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Case Studies

Case Study: Sight Unseen Exhibit of Blind Photographers

This case study features an exhibition displaying the work of blind photographers. It dramatically illustrates how what is thought of primarily as a visual medium is used creatively by artists with visual impairments.

SIGHT UNSEEN. International Photography by Blind Artists.

Curated by Douglas McCulloh

Exhibition Catalog

Sight Unseen presents work by some of the most accomplished blind photographers in the world. It is the first major museum exhibition on a rich subject full of paradox and revelation. This exhibition occupies the ground zero of photography.

Artists

Ralph Baker, New York, New York
Evgen Bavcar, Paris, France
Henry Butler, New Orleans, Louisiana
Pete Eckert, Sacramento, California
Bruce Hall, Irvine, California
Annie Hesse, Paris, France
Rosita McKenzie, Edinburgh, Scotland
Gerardo Nigenda, Oaxaca, México
Michael Richard, Los Angeles, California
Seeing With Photography Collective, New York, New York
Kurt Weston, Huntington Beach, California
Alice Wingwall, Berkeley, California 

Shooting Blind.

An Essay by Douglas McCulloh

The inherently conceptual work of these artists proposes a surprising central thesis-blind photographers possess the clearest vision on the planet. “Heaven gives its glimpses only to those/Not in a position to look too close,” writes the poet Robert Frost.

The artists of Sight Unseen-while as divergent and individual as those found in any collection of art-makers-produce their work from three basic conceptual stances. At the risk of oversimplifying, here is a framework from which to examine the making of this work.

One group of these artists construct, maintain, and curate 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.” Bavcar, Pete Eckert, Alice Wingwall, and the many artists of the Seeing With Photography Collective operate primarily in this mode. Their images are elaborately realized internal visualizations first, photographs second. A portion of the work by Gerardo Nigenda and Kurt Weston can also be viewed in this light. For these artists, photography is the process of creating physical manifestations of images that already exist as pure idea. Indeed, Bavcar apologizes to sighted viewers that they must make do with reproductions because we cannot visit the private gallery in his mind to see the originals.

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. Remis Audiejaitis, Ralph Baker, Henry Butler, Rosita McKenzie, and Gerardo Nigenda work primarily in this mode. Naturally, these artists employ senses other than sight as pathways to vision. For example, Henry Butler, an acclaimed blues pianist highly attuned to the audio world, uses sound cues as feedback to guide his street shooting in New Orleans. Gerardo Nigenda punches his images with Braille descriptions of sensory experiences-the smell, touch, or sound of his subjects. Rosita McKenzie speaks of photographs triggered by sound and scent in the botanic gardens of Edinburgh.

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. Bruce Hall, Annie Hesse, Michael Richard, and Kurt Weston depend on seeing devices, cameras central among them. They live in a visual space created by enhanced seeing. When Bruce Hall looks into your eyes, it’ll be on his forty-inch Sony high definition monitor. “I think all photographers take pictures in order to see,” says Hall, “but for me it’s a necessity.” Susan Sontag calls photographs objects “that make up, and thicken, the environment we recognize as modern.” These artists build their worlds the modern way-one photograph at a time. Their photographs operate in the gap between the limitations of physical sight and the desire for images. Kurt Weston takes this tactic a step further. He photographs in order to see, but chooses politically charged subject matter-AIDS, marginalization, blindness, aging-to impel us look at issues of importance.

Beneath all three approaches lies a key question. “The matter isn’t how a blind person takes photographs,” writes Evgen Bavcar, ” but rather why he would want images.” The simple answer is a basic human need for images. “What I mean by the desire for images is that when we imagine things, we exist,” says Bavcar. “I can’t belong to this world if I can’t imagine it in my own way. When a blind person says ‘I imagine,’ it means he too has an inner representation of external realities.”

“The human brain is wired for optical input, for visualization,” says Pete Eckert. “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.” Vision, even in the absence of sight, is an addiction, a need. “…above all I visualized,” writes Jacques Lusseyran, blind hero of the French Resistance. “It was an enchantment to watch appearances on the screen inside me, and then to see the screen unfolding like an endless roll of film… After all, isn’t it true that the realities of the inner life seem like marvels only because we live so far away from them?”

Some of these artists suggest their quest is more metaphysical. “I try to find another light behind the black square of Malevich, to overcome the shadows cast on the objects of a universe which is but the pretense of another, more authentic reality,” writes Bavcar.

Of course, a blind person pressing the camera shutter is also a political act. Doing so lays claim to the visual world and forces a reevaluation of ideas about blindness. “For a blind person, making a photograph is a choice, a radical choice, a political move,” says Alice Wingwall. “I was tired of people saying to me, ‘How can you take a photograph when you can’t see anything?’ And I think they weren’t asking me, they were telling me-‘How can you do this? It’s unthinkable.’ Well, I can do it. What I say to them is that the image starts in the brain.” These acts of creative image-making additionally render the blind more “visible” to the sighted, an important matter for such a small and marginalized minority.

In the end, of course, the power of these photographs is not metaphysics or politics, but vision. Simple witnessing is the purest kind of creation. On his deathbed, George Orwell discovered he could quell his panic by reverting to reportorial mode and writing a precise inventory of his hospital room. In the end, it is a heroic act just to say what is. What do places look like when they are not changed by seeing? How do people present themselves when confronted with a camera operated by an unseeing darkness? What happens when artists operating outside the influence of visual culture decide to make photographs? In his novel Blindness, José Saramago writes, “Perhaps only in a world of the blind will things be what they truly are.”

 

 

 

 

 

images from the exhibit website

black and white images from exhibit Screen Shot 2013-10-10 at 1.14.27 PMcolor images by blind photographers Screen Shot 2013-10-10 at 1.19.07 PM

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