Edward Keating

 Blizzard, NYC, 1983

Pictures: From Route 66 to New York City to Edward Hopper

His images capture life’s unstaged moments: a grim-faced young prostitute in an Amarillo greasy spoon. A homeless man sprawled on a busy midtown Manhattan street. A desolate stretch of the once bustling Route 66. They also show a contemplative Norman Mailer, an edgy Rudy Giuliani, a subdued Nicki Minaj, and an animated bride.

Edward Keating’s photographs seem to echo every moment of his 58-year roller coaster ride of a life. They are, for the most part, black-and-white 35mm images that depict the grit and unadorned reality of contemporary society. If his body of work seems to reflect a sense of melancholy, it also conveys a stoicism and an air of unsentimental pragmatism, perhaps not unlike his own orientation.

A Pulitzer Prize winning former staff photographer for the New York Times who parted ways with the newspaper under contentious and, in his own words, “devastating” circumstances, Mr. Keating today works as a freelancer, contented, he says, to serve as a frequent contributor to prestigious magazines including Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, Time, W, New York, and Bon Appétit, as well as numerous corporate clients and betrothed couples. A resident of New York City, he spends summers on Martha’s Vineyard, relishing the Island’s relative serenity and its “creative, astute population.” 

During July and August, you’ll find him sitting in an up-Island field on Wednesdays and Saturdays, hawking his wares at the Chilmark Flea Market accompanied by his engaging wife, Carrie Boretz, an accomplished photo editor and photographer. And while he first visited as a teenager, he only introduced Ms. Boretz and their two daughters to the Island just over a decade ago. He never viewed the Vineyard as a subject for his work until recently, he says, when he began to see it through a new lens.

“I didn’t photograph here except for family,” Mr. Keating explains. “I brought my street shtick to the Island. I was aggressive, sneaky. I was uncomfortable with that. I’m in a different head here. I want to chill. I didn’t want to break that spell.” But when he realized there was a dearth of good Vineyard notecards, he began shooting images with the thought of creating a product line. That soon morphed into a booth at the venerable Flea Market, a venue for quality art, crafts, antiques, and imports for nearly half a century. Today, Mr. Keating’s booth is a source for his broad range of subject matter, from recent lighthearted Island scenes to more serious street scenes from New York City and a Route 66 road trip. 

Smoking hand-rolled cigarettes and drinking coffee, Mr. Keating speaks quickly with few pauses. Wiry and compact, his conversation is fluent, yet he appears slightly ill at ease talking about himself. He pets his young dog Bowie, a boxer-hound mix, fiddles with his iPhone, and, when asked about his childhood in affluent Fairfield County, Conn., divulges that his father died of a sudden heart attack when he was 8 years old, followed by his mother’s suicide seven years later. His older sister was granted guardianship, and kept the family together in their New Canaan home until Mr. Keating graduated from high school. After attending American University for three years, he “burned out,” remembering that era through a haze of serious alcoholism.

“I drank my way cross-country, heading to California,” he says. “I drove an old Volvo stuffed with all my belongings. To me at the time, California was a magical vision. I expected something wonderful to happen as soon as I got a quarter-mile into the state.” Staying with his uncle, Mr. Keating sat down at the kitchen table on his third day there, and was asked about his plan. “I had no plan,” he admits. He rose from the table, he says, and made a note in his journal: “No more drinking.” That was Sept. 25, 1977, and he maintains that he hasn’t had a drink since.

He returned to the East Coast and enrolled in Columbia University’s American Literature program (and later dropped out), then received an unexpected windfall in the form of a $400 tax refund. Realizing that the money would “vaporize” if he didn’t do something decisive with it, Mr. Keating purchased a 35mm Ricoh camera and a 50mm lens on a whim, and loaded it with his first roll of film.

“You’re going to be good at this,” he recalls telling himself. “You’re going to do it right this time.” While he’d had lots of ideas in the past, this one, he says, “had the ring of truth.” He gave himself 10 years to master his craft and achieve professional success. Totally self-taught with the exception of two classes, and working day and night, he began freelancing for the New York Times at year seven. By year 10 (and four months), he was hired as a full-time staff photographer. 

“I was an atypical choice for the New York Times,” he acknowledges. “I was a street photographer. I photographed real life. What’s in the air. The charge, the social reality. Day-to-day journalism wasn’t my MO.” But he had proven his mettle to the Times, having survived a near-fatal beating by a gang of nearly 100 men in the August 1991 Crown Heights riot in Brooklyn while on assignment for the paper. “I was hit with pipes, bats, and bricks,” Mr. Keating says. “Stripped of my gear, on the ground, kicked and beaten. Two cops showed up, guns drawn. They thought I was dead.” The next day the Times’ executive editor, Max Frankel, sent a fruit basket to the hospital. “They finally hired me two months later,” he says, smiling ruefully.

Mr. Keating brought his street mentality to both his photographs and to the aesthetic of the newspaper. He is credited with being one of the catalysts for change to the Times’ graphic look, and co-founded the Vows wedding column in 1992, transforming the business of wedding photography and imbuing it with an unposed, documentary style. In 2002, he shared a Pulitzer Prize with his much-vaunted employer for an image he happened upon while covering 9/11: a tea set encased in gray dust that sat undamaged in an apartment across the street from the World Trade Center. But in September 2002, Mr. Keating was accused by rival photojournalists of staging an image of a young, non-Muslim boy holding a toy gun in front of an Arabian Foods sign in Lackawanna, N.Y., accompanying a news story about six Arab-Americans who were alleged al-Qaeda operatives.

“It was a disaster,” he says. “I waved my hand to get the kid’s attention when he was looking the other way. Reuters photographers across the street thought I was staging it. I took the shot as a conceptual portrait, but the Times’ Metro guy rifled through my digital folder looking for a shot to illustrate his story. They published it as a news photograph.” 

He was suspended during the investigation, and the newspaper let him go in 2003. “I fell hard,” he admits. “It was devastating personally and professionally. People didn’t know the real story.” Although Mr. Keating acknowledges that his termination had a “severe impact on his life, family, and career,” he sounds upbeat as he describes his life today. “I wouldn’t be sitting here talking to you, and I wouldn’t be spending the summer on Martha’s Vineyard,” he says. “I like owning my work. Being my own boss.” 

With summers slow in New York City, Mr. Keating decided to turn to his vacation spot for income. Adopting a “grassroots approach,” he set up his booth at the Chilmark Flea Market during the summer of 2014 and waited to be discovered. “I like talking to people about my work,” he says. Slowly, word of the award-winning photographer spread, and his $5 notecards began selling briskly. On his first flea market outing in July 2015, he says, he had his best day ever, selling larger inkjet images of both Island and off-Island subjects. And while he enjoys the face-to-face contact, he hopes to secure gallery representation for his higher-priced silver gelatin prints. 

The Vineyard, he says, is exerting its influence on his work. “I’m now intrigued by rocks, stone walls, and trees. I love abstract photos, but have never done anything with them. I see the Island as an opportunity to do something actively that’s been in the background.”

Last summer he began experimenting with iPhone photography, finding unexpected pleasure in the square format and in shooting color images. “It’s fun to take pictures again,” he remarks. “After 30 years, this Leica,” he adds, gesturing to the camera that hangs like an appendage around his neck, “is my cross to bear. It made the Leica fun again after playing with the iPhone. My work isn’t as edgy with the iPhone. There’s more room for humor.”

Humorous is not a word that would describe much of Mr. Keating’s body of work. Citing photographers Robert Frank, Walker Evans, Garry Winogrand, and Eugene Atget, as well as the realist painter Edward Hopper, as strong influences, he acknowledges that he is drawn to the dark side of the human condition, and that his photographs are often suffused with a sense of loneliness and isolation. “Is there a connection between my story and my work?” he says. “The cloud never lifts. You do your best. The camera is a great way to play out those feelings. It’s not calculated. It’s just what comes up.”

Whether dark or lighter in mood, Mr. Keating says that he seeks “something extraordinary” in the images he shoots. “I call it the ‘holy shit!’ moment. But there’s also the profundity of ordinary events. You have to elevate them, get past the surface.”

He compares a good photograph to a good poem. “It’s fresh. You’re looking for magic regardless of the subject matter. With the best pictures, the questions remain unanswered. They’re a bit mysterious.”

Although he does occasional shoots in color and with a digital camera, Mr. Keating stubbornly avows the power of black-and-white photography. “It’s a deliberate strategy,” he says. “The pool of photographers who can handle black-and-white is shrinking, but editors are dying to do it. As the world goes more color and more digital, I stick to black-and-white.”

While he looks forward to spending the summer shooting more Vineyard images and fine-tuning his booth at the Chilmark Flea Market, Mr. Keating says he’s preparing to shop his Route 66 book concept to publishers in September. He also envisions pitching a compilation of his New York City street photography as a book concept somewhere down the road. His wedding-photography business is flourishing. And this past winter, he adds, he traveled to Serbia and Bulgaria for exhibitions of his work.

But on a warm summer day in Chilmark, Mr. Keating seems to be relishing his hiatus from street life. “This is the place I can be the photographer I want to be,” he concludes. “It’s not like New York. Here I can put out what I like, my best work.”

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