Many years ago, when I first got interested in photography (again), when Ted Forbes’ podcast was still published through iTunes, Forbes did a piece on Keith Carter. I’ve kept an eye out for one of Carter’s books ever since, but until January 2019, I’d only ever seen Ezekiel’s Horse, and wasn’t particularly interested in that work. And then, one day, I spotted From Uncertain to Blue, and jumped on it.
From Uncertain to Blue came about when Carter asked his wife what she wanted to do to celebrate their 10th anniversary. His first suggestion—a trip to Morocco— was met with something less than enthusiasm, but the second idea—a lengthy driving tour of small-town Texas—was a winner. They spent a bit of time gathering maps and choosing where to go, and then they were off, with Keith Carter photographing, and Patricia Carter enjoying the trip and making some notes.
It wasn’t easy, at first, and Keith Carter writes about struggling to find a rhythm:
I was at a loss in the beginning. I made no photographs in the first few towns. I enjoyed driving around, but felt there was not much photographic material. Often, we’d arrive at the worst time of day for good light; my butt was numb from sitting in the car. It was hot; I had to pee; nothing was there. But slowly I began photographing that “nothing.” I made pictures of dogs, trucks, car tires, skulls, beehives, pool tables—I worked with what I had, and slowly what I had became what I wanted to see.Carter, Keith. “Hank’s three chords,” in Keith Carter, From Uncertain to Blue. University of Texas Press, Austin, 2010. pages unnumbered.
I like this idea, this allowing of what you have to become what you want. Seems like a good sort of life lesson, an aspirational thing.
For the most part, the photographs are just whatever Carter decided to photograph. It’s clear that whatever he photographed was what he wanted to see, of course, but it’s not entirely obvious what any given photograph has to do with any given place. Sure, some of the photographs are clear plays on the name of the town: “Climax,” out in East Texas, between Lufkin and Nacodoches, is a couple of rows of ancient, tilted tombstones with some trees behind; “Sweet Home,” kinda halfway down the hypotenuse of a little 50 mile triangle formed by Halletsville, Shiner, and Yoakum, is a stand of giant sunflowers and part of a weedy little garden with a white clapboard house and its even taller tv antenna behind. Others are more oblique: “Poetry,” in the middle of nowhere a bit north of Terrel, is a not-quite-symmetrical photograph of the upper third of a wooden column and the porch roof it supports, one of the more abstract pictures in the set with its sorta three-tone triangle-and-stick shape; “Art,” closer to Mason than Llano, out west of Austin, is a circulatory system of near-black wintertime branches against a the back side of a big white church. And the majority are more what caught Carter’s eye at the time, what he wanted to see, often the people that populated the mostly-tiny towns: church groups, truck-bed singalongs, the woman of a certain age with a brilliant beehive hairdo behind the counter of her junk shop; a kid with his rooster; older men with that characteristic texan scowl and a cigarette or swisher sweet dangling from mouth or hand.
Taken all together, it’s really a fabulous project.
Now, back when I was 6 or 8, I had a favorite t-shirt, a baseball-style 3/4 sleeve thing, white and red with blue sleeves, if I recall, with ‘Native Texan’ emblazoned on the front, so I’m probably biased. I have some nostalgia for those towns, and I recognize some of the names: Ponder, Marathon, Slabtown, Ozona, Candelaria. I’ve driven past exits and turnoffs and signs that point towards many of the others, though a few have been swallowed by one of the several metropoles scattered around the state. Others have probably, sadly, disappeared completely, but many are likely still hanging on, more or less the same as they were in 1986/87 when I was still wearing that t-shirt and the Carters drove all those miles all over Texas.
When I went through Marathon back in 2012, it looked more or less like the same Marathon Carter photographed 25 years before, perhaps with a bit more wear; Ponder hasn’t changed at all in all the years I’ve been going out there, and I’ve been going through there since before Carter photographed it, though Keller, Haslet, Justin, and the outer reaches of Fort Worth have crept closer to it over the years; I expect many of the more out of the way places likewise haven’t changed much, though I also expect there are quite a few more Confederate flags, mixed in with the new-school versions otherwise known as the blue lives matter flag and various sorts of Trump flags. (Carter shows only one confederate flag, on a line with American and POW/MIA flags, but that was 1986 or 87…)
That’s all to say that I’m probably one of the more likely audiences for this book, plus, the 2010 UT Press edition, which this one is, contains some of the contact sheets, or, rather, some scans of all 12 pictures from the roll Carter shot in the town, or of the scene. I was interested to sorta trace his process: he’s one to take 7 or 8 of the same scene and general pose, and it’s interesting to try to understand why he chose this one and not that one. I was a bit dismayed, when, halfway through, I realized the scans weren’t always in order: cars back up the street, jump forward, disappear entirely, return; a man coyly hikes up a pant leg, then the pants drop back down, then his hand pulls on the fabric and the pant leg goes back up. It’s usually easy enough to rearrange them in my mind and trace the order, but it’s still a bit disappointing, for whatever reason. And if that’s my only complaint about it, well, the book and the photographs are really excellent.
Overall, I rate From Uncertain to Blue a solid 4 stars, and it’s worth picking up. No question.
If you’re unfamiliar with Carter and his oeuvre, you could do worse than check out the early Forbes video on YouTube, from 7 years ago, and he also did one of his great Artist Series videos on Carter, which is likewise worth a watch. His website is a wealth of images, with a decent selection of photographs from his various projects, published or not, and you might find you appreciate his more experimental and later period work. (I do, sorta.)