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

"It's every photographer's dream to do a book," Pickett says as we walk. "I don't know why. It's true for photographers more than for painters and any other of my artist friends. I think part of it is because photography lends itself to that. It's on paper; it's reproduced."

During her years in New York, Pickett began regularly photographing children and teens who were living in Times Square. They were street kids mostly: drug addicts and prostitutes and other runaways. The photos she took then were serious, dark, and somber. Yet, as she tells it, Pickett was skirting the edges of her subject, not quite getting to the heart of it. "I was running away from the things I wanted to do because they were scary," says Pickett. "There was a huge dark side there. At the time, lots of kids were coming to New York because of it."

It took a turning point for Pickett to learn how to find a way to look beyond the desolation of such matters. In 1987, when Pickett was diagnosed with Burkett's lymphoma, a rare cancer characterized by the rapid growth of tumors all over the body, she left New York and returned to her home in Minnesota to begin two years of chemotherapy.

"One of the reasons the Time Square work did not work is because it needed a bright side," says Pickett. "When I was on chemotherapy I was so upbeat and positive that this started coming out in my pictures. I was a positive example to people. I started taking photos of kids with life-threatening illnesses, and my work switched....I starting putting more of myself into the work."

In the reception area of the family-housing section of the homeless shelter, a hundred or so kids are seated on the floor, lined up along two sides of the room. Just before the director begins to speak to them, Pickett creeps forward stealthily, camera in hand, to sit on the floor herself in the middle of the two banks of children. Copeland asks the kids if they prayed today, and then she asks what they prayed for.

"I prayed for my mom to get a house," says a child. Copeland repeats the child's words ecstatically, and everyone in the room applauds.

During this performance Pickett appears oblivious to everything except the hunt to capture images of the children. She peers around at them, her mouth set in a warm smile, looking from face to face. When she finds one that strikes her eye, she first addresses the child with her smile. Next, she moves in close, and lifts her camera smoothly while engaging the child with her eyes and her conspiratorial grin. One girl in particular, who sports a metallic-purple butterfly sticker on her cheek and wears a pink dress that sets off her mahogany-colored skin, captures Pickett's attention. Pickett approaches her directly, making it seem as if these two were the only people in the room. Then, and only then, does Pickett snap the photo with a deft move. After this, she comes out from behind the camera immediately, looks softly at the child, smiling all the while, and then moves away.

The director begins singing "If You're Happy and You Know It," and Pickett and the rest of the children sing and clap along with the song. Still, all the while, Pickett scans the crowd of children looking for images to capture.

When she returns from the midst of the children, ostensibly to replace the film in her camera, weariness has momentarily returned. The smile has been replaced by a scowl of concentration; she seems an older version of the person she was just a few moments before. Afterward, Pickett responds to a question about how she feels when she takes photos standing among a room full of people by saying: "I love it. It makes me very happy. Especially when I get to be part of something real and vibrant. I like ritual. People celebrating their spirit."

By the time of the actual crowning of the statue of Mary, Pickett is off again at a sprint. She crawls over plants and leans out from behind the statue, shooting as one girl places a crown of flowers on Mary's head, then at all the children laying white lilies at her feet. Pickett's smile is sharp again, and she seems to pick up energy in the carnival atmosphere as the pile of lilies grows to a mound in front of the statue.

 

About a week later, I meet Pickett at the studio she shares with her uncle Roy Blakey, who is also a photographer. It is an unimposing storefront on Hennepin in northeast Minneapolis that could easily be mistaken for the office of a notary public or certified public accountant. She seems tired, and says she has just returned from a last-minute assignment for People magazine in Detroit, where she has photographed Larry Ross, recent winner of the $181.5 million Big Game lottery.

The ceilings of the studio are high and covered in painted tin, and the white brick walls are lined with the framed photos of both artists. We sit in a small waiting room to look at an unbound galley proof of Faeries.

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