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Caught in the camera’s eye

Lab employee Derrick Key crafts powerful images
December 21, 2020
Derrick Key’s photo of a 1964 Impala, a coveted vehicle for the lowrider culture.

Derrick Key’s photo of a 1964 Impala, a coveted vehicle for the lowrider culture.


  • Director, Community Partnerships Office
  • Kathy Keith
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“You have to take a lot of photos. It sounds so simple, but it’s really true." - Derrick Key

Among the lowrider aficionados enjoying the bright colors and hopping rhythms of Española’s Mainstreet Showdown Supershow, Derrick Key of the Laboratory’s Accelerators and Electrodynamics group wanders about the many “low and slow” vehicles on display. But Key isn’t really at this event to check out the custom cars. A tell-tale camera in his hand, he is here to take in the people and the lowrider culture that began with Mexican-American youths in the late 1940s and has since spread into other cultures, including African-American hip-hop culture and Japan’s custom-car scene.

“As far back as I can remember, I’ve always had a camera in my hand,” Key says. “I’ve always enjoyed exploring other cultures and going out on adventures, and I guess it was only a matter of time before I started to document what I experienced.”

Key grew up on tough streets of Michigan’s “Motor City.” In 2006, he moved to New Mexico, where he took a job at the Laboratory. Derrick says he experienced intense culture shock during his first few months in the Land of Enchantment. 

derrick.jpgDerrick Key.

“I felt like an outsider—this place was completely different from Detroit,” he explains. “The cultures here, they’ve been around a long time. Things that people who grew up here take for granted were completely foreign to me. To learn and understand what they’re all about, I decided to use my camera to capture the beauty and intensity of the people and how their traditions influence and ultimately represent who they are.”

Key says that he’s actually taken advantage of his “outsider” status to produce some stunning photographs. “If I focused on my own culture, it would be just too involved,” he says. “It’s my curiosity of not knowing—and the desire to know—that I feel helps me capture the essence of another culture. I’m a humanist, so it comes easy.”

Spontaneity is essential

The origin of Key's inspiration to capture images through photography goes back to the 1960s. “I remember my mom collected Life magazine,” he notes. “Those magazines were filled with some powerful images. I wanted to craft images that held that same power.”

As part of capturing such power, Key says that he prefers the spontaneity of taking photographs “in the moment” instead of preparing extensively to take an ideal shot.

“It’s about opportunity,” he says. “My wife and I could be visiting one of the Pueblos, looking for a nice piece of art, when something catches my eye. I say to myself, ‘oh, there’s a shot.’ It can be kind of scary, as sometimes it’s only there for a very short time. There’s a chance I may miss the shot, and that can be frustrating. Oh, but when I get one—it’s joy.”

Another part of being a photographer is what Key calls “guts.”

“You have to step out of your comfort zone sometimes,” he says. “I mean, you see a burly biker atop his Harley-Davidson and you walk over and ask if you can take a couple of photos. At first, I just get a stare, but then it’s all good. It works out well most of the time—people like it when you take a photograph of them.”

“To be a good photographer, you've just got to get out there. If you're willing to take in new experiences and love to explore the hows and whys of people, you're already there when it comes to photography. All that’s left to do is take the shot.”

spotlight3_sm.jpgDerrick Key’s photo of a modern-day cowboy in the outskirts of Santa Fe.

Always at the core of Key's approach, however, is a willingness to be open minded when experiencing people and their cultures. “You have to study,” he says, “and know your history. It’s how people have come to be, and I want my photographs to capture that.”

When it comes to practical advice, Key says that becoming a good photographer amounts to experience.

“You have to take a lot of photos,” he says. “Eventually, you’ll get it. It sounds so simple, but it’s really true. One day, you’ll develop your own style and people will start to recognize it.”