By William Carter

Photographer, Author, Jazz Musician

Portrait Of…?

with one comment


Content is in the eye of the beholder

by William Carter

The Holy Karmapa, age seven, at Tsurphu Monastery, Tibet, October, 1992. Eight years later, in 2000, he fled Chinese occupation to join the Dalai Lama in India. Photograph by William Carter 1992

Every picture carries meanings behind the surface — beyond the literal. Our yearning for such meanings makes us human. This enduring, endearing need for meaning appears in many guises.

Photographs carry values. Across much of Europe and the U.S., many of the old churches are empty. But the museums are full. People hunger for something beyond the commercial — even as some monuments of high culture seem to have become palaces of mass entertainment.

Every photograph is a slice through space, and a slice of time. Different slices mean differently to different persons.

The Karmapa, above, is looking at you, even as you are looking at him. What part of you is he looking at? How do you see him? If you are looking at him while he is looking at you, are you in effect looking at yourself?

And what about the shot below, of the Duchess and Duke of Windsor (the abdicated British king), and their driver: what do you — and the onlookers beyond the window — bring to this picture?

© William Carter 1967

Photograph by William Carter 1967

And what, then of pictures of your relatives, or your children? I took the photo below of Jobi, my wife’s grandson, on his 17th birthday. Different people see it differently. I don’t notice the hair, for example; I just see the eyes as spiritual; reminds me of an Italian Renaissance painting.

Jobim Morris Gavrielli, June 30, 2012; photograph by William Carter

Jobim Morris Gavrielli, June 30, 2012; photograph by William Carter

In the same way, my published photographs elicit a wide variety of responses. In my recent book, Causes and Spirits, my shot of an older woman carrying a watering can up the steps of her Minnesota bungalow in 1973 elicited an e-mail from a man who speculated on the market value of the house, then and now, 39 years later.

Northern Minnesota, 1973

Northern Minnesota, 1973

For decades (actually, centuries) artists in various media have preoccupied themselves with issues of their own identity. Contemporary educators and tastemakers have supported this kind of questioning, often as a critique of modern society. Since the 1970s some have even called it the “culture of complaint.” Sculptures such as this were evidently meant to shock visitors to the Jerusalem’s Israel Museum in 1993:

© William Carter 1993

Photograph by William Carter 1993

My response was to look elsewhere for things closer to my own heart. I found them in a nearby orphanage, and in a refugee camp:

© William Carter 1993

Photograph by William Carter 1993

© William Carter 1993

Photograph by William Carter 1993

In the Middle East, as I mentioned in earlier blogs, perception of identity and reality hinges crucially on tribal affiliation. My self-assignment as a photographer has long been to try to see past such tags, to the underlying humanity. Does this slot me with 19th century romanticism and impressionism, as opposed to modernism or postmodernism or what else is currently hip? Who cares? This image from Hungary in 1964 belies the fact that Russian tanks were parked just over the hill:

©William Carter 1964

Photograph by William Carter 1964

Or this one, in Yemen, at a time when the Egyptians and the Saudis were fighting a proxy war there, with the subtle involvement of the Americans and the Soviets (sound familiar?):

©William Carter 1964

Photograph by William Carter 1964

As a kind of summing up, here’s one from my book, Preservation Hall. It’s of Emanuel Sales singing in New Orleans. One of his fellow jazzmen told me, “You got to have soul, man, to do this work.”

©William Carter 1991

Photograph by William Carter 1991

Copyright statement: William Carter papers, © Stanford University Libraries. Click here for a detailed usage guide.

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One Response

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  1. What a wonderful post! Thought-provoking and oh so beautiful. – Many of the photographs I don’t remember having seen before. Thank you!!

    Like

    Barbara

    July 7, 2012 at 5:54 pm


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