Legally Blind Photographer, Part Two

Below is a continuation of a series that I posted a couple of weeks ago “Legally Blind Photographers”. Check out this article by Matt Kettman.

The Art and Heart of Blind Photographers

Blind photography: the very concept sounds like an oxymoron. But an intriguing and often striking exhibition of photographs in Riverside, California, argues that it emanates from the core of contemporary art. The show “Sight Unseen,” at the California Museum of Photography until Aug. 29, features everything from underwater scenes off Catalina Island, transvestites in New Orleans and Braille-enhanced black-and-whites as well as portraits, nudes, landscapes, travel shots, abstracts, collages, and everything else you might expect from a “sighted” photographer. Except the subtext and context is blindness: the photographers are legally blind, some born without sight or with limited vision, and others who have lost their vision over time. And that is why, argues the man who organized the show, they are at the very heart of art.

Picture 24
Seeing with Photography Collective, Box Portrait, Jacques. A group of blind artists based in New York, this portrait was made by the group using an updated form of a pinhole camera. The technique is simple: a pinhole camera in a dark room projects an image of an illuminated subject onto braille-punched paper and a digital camera is used to capture the result.

“The whole trajectory of modern art for the last 100 years has been toward the concept of mental construction, and blind photography comes from that place,” says the show’s “sighted” curator Douglas McCulloh, himself a photographer. “They’re creating that image in their head first — really elaborate, fully realized visions — and then bringing some version of that vision into the world for the rest of us to see.” A sample of the photographs posted by received a huge amount of attention. (See pictures by blind photographers here.)

How do the blind take their photographs? Some rely on assistants to set up and then describe the shots, and others just point and shoot in the right place. “Just like any good artists,” says McCulloh, “they have their unique ways of operating.”

Picture 23
Steve Erra and the Seeing with Photography Collective, Braille Portrait as Antique. Erra comments: "(We) talk all the time about how most people don't really see. They don't pay attention visually to things...I only see parts of things at a time, very small areas at one time. These pictures that we're taking now concentrate on one area at a time. A sharpness, a blurriness...your eyes are always going from one to the other, which is how I view the world, too."

One participating photographer is Pete Eckert, an artist with multiple degrees in design and sculpture who only turned to photography after losing his vision in the mid-1980s. He opens the shutter on his camera and then uses flashlights, lasers, lighters, and candles to paint his scene on film. He explains: “The human brain is wired for optical input, for visualization. The optic nerve bundle is huge. Even with no input, or maybe especially with no input, the brain keeps creating images. I’m a very visual person, I just can’t see.” “Sighted photographers always talk about the difficulty of what they call ‘seeing,'” Eckert adds. “I tell them ‘If you can’t see, it’s because your vision is getting in the way.'”

Picture 22
Kurt Weston, Visor Vision Of the works in Sight Unseen, the show's curator Douglas McCulloh writes, "For these artists, photography is the process of creating physical manifestations of images that already exist as pure idea, whether complex previsualizations that lead to eventual photos, or images imagined and triggered by non-retinal criteria. As such, the show poses an surprising central idea: that blind photographers possess the clearest vision on the planet." The exhibit will be on view at the University of California, Riverside/California Museum of Photography until August 29. To learn more, visit the exhibit website. The photographs are reproduced with the permission of the artists. All rights, copyright, and reproduction rights remain with the artists.

Kurt Weston’s dark and depressing images — many of which are stylized self-portraits — are also a star of the show. A former fashion photographer in Chicago, Weston lost his vision due to AIDS in 1996, and focuses his lens, and sometimes simply his scanner, on images of decay and disability. “I not only want to look at these things, photograph these things, but put an exclamation point on them,” he explains. “I’m saying, ‘You need to look at this disabled body, this aging body. And maybe you need to reconsider your ideas about what is normal or abnormal. You need to look, and I’m going to make you look.'”

Picture 21
Victorine Floyd Fludd, Radiant Abyss. Of her work, Fludd says, "A good picture comes not from outside, but from within. It's a love. Just like when you love someone and you show the love. You're going to go all out to get that picture how you want it to be."

Perhaps the most experienced blind photographers come from New York City’s Seeing With Photography Collective, which has been shooting blind since 1988 under the direction of Mark Andres. The Riverside exhibition features some collaborative group work, but also pieces by individual members. One of those is Sonia Soberats, who explains, “When I tell people I do photography, they don’t believe me. When a person achieves something that others think you can’t because you are blind, you feel it much more.” Another individually recognized collective artist is Steven Erra, who says, “I only see parts of things at a time, very small areas at one time. These pictures that we’re taking now concentrate on one area at a time. A sharpness, a blurriness, a sharpness, a blurriness, your eyes are always going from one to the other, which is how I view the world, too.”

Picture 20
Victorine Floyd Fludd, Children of the Damned. A member of the New York's Seeing with Photography Collective, Fludd was born in Antigua and presently resides in Brooklyn. She lost her vision at the age of 26.

McCulloh has been pursuing these blind photographers for more than a decade, and began pitching the idea of this show four years ago. But the time became right this year, he says because “I’m convinced of its importance. The main trigger is that I’ve seen a real groundswell of interest around the world in a whole lot of different places, including Tel Aviv, Czechoslovakia, Mexico City, London, Los Angeles…. I felt like the movement was really there.” Thanks to crowds and critical acclaim, the exhibit seems likely to show again in Mexico City after leaving Riverside.

Picture 19
Pete Eckert, Electroman. One of Eckert's techniques involves using a composite body view camera mounted on a tripod. Focusing with notches carved into a focus rail, he throws his studio into total darkness, opens the shutter, and roams the space "painting" his image with light, using flashlights, candles, lasers and other devices.

What do gallery-goers say? “I was very impressed by it. The technique and experience and technical ability that was within the group was amazingly diverse,” says John Hesketh, a printmaker in Anaheim. “You never have a sense of feeling sorry for these people because they’ve worked very hard to be where they’re at.”

Next door to the museum is the Sweeney Art Gallery, where curator Tyler Stallings has seen a steady stream of visitors. “It’s definitely a show that’s brought in a lot of people who may have never been here, even though they live in the area,” says Stallings. He notes that while the show certainly has a curiosity element, the work is not presented in a “superficial” way. He explains that shows that target a “self-defined” community, such as a certain ethnicity, “can oftentimes make it a marginalized exhibition. What’s nice about this show is that Doug made an amazing effort to make it international and to really get quality artwork.”

Picture 18
Pete Eckert, Charlie by the Portal. "I'm a very visual person" says photographer Pete Eckert, "I just can't see." Based in Sacramento, California, Eckert began to pursue photography only after going completely blind in 1980. To him, blindness gives him an advantage. "Sighted photographers always talk about the difficulty of what they call 'seeing.' I tell them 'If you can't see, it's because your vision is getting in the way."

Beyond the praise, however, the exhibition also marks another milestone for disabled people everywhere. That point was explained most poignantly in early May during a panel discussion on the show. At the very end of the talk, one attendee summed it up: “This exhibition is landmark and revolutionary for many reasons…. Because the work is dignified by being at a museum, it’s not a question just of the history of photography, but the history of the civil rights movement. I think that by being an artist with a disability, you are continuing the work of those people who fought for basic civil rights to gain access and to have a voice. In that way, it’s so wonderful that your photographs say it all.”

Picture 16
Gerardo Nigenda, Entre lo invisible y lo tangible, llegando a la homeostasis emocional. Born in Oaxaca, Mexico, the 42-year-old Nigenda calls his images "Fotos cruzados," or "intersecting photographs." As he shoots, he stays aware of sounds, memories, and other sensations. Then he uses a Braille writer to punch texts expressing those the things he felt directly into the photo. The work invokes an elegant double blindness: Nigenda needs a sighted person to describe the photo, but the sighted rely on him to read the Braille. The title of this work translates roughly to: "Between the invisible and the tangible, reaching an emotional homeostasis."

And such tenacity at getting their work recognized is certainly something that McCulloh the curator can appreciate. “These people combine two traits,” he says. “They’re all intensely visual. They just can’t see — and that expresses itself in a whole variety of ways. The other one is they’re furiously independent and determined. This is a group that does not say ‘quit’ in any way.” Or as Weston says, “I guess it’s God’s little joke, having someone who is legally blind do so well in the visual arts.”

Picture 14
Kurt Weston, Mask. A gay man who lost his sight to AIDS in 1996, Weston's work explores the stigma of disease and decay. His daily battle to stay alive is transformed into an unflinching look at his (and our) mortality: "These photographs are about the realization of loss," he says. "About losing your facade. They say, 'This is your new reality. This is your strange new flesh. Let's take a look."


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