‘Keith Carter Fifty Years’

Book Design

A half century of work by the celebrated photographer from Texas is collected in a new retrospective book.

In 1988 partner DJ Stout, who joined Pentagram in 2000, designed Keith Carter’s first book From Uncertain to Blue, launching the career of the Beaumont, Texas native who is now considered to be one of the most accomplished photographers from the Lone Star State. Now Pentagram Austin has designed the celebrated photographer’s half-century retrospective, Keith Carter Fifty Years. Published by the University of Texas Press, this oversized, 320-page volume features 250 images from Carter’s distinguished career. 

Keith Carter Fifty Years includes several new, unpublished images but the majority of the photographs in the retrospective have appeared previously in one of Carter’s twelve books. Stout designed ten of those books including Uncertain to Blue (1988), The Blue Man (1990), Mojo (1995), Heaven of Animals (1996), Keith Carter Photographs Twenty-Five Years (1997), Ezekiel’s Horse (2000), Natural Histories (2000), A Certain Alchemy (2008), From Uncertain to Blue (redesigned in 2011) and now Keith Carter Fifty Years (2019).

The majority of the images featured in the new book have been published before or have been seen previously in a different context, so the Pentagram designers organized the photographs in a non-chronological order, mixing photographs from different stylistic periods together and pairing them up in interesting juxtapositions. The new pairings present Carter’s classic images in a fresh way and command closer inspection by the photographer’s many fans and enthusiasts who know his work well. The photographs are accompanied by essays from bestselling novelist and poet Rosellen Brown and acclaimed critic A.D. Coleman.

When Carter was growing up in the small East Texas town of Beaumont his mother Jane, who raised him as a single parent, had a small but lucrative photography studio specializing in the portraiture of children and families. Carter would assist her on photo-shoots from time to time but he never had much enthusiasm for the business until he set out on his own to take some personal pictures. He showed a few of his early attempts to his mother who complimented him on his effort. That’s all it took. From that point on the fledgling photographer began following his instincts and exploring his own unique personal vision. He traveled to New York where he spent a few days studying the masters of photography at the Museum of Modern Art and when he returned he opened his own small studio.

In 1986 he and his wife Pat set off on a road trip that would change the photographer’s professional trajectory for good. On the occasion of the couple’s tenth wedding anniversary, Carter suggested an exotic trip to someplace like Morocco but was met with a less-than-enthusiastic response from his thoughtful, loving wife. At one point Carter had attended a lecture by the famous Texas author and playwright Horton Foote who had emphasized the importance of being from a place. That chance meeting inspired the young photographer and gave him the idea of wandering the back roads of Texas with the goal of taking one good picture in each of the small, quirky towns he and Pat visited over that summer.

He shot pictures in places called Happy, Birthright, Foot, Notrees, Diddy Waw Diddy, Ding Dong, Oatmeal, Earth, Circle Back, Looneyville, Art, Maydelle, Dilley, Air, Tuxedo and Poetry. When he returned, Carter sent the pictures to Pentagram partner DJ Stout, who was the Art Director of Texas Monthly at that time. The magazine published the series, accompanied with an essay by Horton Foote, and the success of that photo feature led to Carter’s first photography book deal with Texas Monthly Press who published From Uncertain to Blue (named for the small Texas towns of Certain and Blue).

Keith Carter has stayed on that back road to success now for fifty-years. His photographs have been shown in more than one hundred solo exhibitions in thirteen countries and are held in numerous collections from coast to coast including the National Gallery of Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Southwestern & Mexican Photography Collection at the Wittliff Collections, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Dubbed “a poet of the ordinary” by the Los Angeles Times, Carter holds the Endowed Walles Chair in Fine Arts at Lamar University and was the recipient of the Texas Medal of Arts Award in 2009.

The Pentagram team kept the design of the book spare, sophisticated, and appropriate to the gravitas of the occasion. Unlike Carter’s previous books with poetic monikers like The Blue Man, Heaven of Animals and A Certain Alchemy, the design team suggested the straightforward title, Keith Carter Fifty Years –a simple, confident name befitting the photographer’s significant, lifelong achievement.

A glossy black jacket with the book’s title set in Independent Headline, a beautiful Roman typeface originally designed for the Independent newspaper’s daily print and digital editions by the London based A-2 TYPE. The elegant upper-and-lowercase title bleeds into the spine and off the top and bottom edge of the cover, setting the tone for the retrospective’s spare but contemporary layout composed of full-bleed pages and spreads, and images that butt-up against one another. All of Carter’s photography is reproduced in black-and-white in the book but the tonal range of the imagery, scanned from prints representing different stylistic periods, is varied throughout.

Gold, the traditional 50th wedding and anniversary color, is printed in metallic ink on the jacket and throughout the book including a full-spread typographic treatment for an excerpt from Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” where the famous Beat Poet mentions Carter’s hometown of Beaumont.

It’s apropos that Kerouac’s passage is included in the book. The story of Carter’s remarkable journey from small-town Texas to the top of the photography world is an inspiration to every artist and makes this volume, a celebration of the photographer’s fifty-year adventure, the most important book in the Keith Carter canon.

DJ Stout
Project team
Roxy Torres
Nick Cabrera, photographer
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