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.

"Do you want to sit and talk?" she asks, pointing at nearby chairs at a long dining table. She keeps her eyes steady on the crowd of men, saying, "I may have to get up in a hurry because I want to shoot one man when he gets up to the food table."

Pickett has begun to apprehend the rhythms of this place. For even as Faeries, the product of seven years of labor, is being shipped to booksellers by its publisher, Pickett has been shooting here for several months already. This current book project, which has no prospective publisher yet, began with a magazine assignment. That is, the homeless shelter's director, Mary Jo Copeland, was featured in a run-of-the-mill profile last year in People magazine. Faeries, too, began as a magazine story.

"From the beginning I didn't know I was doing a book," says Pickett. "It started as an assignment I was doing for Mpls.St.Paul Magazine in 1993 about 'Daisy Care'"--a home hospice for a man named Daisy who was dying of AIDS. "It was through this person that I became exposed to the Faeries and the Faerie culture for the first time. When my article came out, I felt close to Daisy and kept on shooting him. I went with Daisy, as he was dying, to Kawashaway in 1994. One of the Faeries, who was a home-care worker, was getting married. He brought Daisy on a stretcher for a five- or six-hour stay.

"Right away I could tell Daisy was at peace there. He almost completely changed. And I thought I'd died and gone to heaven. It was so colorful. That was my first year at Kawashaway. I even did a couple of set-up portraits that year. I did not do any reportage though, because I was worried about people's sense of privacy."

Kawashaway Sanctuary, according to its mission statement, is a 17-acre spread on a lake in Finland, Minnesota intended to be a place "for the empowerment and fellowship of queer folk (who may identify as bi, butch, dyke, fag, femme, fruit, gay, homo, lesbian, nellie, nancy, queen, queer, transgender, or transvestite) and their friends." Each year, in the high summer of early August, the Sanctuary runs a gathering at the preserve for "Faeries," a sort of eco-queer movement that has been active nationwide since the early 1980s.

A large part of the gathering at Kawashaway, as is evident in the book, involves the performance of rituals that are Wiccan or pagan in origin. There are many pictures of nighttime bonfires and naked drumming and dancing. Pickett tends to gloss over the religious aspect of the gatherings when asked, stressing instead that people of all creeds attend, citing the services one year of an Episcopal minister and a Hindu priest.

As Pickett recounts her experiences at Kawashaway, she is often interrupted by men in the shelter who are curious about us or who know her already from previous visits. One man thinks Pickett is doing an exposé on Sharing and Caring Hands, and so he rants for about five minutes on how the organization treats its inhabitants. Pickett nods sympathetically, her face open and curious. When he is gone she continues speaking.

"Everyone has a different definition of what a Faerie is," she says. "A subculture, perhaps, of the gay culture. Yet I consider myself a Faerie even though I'm not gay. I have friends I'd consider Faeries, too, even though they don't know it."

In time, men begin loudly moving chairs, ordering people out of the dining hall with shouts. Pickett's attention seems to go four or five places at once; she's answering questions but also watching the movements of the crowd of men as they are herded from the room. She points out one man as he passes. He is muttering to himself and shouldering a bag of clothing that is larger than he is. "That man's bag is made of a quilt that has been sewn together up the sides. I took pictures of him before."

"Let's go," shouts one staff member, sounding much like a drill sergeant. "Last call." We move through the back door of the hall to another part of the shelter, where its director is in wait. Mary Jo Copeland appears in a flurry of activity as we stand around, smiling at Pickett and Nelson, then sets off with a small group of people speaking about the tasks at hand. "The children are going to be crowning Mary at the other part of the shelter where people live," whispers Pickett as we walk through a corridor to the back door, which opens to a complex of parking lots and alleys separating the two parts of the facility. This day happens to be the Feast of the Ascension, the day Mary entered heaven, which the Catholic Church commemorates by crowning statues of her with wreaths of flowers.

"I have to get pictures of this," Pickett declares. "You don't mind, do you?"

 

The 17-year professional career of Keri Pickett began after she graduated from Moorhead State University in 1982 and found a job as a photographic intern with the Village Voice in New York. At the Voice, Pickett worked under celebrated photographer Fred McDarrah. Even today she considers McDarrah her role model and mentor, in particular because he has published 11 books in his time, including one on Jack Kerouac and the beats called Kerouac and Friends: A Beat Generational Album.

"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.

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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