemporary photographers, never stop looking and showing. They understand that what we often don't see and must be made to acknowledge is the simple, hungering dream of the power to live. For the blues tell us that we're all going to die into the cold ground. And that inevitability of death is the same message handed to the white-robed smiling little girl about to be baptised or the slender young acolyte standing serenely in the water. That human wanting lifts them with faith into eternal freedom.

Doubtless part of Carter's urgent message is there's no South left, just America and traces of a lost culture, the withdrawal of a people to God-knows-where. The Delta emerges as a foreign place where imagination and sensibility take reign over the accidental, time-encrusted bits and pieces that, when put together, somehow express a gentle, intense, lonely search for wholeness and unity. Much like the blues, Carter's haunting visions seamlessly blend the multilayered tones of religion, superstition, love, pain, sex, sorrow and humor. For example, Jimmie Lee shows a man in his prime who stares unflinchingly at the camera with a slight smile. His hair is covered by a plastic shower cap, his white shirt is unbuttoned and tied at the waist, revealing a gold necklace that glistens against black skin. Eagle Stirred the Nest, a dark, sultry scenario, features a woman in the exteme foreground with her back angled toward us. As she looks down, the light catches the lens of her eyeglasses, directing our gaze back toward a blurred image of a musician with saxaphone.

A good number of images focus on hands as metaphors for spiritual strength and magical power. Two brothers hold up a large watermelon in front of their faces, their huge hands firmly grasping the sides as juices stream down their bare chests. In another, Carter photographs a small boy standing in the middle of a tilled field -- one hand in his pocket, the other holding the severed head of a white goose, which looks strangely like an extension of the boy's hand. Or another boy drapes his arms over the back of a horse about to be sold. The top of the boy's head is cropped out of the picture, forcing us to engage his sad eyes and doleful expression. The boy's massive hands are pressed flat against the horse's fur. In Dog and Coffin, an old white mongrel lays alongside a cropped view of his master's coffin as a hand dangles eerily from the upper right corner.

Throughout the series, an important affinity is felt for animals and the natural world. A haggard, doe-eyed little boy sits on a rock and holds up a single large sweet potato with roots and leaves. For Cotton Field, Carter has photographed a pair of weathered bare feet, the toes splayed and calloused, against the dry, cracked earth. Carter's dogs, especially, seem interchangable with their human counterparts. Road Dog has huge ears, sharply defined muzzle and piercing gaze, a portrait conveying the edgy alertness of someone who's had to survive by wit and instinct. Or there's Badass Horse, in which Carter focuses on the head of a nasty old grey with nostrils flared, lips curled, teeth bared and eye narrowed.

For the most part, however, Carter never romanticizes the animals as pets -- chickens, geese and pigs are destined for the dinner table. A pair of floppy eared swine, for example, are juxtaposed with an image of their fate -- two jars of pig lips. Moreover, horses serve as transportation or are used for plowing fields, dogs become companions, willing or otherwise.

Still other photographs evoke pagan spirituality and mysticism through a layering of enigmatic images. Looking a bit like some voodoo priest, a man stretches out his arms and towers over a small boy with a demonic expression. They stand directly behind a white picket fence and are shrouded by an almost impenetrable haze of smoke from a burning trash barrel in the foreground. Or in Chicken Feathers, three children in Halloween hats and costumes hold smoldering sparklers in front of their faces.

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