Hank's Three Chords
by Keith Carter
In the beginning, there was no real plan, just a road trip that became a journey. We had been married ten years and wanted to celebrate—do something special. I suggested an exotic trip to someplace like Morocco and was met with a less-than-enthusiastic response. The next day I tried again with an idea of wandering the back roads of Texas. We could pick one hundred small towns or communities with interesting names and go see what's there. I would make photographs along the way. Pat was all in.
We went down to our local Mobil gas station, I griped about paying the three bucks, and that evening we spread the Official Texas Highway Department map out on our bedroom floor. We began circling small towns and communities whose names we liked, dotting the map with ink and spilling wine. We laughed a lot and spent several more nights mapping and anticipating the trip.
Most people know Texas as king sized and mythic. It takes eleven hours to drive from my home in the lowlands near the Texas-Louisiana border to El Paso in the west or Amarillo in the north. Along the way, Texas is blessed with an enormous number of small communities with eccentric or lyrical names, many of them based on folklore, myth, whiskey-fueled bets, family names, or simple whimsy. Names like Diddy Waw Diddy, Elysian Fields, or Poetry—which, by the way, was mostly goat ranchers, not poets.
I wasn't keen on research but I reread Kerouac's On the Road, looked again at Robert Frank's gritty sketchbook, The Americans, and reread John Steinbeck's affectionate Travels with Charlie. Then in May 1986, Pat and I set off on the first of what was to be a series of long and surprising car trips.
Three days later, Pat sat patiently in the car, windows down, fanning herself while I maneuvered the tripod on sweltering asphalt attempting to photograph a dirty white dividing line and a dead white cat. It was a nothing picture and I was thinking maybe we should have gone to Morocco. I wiped the sweat out of my eyes and looked again at the endless cotton fields hoping for some kind of sign. Cheap interstate motels, card games, paperback books, motel room picnics, pack and unpack became normal. But as the days turned into weeks, then months, and finally into years, the scenario of the commonplace slowly became my normal.
I tried to make my working method simple and practical: one town, one photograph. I would take several rolls of film but select only one image to represent that dot on my now-tattered map. The titles of the photographs are the actual names of the small towns we visited in the years 1986 and 1987. I tried to not make the images based on the town's name. No problem staying off the interstates as we listened to Merle Haggard sing Jimmie Rodgers while driving our meandering course. Mile after mile we'd pass nothing but desert sagebrush or tumbleweed. Other times we'd pass through fields of bluebonnets and sagging farm houses slowly sinking into lush green fields and unrelenting heat. Pat journaled; I photographed. We went from Uncertain to Blue and scores of towns in between, marveling at what was and was not there, but mostly, those small roads and natural sights were a gift to ourselves.
When we arrived at a stained ink spot off the map, it was often so small there appeared to be nothing there—at least at first glance. I was at a loss in the beginning. I made no photographs in the first few towns. I enjoyed driving around, but I felt there was not much photographic material. Often we'd arrive at the worst time of day for good light; my butt was numb from sitting in the car. It was hot; I had to pee; nothing was there. But slowly I began photographing that "nothing." I made pictures of dogs, trucks, car tires, skulls, bee hives, pool tables—I worked with what I had, and slowly what I had became what I wanted to see.
I was beguiled by the quirkiness and majesty of ordinary people in ordinary places. I still am. Over the years my photographs have evolved into a kind of oblique visual diary of the people and places that have made up my life. They seem to me a kind of benevolent daily poetry of gestures, voices, experiences, and memories. However, when Uncertain to Blue was still an unformed idea, I was confused as to the direction of my work. It took a long time to find my own voice and I had no real expectation of a life for these photographs beyond the pleasure of the work itself and a companionable road trip.
There were no grand landscapes on our back roads—no Ansel Adams thunderheads, busy main streets, or magnificent architecture. We rolled over mostly quiet farm roads and often parked in a field in the evening. We'd crank up Willie or the Eagles, sit on the tailgate, mix a gin and tonic, and watch the sun go down. If there was a lake or river nearby, we'd find a dock or sit on the bank and watch fish jump while the sky slowly turned gold, rose, and purple. Then we'd head for the nearest catfish restaurant.
Just as there was no solid plan for our wanderings, there was no real plan or parameter for a project. I was making a large number of photographs, but an exhibition or a published book were not realistic expectations in my small corner of the world. I just did the work. We'd return to our home, and I'd disappear into the darkroom, make contact sheets, and resume my studio responsibilities. In the evenings I'd make prints. Slowly, Uncertain to Blue began to take shape. I'd show my ragged box of prints to colleagues and friends and they'd laugh and shake their heads at the names of the towns paired with the photographs.
In the adventurous spirit of our rambling the images began to meander on their own. They were just ordinary pictures. Nothing was sacred, but I was learning to never underestimate the power ordinary things, or people, carry with them, particularly when fixed in a photograph. After looking at the pictures, one of my well-meaning colleagues said, "Jesus. You don't give a rat's ass what anybody thinks, do you?" I liked that a lot. I still do.
Today I recognize these photographs have a raggedy-ass quality, but I wouldn't change the photographs or what I learned from that journey. The poet Galway Kinnell once read his early poem "First Song," with its counted beats, octaves, quatrains, and couplets, to high school students.
Then it was dusk in Illinois, the small boy
After an afternoon of carting dung
Hung on the rail fence, a sapped thing
Weary to crying. Dark was growing tall
And he began to hear the pond frogs all
Calling on his ear with what seemed their joy.
Saying he still liked the poem even though he had written it so long ago, he explained that as a youth he had stayed up all night trying out rhyming words, but looking back wasn't certain those words were really the ones he wanted. He said he felt it would have been better to have gone down to the frog pond and listened more closely to the frogs themselves.
More than two decades have passed and today I page through Uncertain to Blue with fondness, not really desiring to change anything. I went to small frog ponds and people, on seeing me setting up my tripod, would come out of their houses, curious as to what I was doing. The exchanges became routine. Most frequently, kind strangers would ask if we were lost, if I was filming a movie, why I was surveying. I'd ask the accepted questions: "Been getting any rain?" "What kind of dog is that?"
I was used to the formality of informality as small towns have almost stately conversational traditions. During my early years as a traveling portrait photographer, I crisscrossed Texas in the spring and fall, passing through once prosperous, now decaying small towns. Before that, working at Majestic Photo Finishers during my college years, I ran the East Texas route, picking up film in the small communities of Jasper, Fred, Newton, Woodville, Liberty, and China. The arcane conversations in the hardware and feed stores, barbershops, drug stores, and mom-and-pop photo studios were polite and comfortable.
We tend to alternately mythologize or patronize the conventions of small towns. I live in one and it is often a complicated and conflicting experience. It was a different world when I made these photographs: Ronald Reagan was president, the Mets beat the Red Sox for the series, and Mike Tyson had punched out Trevor Berbick. That same year I sat in the balcony of the now-vanished Gaylynn Theater in my hometown of Beaumont trying to be manly and not sniffle as the cripplingly beautiful hymn "Softly and Tenderly" rolled over the closing credits to Horton Foote's lovely film The Trip to Bountiful. I left the theater thinking I knew all of those people, those characters that populated Horton's landscape: Ludie, Mrs. Watts, Jessie Mae, and the Sheriff. I understood them all. More importantly, I cared about them.
I don't know what is it about small towns or the people and places that occasionally call us back. Perhaps it's because some of us need to belong to something or somebody. Maybe home for others is an idea or belief rather than a geologic location. Any way you dice it, a place to put down roots from which to grow is not a bad thing. The world continues to change and some of these small communities have disappeared, or their farm and pastureland transformed into strip centers and parking lots. But as our culture increasingly evolves into one of fragmentation and synthetic experiences, for some people the soil remains, memories persist, and home continues to be shelter from the hitches in the road we travel.
So there are no smoking guns or sad-ass recriminations here. No apologies for a love affair with the small corners of the world, including my own with its swamps, heat, mosquitoes, cypress knees, hurricanes, and guitar players. Driving from Uncertain to Blue changed me profoundly. In the years before I guzzled the synthesized fictions of Edward Hopper, reveled in the dazzling 'sparkings' of Joseph Cornell, or absorbed the oblique angles and breathtaking melancholy of Eugéne Atget's beloved Paris, I was happy sitting on the tailgate in a field, eating chips and salsa from whatever Mexican restaurant we had last passed. I made a circle of my thumb and forefinger and held it to my right eye looking through a makeshift camera lens, exploring compositions and seeing past the dead cats and woebegone farm roads to something I knew was part of me. We sat in the twilight, and I played Hank's three chords and tried to tell the truth as I knew it at the time.