Michael E. Keating spent 34 years as a photojournalist at The Cincinnati Enquirer, where his vivid work gave readers views of the Queen City that could be beautiful, troubling or revealing — sometimes all at once and almost always imbued with an uncommon sense of humanity. A native of rural Indiana, Keating insists he stumbled into a career in journalism — a profession that enabled him to capture indelible images through a camera lens guided by equal parts curiosity and instinct. Many such images are now on display in the just-published Cincinnati: Shadow & Light (Clerisy Press), a handsomely rendered book that shows off the full breadth of the Emmy award-winning photographer’s work.
CityBeat recently sat down with Keating — who, after retiring from the Enquirer in 2012, became the executive director of the Clyde N. Day Foundation — to discuss a book that illuminates more than three decades of Cincinnati history.
You have more than 30 years of photography behind you. How did you pare that down to the 118 images that appear in the book?
Michael E. Keating:
The first draft of the book had almost 300 pages in it, twice the number of pictures. My friend Chris Smith is a really good photographer, but he’s a really great editor, and we would sit and look at other like-minded books and borrow ideas of how other people presented things. When a book comes together it isn’t just one person or thing: It’s all of your life experiences, all your work experiences and then all the people that have a hand in your formulation along the way. And one thing that helped pare it down was the idea of organizing it into four sections (“The Ohio River,” “Dispatches from the Field,” “The Cincinnati Reds” and “Character and Personality”), the things that affected me most from my time here.
How did you initially become interested in photojournalism?
I really fell into the whole newspaper business by process of elimination when I started college: I wasn’t going to be the finance guy, I wasn’t going to do this or that. Well, let’s try this journalism thing. … But the whole business of photography, when they stuck a camera in my hand and I had to develop a print, that was kind of magical for me, and I just kind of got obsessed with it. I can’t say that I set out on that mission, but once I got infatuated by it, I just really plunged right into the whole idea of it. I had great mentoring along the way, too, that helped shape me. I guess I’m not a classically trained photojournalist, but, boy, I sure had some great people who grabbed me by the throat sometimes when I needed it and said, “You need to be better, you need to work harder.”
Speaking of the “magical” experience of developing film, can you talk about the transition from film to digital cameras?
I don’t really miss film — it could get dirty and smudged. You can get the same rush from putting a card into a computer and watching the images come up on the screen. The digital camera is just the latest tool. For me, it’s about the mind behind the camera that looks into the lens and frames the picture and knows when to push the shutter.
How did growing up and working in the Midwest influence your approach to photography?
People who live out of the middle part of the country — or as I sometimes like to call it, Middle Earth — they’re different than people who grew up on the East or West coasts. There’s a sense of fairness, a sense that people ought to have a better outcome than some of their circumstances might suggest. I’ve sort of believed that all my life. I believed that while I was making a lot of these pictures, but I believe that even more now that I’m out of the newspaper business. The work that I do with the foundation (all of the book’s proceeds will go to the Clyde N. Day Foundation) is trying to help people have a better outcome than they might have otherwise had. That doesn’t mean we just rush money at them; that doesn’t do much good. But if you can help change circumstances and find the right kinds of things to champion — cliché here — if you can just help one, that’s better than helping none, right?
MICHAEL E. KEATING is one of many authors who will take part in BOOKS BY THE BANKS 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday at the Duke Energy Center. For more info, visit booksbythebanks.org.