Monday, March 14, 2011

From Littlerock to Paradise in 20 Frames

What Blind Photographers Can Teach All of Us
As singer Leonard Cohen says (and poets like to repeat), everything has cracks—that’s what lets the light in.

We think of our world as flooded with light, and, in the Antelope Valley, there’s often so much sunlight that to hide from it we need sunglasses tinted as dark as welding goggles and deeply-canted parking awnings.

If some of us have too much light, what about our friends and neighbors whose eyesight is, in the literal sense, absent or deeply impaired?

I have been thinking about blind photographers lately, and that has made me reassess what it means to be an artist, what kinds of pity I too-quickly put onto people, and what assumptions I have been making about creativity. An passage adapted from the Bible reminds us that there are none so blind as those who will not see, and conversely, the true artist is she or he who sees more deeply, more wisely than any of the rest of us. Great art opens our eyes in many ways.

A video link proves this well, as it introduces us to the world of Peter Eckert, a blind photographer who does amazing work, and reveals the difference between sight and insight, between hope and despair. This blog will not usually embed many video clips or external links, but this is truly something beyond average that I think you will be glad to have seen. This four-minute video should help all of us think about labels, ability, and vision. It really is inspiring.

I had been aware of his work before, but had not paid attention to it closely enough. This is not to my credit—we should never be so busy or so prejudiced we can’t make a space in our hearts for the best that the world has to offer.

In case the video link didn’t work for you, here is a copy of something of his from a book called Sight Unseen: International Photography by Blind Artists.

This book documents a show that was hosted by UC Riverside’s California Center for Photography.

One of the artists profiled in the show (which is available for review online, as is the exhibit catalogue) uses braille typography to overprint his photographs: completely unsighted visitors may run their hands across the print and read it that way. Here is a photo from the book, of an image by Gerardo Nigenda, an artist from Oaxaca.

(Sorry about the distortion on this one: future blogs will be using a scanner not a camera to make reproductions and will have better quality images!)

The exhibit’s curator suggests that photography by sight-disabled artists often falls into three groupings. One group of these artists "constructs, maintains, and curates private, internal galleries of images. Then they use cameras to bring their inner visions into the world of the sighted. 'I photograph what I imagine,' writes Evgen Bavcar. ‘You could say I'm a bit like Don Quixote. The originals are inside my head.'"

This from an essay titled “Shooting Blind.” Douglas McCulloh goes on to say that a “second group deploys cameras to capture the outside world, but, being blind, operate free of sight-driven selection and self-censorship. Marcel Duchamp wrote of ‘non-retinal art,’ an art of the mind, of concept, of chance. These artists are engaged in non-retinal photography. The results are pure, unfiltered, and inherently conceptual. They operate beyond the logic of composition or the tyranny of the decisive moment.”

Last, McCulloh explains, “The third and smallest group is legally blind, but retain very limited, highly attenuated sight. Most photographers see to photograph. These artists photograph to see.” An example is Bruce Hall, from Irvine, California. Here is a portrait he has made of his autistic son enjoying the tactile pleasures of the bath. I don’t know about you, but I can’t match this with pictures of my own kids. The purity and innocence of the moment are perfectly served by the artistry of the print.

All of this inspired me to go out this morning and tree to see what it is I overlook daily. Yesterday I had come back from a wedding in San Diego in a great hurry, and while I didn’t get a speeding ticket, I blew through the towns along the 138 as if they were impediments or nuisances, not communities where people live, work, pray, or support my wage packet by attending AVC English classes. I went back this morning to see what things I had been missing. Quite a lot, apparently!

Here are a few things from today’s exploration of Littlerock.

Thank you to these other artists for making me confront my own blindnesses.

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