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

Pickett explains that because of the general desire of the Faeries to find a place of privacy and retreat at Kawashaway, she strove to make sure there was an absolute consensus among the attendees about having photographs taken there. The few people who were nervous about exposing their lifestyle to public scrutiny were won over in time. "In the end, people decided they wanted to spread their vision of the world," says Pickett, smiling. "Their vision of Faerie love."

We leaf through the book and chat about the images and texts. The book is a handsome and glossy double-sized volume of photos accompanied by brief snippets of text. These contain the words of the Faeries identified by their Kawashaway names--Salamander, Tanya, Bo Bo Big Dawg, Heron, and so on--and they portray in a straightforward way exactly what the Faeries think of the gatherings and what happens at them. "Faeries step in a world that includes a lot of shadows," says one man named Wolfe. The words are published as recorded by Pickett. "I was a very lonely boy who spent a lot of time in the woods trying to find some magic." In other places the text tends to be offhand, gossipy, and almost separate from the photos.

The shots in Faerie, meanwhile, are on the surface very much in the classical style of documentary photography. Richly toned black-and-white images in a square two-and-a-half-inch film format, they portray intimate moments of men walking nude in a forest or splashing in the water of a lake, men embracing or kissing under trees or on top of rocks, men singing or playing drums, men performing ceremonies by bonfires at night, and endless images of men dressed in women's clothes looking vaguely elated. There is one chapter on a few of the women who attend the retreat, and exactly one image in which Pickett herself appears, camera in hand, reflected at us in a mirror.

Though this device communicated Pickett's involvement in the place as an observer, for the most part, the men in the pictures gaze out unselfconsciously. These are intimate moments, and the men seem full of wonder at the transformations they feel within themselves as they dance, frolic, sit in the woods, or don frilly clothing. Though one would imagine the visual possibilities to be fairly narrow at such a gathering--isolated as it is up in the woods, limited by the short span of its one-week duration--Pickett manages somehow to make each photo distinct and visually arresting. The photos quickly become individual soap operas of emotive and narrative content.

Just as these Faerie retreats seem oriented toward producing personal ephiphanies, Pickett is determined to channel such moments into lasting images. On one hand, the ability to do this is about diligence--being at the right place at the right time. On the other hand, there is the matter of craft--understanding how to capture these fleeting scenes through a viewfinder. Ultimately, though, Pickett's work represents more than the sum of these parts. Her artistic success comes perhaps from her connection to the interior lives of her subjects, or the absolute strength of her will. In the end, Pickett puts much more of herself into her photos than a viewer is likely to realize.

As we flip through the book, suddenly Pickett stops at one page. She points to an image of a man's head emerging from dark space on the left of the photo and a silvery stream of rushing water on the right. The man's face is ghostly under the silvery spray of water, and the rest of his body is lost beneath the water's surface. Something about the image makes him seem scarcely human.

"That image is about death," Pickett says. "It was so perfect. The water was low at this waterfall so we could go behind it. This one Faerie went behind the waterfall and let it go over his head. In my own mind I was thinking please, please, please tilt your head back....And then boom! He did it. And I got the picture....I prayed that picture into existence."

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