Open Shutters

Photographing radical Faeries, elderly grandparents, and homeless kids, Keri Pickett pulls subjects from the edges of public awareness to the center of the frame

The photograph is mostly dark but for the small circle of light that rests just to the right of the image's center. It takes a moment for the eye to focus on the circle amid all the darkness and to determine that, in fact, this is an image of a man. The pose is an unusual one, for the man is thrust feet-first into a human-sized hole in the ground, and the darkness around him is the surface of the earth that surrounds the hole. The man is curled into a ball; his head is cast downward toward his hidden feet, and the shiny skin of his neck and back are exposed to the sky. His fists are curled back against the sides of his neck and head. Once you realize what you are looking at, a man returning to the earth--an image of death, if anything--the emotional impact of the photograph becomes intense.

The image is titled "Sasha, 1995" and it's one of more than 120 photos in the new book by Minnesota artist Keri Pickett called Faeries: Visions, Voices & Pretty Dresses (Aperture). It is one of a pair of photos bearing the same subject and title, taken perhaps just seconds apart at a summer gathering of gay men at a retreat center in northern Minnesota called the Kawashaway Sanctuary. Yet the difference between the two photos is a mark of Pickett's interest in this man, and in photography in general. Everything is nearly the same in the second scene, except that the man faces upward rather than downward now, his burning white eyes directly addressing the camera--us--and his hands and feet delicate and fine against the black and gray rock. It is a revelatory moment granted to us by Pickett, an image of redemption and birth, pointedly juxtaposed against the scene on the facing page.

Though the subject is highly personal, the image takes us beyond the ordinary circumstances of this man in this particular place. Pickett's photographs in general are almost a kind of performance art--a ritual act of conjuring up the greater truth that lies in wait like a serpent beneath the surface. It has taken Pickett some time and much practice to be able to bring about such moments using only a small black box and some celluloid.

For the past decade, Keri Pickett, who is 41 years old, has produced consistently strong photographic work, winning more than 15 awards and grants from organizations such as the National Endowment for the Arts, and the McKnight, Bush, and Jerome foundations. At the same time, she has sold photos to more than a dozen major corporations, museums, and private collectors. In her day job as a freelance photographer for commercial magazines, Pickett produces images that appear in widely circulated publications like People, Sports Illustrated, Der Spiegel, and Newsweek (Pickett has previously done work for City Pages, as well). Much of this meat-and-potatoes photo reportage has served as an introduction to subjects she will later use in her artwork. Other ideas come almost as afterthoughts--the benefits of exploring the world through a shutter on a daily basis.

Take her first book, Love in the 90s, for example. In 1995 Pickett made something of a national stir with the publication, a look at the life and love of her nonagenarian grandparents. For years Pickett had spent time with these people, taking quick snapshots of them that were almost tossed-off images--her grandfather emerging from the bathroom, or her grandmother puttering around the bedroom looking for a lost object.

"I didn't set out to do a book," Pickett writes in the introduction to the collection. "As long as I had my camera, I would shoot a few frames at the end of a roll of film." The resulting images, however, make a perfect record of these intertwined lives. The two grandparents share their daily chores, spend time together or with their family, and in the end fall ill and go to the hospital to die.

Though Keri Pickett's work leans toward the profound, her manner is less contemplative than preternaturally busy. Finding time to talk with Pickett proves a challenge--she is called away on assignments quite frequently--and it is ultimately easier to follow her to a shoot and watch her work. Pickett is currently collaborating with writer Margaret Nelson on a future book project about Sharing and Caring Hands, a homeless shelter just northwest of downtown Minneapolis.

A recent Thursday afternoon found Pickett in a noisy shelter corridor, where the song "Happy Together" wafted from a tinny hidden speaker. (Nelson would arrive later to conduct interviews.) A crowd primarily made up of middle-aged, run-down men has gathered and is surging as the scent of cafeteria food begins to pervade the room. Pickett is instantly recognizable in the shuffling crowd. She is dressed in a fashionable manner, wearing clogs, a long-sleeved black blouse, tan slacks, and a coral necklace. She has a cell phone at her waist, a black camera bag over one shoulder, and a camera strapped around her neck. Pickett seems to have a boundless amount of energy. Yet at the same time, if one watches her closely, it is apparent that a sort of resigned weariness comes over her from time to time, as though her gear had all of a sudden taken on the weight of a body.

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