Keith Carter on studying photography

“I had written the Museum of Modern Art and told them I was a serious scholar of photography, which of course was not true, and asked if I could visit their collection. They wrote back. I was so excited to get a letter from them. They said, “You can come up, but who do you want to see?” I knew just a handful of people – Cartier Bresson, Ansel Adams, Alfred Stieglitz. For three days a week, two hours each day, I went up there, in the middle of winter. I had never been to New York City. I didn’t know a soul. I didn’t have any money. I got the underground newspapers. Some Life magazine photographers were giving a series of lectures for $2, so I went to those. And poetry readings, those were free. I didn’t know what prints looked like. I was trying to make prints, but I was trying to make them look like what I saw in the books. Here I was holding these prints! I could have been holding a handful of diamonds but that wouldn’t have given me half the pleasure of holding a portrait of O’Keefe. That was really a stunning thing. And I could see where they were spotted. I could see that this was a little dark. I now had something, a benchmark, by which to go back and judge my own prints. But something else happened to me at that point. I had never heard of Paul Strand and they had a retrospective of Strand’s work at the museum at that time. I went back, day after day after day. Those prints were so dark and the color was a funny color and there was such a wide variety of subject matter. I was electrified. I never thought I could attain an Ansel Adams but there was something, to use your word, “primal” about this early Strand exhibition. It wasn’t done correctly. There was a real personality behind it. That was the big thing, the really big thing, for me.”


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