By William Carter

Photographer, Author, Jazz Musician

Posts Tagged ‘pictorial books

Happy Accidents Part 2

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When I was fooling around with my first digital camera several years ago, I tried auto focusing on my hand, then snapped the picture.  The photo somehow refused to go away, and kept popping up in my files.  Unlike others in the book I was preparing in 2009, it would not fit in that sequence, but like an unruly child still demanded attention, until I hit on using as a soft pattern across both “end papers” – the sheets just inside the hard covers.  What could be more implicit in ones destiny?


“The Palm of My Hand,” photograph © William Carter 2001-2010, as used in Causes and Spirits, 2011

Click here to see other examples of photographs in Causes and Spirits.

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


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November 10, 2015 at 1:30 pm

Happy Accidents Part 1

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Bunnie Meade

Above: Bunnie Meade, subtitled “The Eminent Lady Clarinet Soloist,” turned up in the bin of a junk store in New Orleans. I could never learn any more about the winsome Madame Meade, so she never made it into my book on New Orleans jazz: “Preservation Hall” (W.W. Norton, 1991).

“If you break eggs – make an omelet.”

That old saying is good advice in life — being able to turn a negative into a positive is a creative response.

Similarly, a famous book by the cultural writer, Joseph Chilton Pearce, was called The Crack in the Cosmic Egg. Essences seep from seismic shifts.

The same can be true in the arts. “Accidental” has a particular, narrow meaning in music. Beyond that  are wider applications — especially in jazz. An improvising jazzman is bound to stumble now and then. Hitting a “clunker” means playing a wrong note outside the chord progression. Sometimes a quick-minded response can save the day: re-framing the phrase, or making the bad note part of a longer statement, or an accompanist quick-fixing the chord to suit, or recovering with good humor the way we sometimes do if we accidentally use the wrong word in everyday conversation.

Accidents can become a creative force in photography. One feature of my first three books (on Ghost Towns, the Middle West, and New Orleans Jazz) was to blend my own photos with historical ones. I loved researching old pictures in public archives. In the early 1970s I drove a camper across ten states, scouring the land looking for remnants of the early mining booms which had helped blast open the West. Here and there I would pause to comb local historical files. It was a kind of mining in itself. Spend a day, see maybe a thousand prints, feel great to find one that may make it into the book. There is a “happy accident” quality in this kind of research: staying open to the unexpected: the oddball treasure may not quite fit, but may inspire you to bend the narrative  to make room for it. Reproduced here are a couple of fun obscurities that I always wanted to print but had never found space for.

Indiana Bell Telephone

Fashionable employment in a town in rural America, 1920’s: I struggled to find a place for this shot in my book, “Middle West Country” (Houghton Mifflin, 1975), but never did.

Happy accidents are a breath of fresh air. But when you break eggs, how do you respond? That’s the key.

America’s Funniest Home Videos would be nothing if people didn’t spot and send in those homespun howlers. With only seconds to spare in the fading light, and only one exposure left in his camera, that ultimate plan-ahead craftsman, Ansel Adams, jammed on his car brakes, jumped out and grabbed his most famous photo, “Moonrise Over Hernandez.”

Fresh realms of re-interpretation have been opened by the transition from film to digital. My print, “Persepolis,” started life as a black-and-white negative. Following a trip through Iran in 1998, I had made a set of quick 4×6 proofs but neglected to properly “fix” them in the darkroom. Eleven years later, I was chagrined to find many had faded and/or acquired brownish streaks. One proof caught my eye. It had inadvertently become streaked with a haunting, 19th-century sort of patina. To preserve it, I scanned the little print. Then I blew it up. This “omelet” ended up in two states, in two sizes, now in limited editions, and the “state 1” image occupies a two-page spread in my new book, Causes and Spirits (Steidl, 2011). One of the larger sized State 1’s — 48 inches wide — now graces the wall of our dining room (see below).

Persepolis, Iran

Persepolis, Iran (State 1) Inkjet print 1998-2009

Persepolis women only

Persepolis, Iran (State 2), Inkjet print, 1998-2009

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

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October 28, 2015 at 2:00 pm

Gone Tomorrow?

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Rhyolite, Nevada, 1970

Bank, Rhyolite, Nevada, 1970. From Causes and Spirits, text and photograph © William Carter

Musings on Permanence/Impermanence

In a nation often characterized by its frontier past, the zest for the Now has always contended with its opposite: the urge to constellate older, permanent values. Centuries of the wide open West brought us the enduring myth of cowboy who roamed freely across open spaces but whose assignment was often to save a threatened town. Trappers, miners and farmers kept moving on to the next big thing. Less romanticized, other farmers and their town-dwelling cousins put down roots, planting for permanence.

Today the theme lives on in other forms, such as in the struggle between development and preservation. Or between the risks of global thinking and the reassurances of old-time religion.  Universally, man struggles for immortality against his evident mortality.

My first two books – Ghost Towns of the West and Middle West Country – probed America’s frontier tensions in detail. My most recent one, Causes and Spirits, is a photographic art book of worldwide scope; yet it, too, explores the contest between “dust to dust” on the one hand, and surpassing vision on the other. Threaded through the book in varying dimensions, the underlying polarity can be summed up here in two images involving the widespread deployment of Greek classical architecture. References to a shared European ancestry and taste, such structures served as emblems of a hoped-for permanence as America unfurled its banner westward.

Some dreams were broken. Some dreams survived.

Town Square, Northern Minnesota, 1973

Town Square, Northern Minnesota, 1973.  From Causes and Spirits, text and photograph © William Carter

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

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July 20, 2015 at 12:45 pm

Tone in Art — and in Life

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Essential Dimensions

Sight, by William Carter, 1995

“Sight,” by William Carter, 1995

Women are natural masters of tone.  Their voices are extensions of their bodies and feelings – from cooing and whispering to babies, to the murmurs and cries of love making, to the exactingly regulated interview or phone voice of a business professional, to the bark of a drill sergeant or the yell of a basketball coach, to the whining shared grievances and inebriated hilarity of girls night out, to the plaintive pain of a close-miked blues singer, to the glass-shattering beltings of an old Broadway pro, to the moans of mourners the world over…  Men have no equivalent for such emotional precision.  (We do have other advantages.)

"Violante", by Titian, circa 1514 (Vienna: Kunsthistorisches Museum

“Violante”, by Titian, circa 1514 (Vienna: Kunsthistorisches Museum

Tone is as fundamental to art as it is to life.  It is about relationships.  It is about attitudes.  It has a billion nuances.  Tone subverts speech.  It is pre-literate: dogs, like newborn infants, get the message.  Like breathing and heartbeat, tone springs from sources preceding the analytical brain.

Each scrap of civilization is permeated by tonalities. And each separate civilization has its own dominant tone.  Choosing a tone, we can actually choose what sort of civilization we wish to live in — what sort of civilization we are creating, second by second, from the ground up (actually, from the underground up).

Tone is interwoven with the materials and techniques peculiar to each craft, each art.  The sounds of musical instruments are analogous to those of the human voice — bestowing limitless expressive possibilities.  Musical fundamentals – harmony, melody and rhythm — open into endless variations of emotion, attitude, relationship: carriers of thought and feeling, from sudden joy to the wisp of  a half-forgotten memory.  Essential to this conversation is the artist’s sensitivity to the ears of his listeners. Refined artistry implies respect for people’s receptive capacities.

And tone is interactive.  New Orleans jazz derived from street processions before it moved indoors to dance halls. The early jazzmen and their listeners were conditioned by both.  At certain events one early bandleader is said to have occasionally surprised everyone by shouting “Feet!” – an instruction to his players to suddenly cut the volume so far they could actually hear the shuffling feet of the dancers.

"Flora", by Titian, 1515-1520 (Florence, Galleria degli Uffizi)

“Flora,” by Titian, 1515-1520 (Florence, Galleria degli Uffizi)

Tone is crucial in writing.  The element hardest to teach, it remains after everything else has been fixed.  After each essay has been structured, each meaning parsed, each meaning clarified, the voice of the author, and his fictional characters, is what finally counts.  It is what we hear below the surface of language — what we ultimately care about in a person or a book.  The off-putting snarl, the simmering poetic glow, the endearing humor: tone is the attitude of the speaker toward his listeners and himself.

Tone is the light in the eye: the energy radiating from a person – what we really take away from an encounter.

Representations of the human face or body, in all the visual media, include great examples of tonal artistry — translating the invisible into the visible.  Titian painted many scenes from classical myths involving nudes; many sacred scenes in the Christian tradition, involving more discreet clothing; and many portraits.  His women often present a thoroughly mixed message: their neutral stare, the amount and distribution of skin revealed, and the sumptuous coloration and warm compositions, combine to make his subjects appear, at once, as holy as the Virgin and as sensual and shapely as a Venetian courtesan.  Rather than presenting these as opposites, he presents, at least in some cases, a mixed message.  As important as what they do or do not reveal of their breasts is the care the artist gives to the sumptuous fabrics and delicate lacework around or over the chests, arms and bodies.

"The Penitent Magdalen," by Titian, circa 1533 (Florence, Galleria Palatina)

“The Penitent Magdalen,” by Titian, circa 1533 (Florence, Galleria Palatina)

For me, Titian is using all his matchless talent and vast technical means to express the multi-layered, multi-valent wonder that is Woman.  Hiding while revealing, Titian enrolls us in the mystery, leaving it to us to make what we will of his women’s inscrutable faces.  This great Renaissance painter stood astride two intersecting epochs — the religious and the classical.  He was trained in the old, tightly restrained, exacting tempura technique; yet he pioneered the new, freer, emotionally expressive medium of oil and impasto on canvas. Such dualities fused to inform his work, but did not determine his vision.   Whoever happened to be sitting for him, in whatever moods, and whatever myths and fashions might have shaped the story telling, what counts for us, five centuries hence, is the look of the work – an aura of person-hood that confounds interpretation: a nobility of tone emanating to us from the canvas,  delivered to us out of the artist’s own being.

In photography, especially of people, whether clothed or unclothed, the word “tone” also applies to technical choices involving lighting, contrast, paper color, etc.  Such choices are necessary but not sufficient means en route to the work’s larger tone and overtones.  The attitude and intent of the photographer affect his choices of dramatic stage lighting vs. soft shadowless light – deep shadows for striking layouts in the magazine era, for instance, vs. subtle grey-scale values for intimate personal portraiture.  Layers of over-civilized European irony permeate the tough commercial nudes of glitterati like Helmut Newton or  Karl Lagerfeld.  Whereas the nudes of  gentle humanists, alive in a gentler age, such as Imogene Cunningham or Paul Strand, are all about tenderness.

How we see is who we are.  Inevitably, our tone, our voice,  is a projection of our inner state — our inner self.


“Megan,” by William Carter, 2006

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

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July 6, 2015 at 12:00 pm

Interview in Artillery Magazine

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Please click the link below to read an interview by Robyn Perry in the June/July issue of Artillery Magazine. In it I talk about emotional reactions to photographs; the acquisition process inside major museums; printing digital photographs; art vs. commerce, Gregory Crewdson and other topics.

William Carter Artillery Interview 2012

Here is a link to Artillery’s website.

Meaning Together

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The Art of the Opener

Ladder layout

Chapter openers in pictorial books lasso the reader and set the stage for the gallery-type display pages to come. If well done, these two-page spreads can also subtly convey layers of context and mood — qualities many readers may sense, without being fully aware of.

A simple design is usually best. Unlike flashy magazine spreads, which must fight hard to grab the reader immediately, the best pictorial books should invite you to savor and probe over an extended period.  Depth earns them a permanent place on the shelf. “Coffee table” or “gift book” attractions are fine, but transitory: many of us hold those things or people closest to ourselves when we feel they have permanent value.

For such reasons I give special consideration to chapter and section openers. The classic graphic elements are a single vertical picture and a short title: and they need to talk to each other. I select the picture  and word(s) with an ear to this visual-verbal dialog. The goal is a kind fusion reaction that creates energy. That energy can ignite the text-and-picture narrations to come. As in any conversation, its tones and textures can weave layered meanings, overt and subtle, explicit and intricate — laced, for example, with irony and humor.  This  overlapping/interweaving of word(s) and picture can become a force multiplier.

My newest book, Causes and Spirits, is a kind of compendium of my images of people, worldwide.  Superbly printed by Steidl, a noted German publisher, its 296 pages sum up half a century of black-and-white photographs from around the globe. The challenge of such a far-flung subject was to give it coherence. I needed to find ways, through careful selection and sequencing, for the pictures to relate to one other across short stretches — plus, as with a few gentle nudes, placed early and late, to bracket the book with long range continuity. My aim was thus to make a book that was more like a film than a catalog.

Causes and Spirits is divided into eight galleries. Each is preceded by a chapter opener, plus one or more pages of text. The eight openers are: “To See is to Connect,” “Genesis,” “Gigs & Inspirations,” “Pioneers,” “Eyes in the Street,” “Gift of Place,” “The Uncharted,” and “Re-Union.” These track my life (and career) from childhood to the present. The text takes the form of a physical and spiritual journey across fifty years and around the world — an eastward odyssey that climaxes with my return to my birthplace, California, in the last chapter.

In some ways Chapter 4, “Pioneers,” can be called the heart of the project. Its overt subjects are the mainly rural Americans whose ancestors opened vast interior tracts of the nation, and who thereby gave us much of an enduring national character, strands of which may live on, below the surfaces of our urbanized lives. This “past-presence,” — our unconscious arc of identity — is implied in the small-town grit and grain of the photographs, many in a slightly 1930s or 1940s style, including offbeat sightings of  buildings and objects that had long since seen better days.

The fuzziness of my underlying theme of national or regional character made it hard to settle on one photo for the opening spread.  As I struggled with this problem, at one point I even considered breaking my self-imposed rule that the chapter opener should be a single vertical shot. Months passed. I mumbled and grumbled, shuffled through stacks of prints, flung open yet more file cabinets and boxes, scoured scores of contact sheets, made yet more prints in the dark darkroom and on the bright computer screen. Eventually, I noticed that one fairly simple image kept pushing its way to the top.

I’d made the picture of the old ladder on one of my far-flung trips across dozens of western states, when I was carving out publications on our gritty mining towns and sod-busting farm communities. Later, the same ladder had been chosen by Alfred Knopf, the book publisher, as the cover image for a William Faulkner novel. Now the same picture was again tapping me on the shoulder.

Plain form, stark tonalities, rough-hewn texture, and a slightly humorous narrative of dauntless striving and stumbling: for me, these  reflect the respect due our forefathers: for their elemental energy as they infused this first new nation with their unpretentious get-up-and-go.

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

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July 28, 2011 at 11:45 am

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