Pete Eckert, one of the photographers exhibited, says the following: “I slip photos under the door from the world of the blind to be viewed in the light of the sighted” and as McCulloh points out, the pictures that are displayed are mere second-hand copies, one step removed from the originals – which can never actually be displayed since they remain in the minds of their creators. It was only after he became completely blind in the mid-1980s that Eckert began to pursue photography.
Eckert’s mode of working is to construct a complex image in his mind. Then he devises a way to shoot it on location or in a 30-foot-deep studio he has constructed on his property in Sacramento, California. He casts friends and neighbors as models, builds props, and devises complex lighting. He sets up his Toyo 4″ x 5″ composite body view camera on a tripod. He has notched the focus rail with set focus points using a diamond-coated jewelry file. When all is ready, Eckert throws the switches that drop his studio into total darkness and opens the shutter. Eckert roams the space and “paints” his image with light.
The results are quite astounding:
“I use any light source I can understand.” His palette includes flashlights, candles, lasers, lighters, even black powder. The roving light is an uncanny substitute for the artist’s missing sight. The touch of the light sketches an image onto the film. Areas that the light misses remain blanks, darkness, unseen.
As McCulloh observes, the final image that is created is more of a record of Eckert’s performative gesture, moving through the space with light sources, recreating a mental image, manifestation of purely inner visualization. He and fellow photographer Bruce Hall were the first visually impaired photograpohers to shoot for Playboy magazine:
While he was also commissioned to shoot a Swarovski collection:
As McCulloh notes, blind photographers have the advantage of not being influenced by the torrent of visual media in contemporary society, resulting in work that is highly original and idiosyncratic.
Blind photography also raises profound philosophical questions for all of us. What is the difference between mere outward sight and true inner vision? What should we make of highly determined and accomplished photographers who will never see their own creations?
More importantly, how do these photographers select the images that they exhibit, or is the selection done together with an ‘interpreter’ who describes each image to the photographer – in effect acting as his eyes? Since the photographer can see nothing, this is truly experimental work, and as Eckert himself says, he assumes that it will be about ¾ what he had planned. There must be a lot of shots that are unusable because they are overexposed or underexposed or just visual fails. It must be so much easier (and cheaper) for such artists to use digital photography for their creations.
In the end, photography by the blind points us toward an equalizing truth. All of us, blind and sighted alike, occupy the same position—we live in interior worlds. We build inner realms from what we happen to hear, feel, see. Our selves are constructed from chance fragments and random inputs. We glean accidental scraps from the overwhelming maelstrom of possibility. Out of the sprawling, absurd, comical, delicious flow, we craft our sense of everything. We take strangers and passersby and reconstruct them as friends and lovers. We gather conversations and experiences and weave them into the story of our life. We store up insights and memories and use them to define who we are. Finally, for each of us, that inner creation is our complete world. It is all we possess, all we can know.
I really do like this passage; it kind of captures the whole essence of the randomness and whimsicality of contemporary life. How we appropriate things and make them become essential parts of our lives and our identities – in effect we are creating or sculpting ourselves.