Finding the power of place through a photographer's words
I entered the post office at Gilchrist, Texas, in time to hear the postmaster say, “It’s a ugly little town, ain’t it? But it’s shor perdy to me.” I understood. It was just how I felt about my hometown of Beaumont. I left the post office and scribbled down what the postmaster said, knowing something powerful had gotten stirred up.
I only met Keith Carter, a photographer from Beaumont, once, briefly, but he has given me a great deal. His first gift was showing the value of viewing things from behind.
As a young photographer in the 1970s, Keith had shot a photograph of my nephew, “Jim Boy,” when he was two years old. In the photograph, Jim was walking across the yard on a summer afternoon—away from Keith’s camera—wearing nothing but coveralls, which emphasized his small but Popeye-like arms. From ground level, Keith captured pure cuteness. So pure in fact, it prompted you to want to reach inside the picture and pinch Jim on the bottom. Mama was thrilled, giving the photograph and Jim a new name—“The Barefoot Boy.”
Later, as a location scout, I’d remember to always include a back shot of each place in the final film presentation. I walked alleys, climbed fences and once even a fire escape to get the shot, and I don’t know which was more thrilling—the going or the getting. Even now I’ll turn to look behind things, including myself, especially when walking on a beach. Next time you’re at a farmers' market, look around. Literally. Some of the prettiest sights might be in wooden baskets behind the display booths.
When we married in 1990, my husband and I were given a book of Carter’s photographs called The Blue Man with an inscription, “A memory of where you came from.” The Blue Man blew my doors. It was as if Carter had tagged along with my brothers and me, to every place we played, and fired his camera. Then he dipped each image in molasses. Every photograph either scratched something deep or made me remember a smell. To this day I open The Blue Man and feel a physical reaction. Like something’s at the base of my belly, calling. From the woods, the bayou, a swampy area in Kountz where May-haw grew.
In 1998, I was thumbing through a Texas Highways magazine when I came across an article featuring Carter that almost took my breath away. It was clear from viewing Carter’s photographs that he’d had an understanding of East Texas, but in this interview, he’d framed his understanding into words. Words that I’d searched for as a writer but frustratingly, hadn’t found.
The article revealed that soon after Carter completed his first photo essay book, From Uncertain to Blue, he went to a film festival in Galveston where he heard a lecture by Horton Foote. Horton said that an artist has to “belong to a place.”
“That made me straighten up in my seat like I’d been struck by a thunderbolt,” Carter said. “I realized I had this exotic place right here, and I started looking at my surroundings like some foreign, forgotten land.”
I read this and felt both relieved and gleeful. “That’s it!” I said. It wasn’t Beaumont by itself, but combined with my sense of belonging that made even its warts beautiful to me. It seemed that somewhere between belonging to a place and longing for it a strange energy lives.
The trick? To bring that energy inside forth. To make a postmaster see something and say, “It’s shor perdy to me.”