Finding focus

Prolific photographer carves niche in small-scale architecture

Douglas Keister

Douglas Keister

Photo By Tom Angel

It’s not that Douglas Keister lacks focus; it’s just that a lot of subjects interest him.

But in recent years the Chico photographer has honed in on his niche: making images of vintage houses and travel trailers for a nostalgia-hungry public.

“What I do is human-scaled architecture,” he says. “I like the people aspect. Big buildings are kind of cold.”

There’s also a commercial wisdom to his artistic choice: “People buy books that they can relate to.”

His latest volume, Silver Palaces: America’s Streamlined Trailers, is due to hit bookstores on Aug. 16.

WOOD EYE Douglas Keister’s first book, Driftwood Whimsy, features this photo, which first ran in Smithsonian Magazine in 1980. He considers its publication his first “break.”

In recent months Keister has been traveling around the country to trailer conventions and auto shows, but he’s also a popular guest speaker at genealogy conventions. He expects Stories in Stories in Stone: The Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism, released two months ago, to be his “breakout book,” appealing to the widest possible audience.

Not that Keister is hurting for work.

He has 25 books under his belt, and in many of them he’s provided both the photos and the copy.

For Stories in Stone, he researched trends and styles in the “golden age of cemeteries” (after the Civil War through the Depression), including the affiliation of abbreviations and carved symbols that stand for the secret societies, clubs and organizations prominent during that time period. The tall, slim-in-width volume functions like a guidebook—accessible and explanatory along with being visually pleasing.

“I didn’t want it to be a coffee-table book,” he says, like his successful 1997 project, Going Out in Style: The Architecture of Eternity.

He also does the “Tomb of the Month” column for American Cemetery Magazine. “The interest in the genealogy aspect is just massive,” he says. “The cemetery stuff is also something my wife and I do together, [although] it’s kind of a funny place to bond.”

TRAILER PARKED Douglas Keister’s photo of this 1961 Airstream Bambi, taken at Camp Dearborn, Mich., is featured on the cover of the book Ready to Roll.

Keister’s wife, Sandra Schweitzer, is a local family law attorney and the reason the couple decided to relocate to Chico, her hometown, five years ago.

“It’s an easy town to be in; it’s a friendly town,” he says, and with the Internet and FedEx, doing business from here “is really not a problem.”

Keister says he mines Chico for inspiration. Local tombstones, houses and trailers have graced the pages of several books, and one photo—of a 1915 bungalow on Sixth Street—has become Keister’s biggest seller.

Keister, like most photographers of his generation, is self-taught. He picked up the craft in the 1960s, when, as a teen former jock suddenly struggling with poor health, he decided to try to develop some discarded film.

He’s progressed technologically from his parents’ Brownie but still shoots film exclusively because it yields higher-quality images than digital. But he scans and retouches almost all of his pictures using PhotoShop and maintains a sophisticated Web site.

Keister is inspired by the work of “industrial photographers,” whose forte is making seemingly ugly subjects look beautiful by creative use of angles, lighting and technique. “The camera doesn’t have a soul. It sees everything,” he says. “The human eye filters out. I wanted to bring out what I saw in my heart rather than what I saw in my eye.”

ARTISTIC FLAIR This image is from Douglas Keister’s 1990 book Black Rock: Portraits on the Playa. The woman pictured was a waitress in a coffee shop near Keister’s studio in Emeryville.

When Berkeley’s People’s Park was being built and Gov. Ronald Reagan called out the National Guard, Keister was living just blocks away off University Avenue and took the opportunity to shoot some compelling photojournalistic shots.

His first book, the only one he self-published, was about the Emeryville mud flats driftwood sculptures, and it got written up in Herb Caen’s column in the San Francisco Chronicle. He also shot Nevada’s Black Rock desert pre-Burning Man and put out a juvenile-nonfiction bilingual book on a day in a child’s life in the Costa Rican rainforest.

Today, about half his income comes from book sales, the other half from “stock” sales of photos he’s already taken. While these are his bread and butter, Keister has also shot artsy landscape photos, portraits of fathers and daughters together and pictures of nude models bedecked with paints.

Keister, who shoots most often in the 4-by-5 format, finds that the shutter-clicking part of the job is “so small.”

“It’s mostly being on the phone, being on airplanes, setting up lighting and composing.”

He’s already planning the follow-up to his latest trailer book, on self-propelled RVs. Also in the works are two features for Smithsonian Magazine, a project on San Diego courtyards and a traveling exhibit that will make the cemetery circuit this fall.

“I work very hard to avoid having a job," Keister jokes.