Keith Carter, Fireflies
Publisher: University of Texas Press
2009, 168 pages, hardcover, $50
the world of children’s photography is, in my experience, a world of big eyes, innocent faces, and wide smiles that elicit either warm fuzzies or the sympathy of a public being solicited for money. Few pieces of children’s photography show the world of children as I knew it: a place of monsters in dark corners, a realm perhaps awaiting a firefly to light it up.
So when I saw the cover of Keith Carter’s collection of black and white photographs, Fireflies, and noted two boys, cast in shadows, looking at a huge pickle jar and holding the titular insect, I was intrigued and ultimately not disappointed. Carter says that his work “tends toward the dark or solitary side. In my world of truths and half-truths, the inhabitants might be amiss or fallen from grace, but my children inhabit a peaceable kingdom where everything that falls deserves a chance to be restored.”
Carter’s photographs are complex, sometimes sad, and sometimes disturbingly dark, but all have a rich beauty that almost makes one question if Carter is actually a skilled painter, creating still life on canvas, instead of capturing or recreating slices of real life on film. Though many of the photographs are staged, Carter doesn’t attempt to present the children as objets d’art. Instead, each photograph has an organic, ageless, timeworn feel.
Several features shape the book as a whole. The lack of color characterizes the ethereal world that Carter has created. Under most circumstances, I would say a black and white picture is just black and white, but Carter’s images work in the space between the concepts of black and white and color; it is as if these color concepts, as we know them, have been used to hide the secret world that Carter reveals with his lens.
There’s also no clear concept of time in this work. The photographs lack any indication of whether they were taken in the 1950s or in 2005, which adds to the haunting nature of the book as a whole. And when there is an indication of time, such as in “Wizards” and “Potter’s Pensieve”–references to the Harry Potter series–Carter shows not the story of the books, but the way in which children in this world would see them: rich with mystery and darkness.
Plate 42, “Megan,” is a prime example of this dark beauty. Carter frames a girl in lush flora, standing in ill-fitting cotton bloomers, and with the body of a bird in her hands. She looks into the camera with round, dark, soulless eyes and a stoic expression. In the hands of a lesser artist, this photograph might have portrayed frightful neglect, and Megan herself would have come off as sad, lonely, and unattractive. But in the hands of Carter, she stands tall and regal as the usher and honor guard for the lifeless bird.
If there is one thing this book lacks, it is a solid narrative that connects the photographs as a complete work. They are disjointed in subject matter, but this is a minor flaw when you become lost in Carter’s truly magical images of childhood.