Are Horses ‘God’s Most Perfect Design’?

Keith Carter’s Enigmatic Photographs Reveal the Invisible Bonds Between Humans and Animals

“White Horse in Moonlight,” 1984. Driving late one night on Highway 84 near Waco, I passed this horse in a moonlit pasture. I made a sixty-second exposure to see what it would look like. I suffered from chigger bites for days after. Photograph by Keith Carter/Courtesy of University of Texas Press.

“Church Women,” 1989. A student of mine invited me to her small country church service near Newton, Texas. Photograph by Keith Carter/Courtesy of University of Texas Press.

“Pep,” 1985. He came back with his pet roster when I asked if he’d like to be photographed with anything special. Photograph by Keith Carter/Courtesy of University of Texas Press.

“Goodbye to a Horse,” 1993. He lived in rural area near Sabine Lake. His father had just sold his horse. Photograph by Keith Carter/Courtesy of University of Texas Press.

“George Washington,” 1990. Driving back to my bed-and-breakfast one evening after a magazine assignment at the infamous Angola prison in Louisiana, I stopped to photograph some kids playing in a small roadside community. In those days I would often ask kids what they would like to be photographed with. You never knew what they would come back with. Photograph by Keith Carter/Courtesy of University of Texas Press.

“Lost Chicken,” 1991. Tot lived on a small subsistence plot of land in Mississippi. She kept chickens as part of her menagerie. One morning she discovered a fox had been in her henhouse. Photograph by Keith Carter/Courtesy of University of Texas Press.

“Anatomy of a Thought,” 2016. Resting man in Havana, Cuba. Photograph by Keith Carter/Courtesy of University of Texas Press.

“Connemara Pony,” 1996. Such a lovely breed of animal. Leonardo da Vinci once called horses, “God’s most beautiful design.” Photograph by Keith Carter/Courtesy of University of Texas Press.

“Conversation with a Coyote,” 2012. An allegorical conversation between my young friend Samantha and a mythological, moth-eaten coyote. Photograph by Keith Carter/Courtesy of University of Texas Press.

“Raymond,” 1991. Raymond lived in an abandoned, ramshackle house next to the tiny Pillow Chapel Church near Tunica County, Mississippi. He said the kittens were his family. Photograph by Keith Carter/Courtesy of University of Texas Press.

“Boy with Baritone,” 1981. A five-year-old boy was playing a baritone with his two older brothers in a Mexican market. The horn looked like it had survived many melodies.” Photograph by Keith Carter/Courtesy of University of Texas Press.

“Bebe,” 1985. She ran the general store and post office in Bebe, Texas. She was fond of her bottle collection, and seemed to think I was an exotic species. I was mesmerized by her hair. Photograph by Keith Carter/Courtesy of University of Texas Press.

Keith Carter began to take his own pictures after he happened upon one of his mother’s color prints when he was 19. His mother made her living as a studio photographer in Beaumont, Texas, and the photo was a seemingly straightforward portrait of a young girl holding a basket of kittens. But it wasn’t the subject matter that struck Carter; it was the capture of the light.

When photographs are created by light falling on film, they show what was physically present at that particular moment in time, but some also reveal the emotional undercurrent of a moment as well: what’s not seen but felt, and what reverberates. “The raw materials of photography,” Carter once said in an interview, “are light and time and memory.”

Carter’s oeuvre is vast, but the enigmatic nature of his way of photographing people, the places they live and work, and the animals that populate their worlds can be seen in the hundreds of images included in Keith Carter: Fifty Years, a retrospective published by the University of Texas Press.

On the surface, the photos are snapshots of commonplace goings-on—an image of a five-year-old boy holding a large and weathered baritone in Mexico or two women at a church service in Newton, Texas. But Carter manipulates light and focus to evoke the moods and stories of his subjects. His particular technique of focus—sometimes sharp and bright, often intentionally blurred—and the shallow depth of field, a common practice of 19th century photographers, creates pictures where the story is not spelled out.

Animals have long been an interest of Carter’s, and he often features horses. Carter, quoting Leonardo da Vinci, describes them as “God’s most perfect design.” Many of his most haunting photos explore the invisible links between humans and beasts: A boy hugs his horse goodbye after it’s sold, a Mississippi man sees a litter of kittens as his family, and a distraught woman discovers that a fox found its way into her henhouse. Each portrait presents a puzzle to viewers, who must attempt to discover for themselves what it is about this certain image that makes it so poignant.


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