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Keri Pickett's photographic journey returns to Moorhead

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In a black and white photo, an elderly couple embrace laying in bed.
Keri Pickett’s photographs of her aging grandparents were collected in her first book “Love in the 90s” which also included selections from their love letters.
Courtesy of Keri Pickett

As photographer Keri Pickett prepared to mount her show called "Track Record," her Minneapolis studio became awash in huge beautiful black-and-white prints.

During Pickett's 40-year career, she has made images of everyone from rock stars and Native American activists to terminally ill children. She credits her alma mater, Minnesota State University Moorhead, for launching her on her career. Now the school is mounting a retrospective of her work.

She picks up a close-up of Diana Ross standing on the steps of City Hall in New York.

"I got my start as a photographer in New York City working for the Village Voice newspaper. So, here's the B-52s, Kool and the Gang," she said. " And I just brought in some pictures of Hüsker Dü. Oh, the students might not know Kool and the Gang." She lets loose a delighted cackle.

A woman holds up a black and white portrait.
Keri Pickett holds up a portrait of Village Voice director of photography Fred W. McDarrah, one of the many people she credits with helping her hone her craft.
Euan Kerr | MPR News

That's important because Pickett will address students Monday afternoon at the annual art department colloquium.

"There is a great humanity in her and a generosity of spirit," said professor Anna Arnar, who extended the invitation.

That shines through in Pickett's pictures.

She got her first camera when she was 8. However, it wasn't until she took photography classes at what was then-Moorhead State and began working in the darkroom that she realized her passion.

"I was hooked right away," she said. "I mean that was it: alchemy, the science, the magic. And I think I could have been a fine journalists had I never gone in to the art department," she said. "And I think my eye and my sentiment would have been very much the same, but my brain was very much shaped in the art department."

Suddenly, a smiling elderly man emerged from a door at the back of the studio.

"This is my uncle, Roy Blakey," said Pickett. "You are looking at my main muse.”

Blakey was a photographer in New York for decades, specializing in publicity shots for actors and other performers. As well as giving her moral support, and at one point 300 rolls of film, Pickett said having a photographer in the family already meant her mother found it easier to accept her career choice.

Life played a part, too. In New York, doctors diagnosed Pickett with a serious cancer and she returned to Minnesota to begin a long course of chemotherapy. She began a project photographing some of the very ill children she met at the hospital. And at the end of the day, she would visit her elderly grandparents and use up the last few frames on the roll taking pictures of them.

"I never finished the book on kids facing life-threatening illness, but those ends of all those rolls became my first book 'Love in the 90s,' after I found my grandparents’ love letters,” she said.

Near the studio door there's a huge black and white photograph from her second book. It shows a group of men, some in negligees, walking through Minnesota's north woods. They're members of a group calling itself the Radical Faeries.

Since the 1990s, this loosely-knit group of gay men have visited a 17-acre site in northern Minnesota. It's a place where they can go to relax and be themselves. 

In a black and white photograph, a group of men dressed in drag.
The Radical Faeries in the early 1990s.
Courtesy of Keri Pickett

Pickett's book was a revelation at the time, and won her national prizes. The pictures are still charming, but in the age of same-sex marriage, are no longer scandalous.

"In retrospect, 20 years on, the Radical Faeries seem like the tame Faeries," she laughed.

In the pile on her table are prints of many Native leaders, including a young White Earth activist, Winona LaDuke. Pickett met her when they were both in their early 20s and they became friends. Last year Pickett released a feature length documentary "First Daughter and the Black Snake.” It's about LaDuke's campaign protecting wild rice lakes from oil pipelines. The film will be screened at the end of the show's run in early October.

Keri Pickett calls herself a storyteller. MSUM art professor Anna Arnar agrees, but said she was not prepared for the breadth of the show.

"You think you know somebody's work and then there are just more and more windows opened up into other vistas so it was very exciting,” said Arnar.

"Track Record" officially opens Wednesday, but Pickett won't be there. She's off to Japan to film that nation’s top female taiko group.