Wednesday, October 12, 2016

The Sensorium of Sight: "The Blind Photographer"

The Blind Photographer: 150 Extraordinary 
Photographs from Around the World
edited by Julian Rothenstein and Mel Gooding, 
published by Princeton Architectural Press, 
When the Princeton Architectural Press offered me a copy of 
The Blind Photographer: 150 Extraordinary Photographs from Around the World I leaped at the chance to review it. This wonderful book expands my concept of sight and has encouraged me to consider—as I never have—its sensory sources. 

The ideas alone would be enough excitement, but the one-hundred fifty photographs themselves are genuinely remarkable: You won't have to be a student of philosophy to be smitten. These are all different, and not in the way of freakery—curious extension of the limited capacities we attribute to persons we deem deficient. Even did we know nothing about the artists' blindnesses, their unusual perspectives and the concentrations—the committed, bullet-like deliveries of life—make any viewer's heart leap in a new direction. There is indeed a lot more than first meets the eye!

The Blind Photographer, edited by Julian Rothstein and Mel Gooding, is introduced by an essay, "Eyes That Feel," by the Scots novelist, Candia McWilliam. It is a superb piece of art writing, poetic in a way that, I venture, clarifies and informs more successfully than a "scholarly" essay could. Her success lies in leading viewers into the hearts of the artists' goals and challenges. As she discusses a single one of them, McWilliam teaches us how to travel through the surfaces into the images and into the mental and sensory worlds of the photographers.
Untitled. Copyright Ramón Jiménez.

One photo she describes as "a rainbow-fibred mop head with its alert handle and attendant bucket; two bottles, one water, one maybe bleach; the distinction comes into our sinuses as we imagine sightlessly drinking from the wrong one." 

I see a composition with three centered circles (their volume isn't apparent) of decreasing circumference, shot from an unusual perspective, straight down. The pole appears very securely upright, but by what means? It's too far from the cameraman for him to hold it. We see the artist's feet: It takes two hands to grip the camera and shoot straight down.

If we with sight put ourselves in the blind photographer's shoes—which we are certainly invited to do—the image is transformed. Then, off course, drinking from a circle makes sense. If I were blind, I would lack the perception of volume. A circle and a sphere would look the same to me. Jimenez was informed by that smell of bleach: In fact, for him, this whole composition is formed around the sensory perceptions of standing on a freshly-mopped, possibly wet, tile floor. 

It's not only the smell of bleach, but the feel of the floor under his feet, something he is sensitive to in ways we sighted can only begin to imagine. Will he slip? The stability of the mop pole takes on a significance beyond, "How did he do that?" The floor, which few of us think much about, must be the center of the world for the blind. Jimenez shows what he knows about the floor from the smell, and from the shapes he perceives both literally and poetically. In his shoes, the photograph is a different work than the one we see at a distance, with vision only. We are welcome to a new way of knowing, and a new, enriched way of seeing.

Untitled. Copyright Alicia Meléndez.
"To look closely at these photographs is to be humanly remade by the refusal of these photographers to objectify an atom of the experienced world, recorded here with what we could call felt sight," McWilliam writes.

That's a fascinating thought: that these photographs don't objectify their subjects but bring them to us through direct experience. If we experience Alicia Melendez's photograph of her shoes rather than look at it, it becomes almost tremblingly intimate. I'm used to seeing images of women's shoes as glamorous and sexy products that place their wearers miraculously "above" any impediments that the earthbound suffer. 

Melendez's shoes are shown at floor level, on the floor, as if they walk toward us motivated by the power invested in them by their wearer, or as if they have become pets that come when called. They are scuffed, stretched out, water-worn and yes, we can smell them too. The shoes are a self-portrait in the sense that they communicate their importance and the experience that creates their importance. They are solid on the floor and through puddles; they are durable and flexible and dependable. They are important to her security and to her ability to move independently in the world, photographed as they are on a rooftop, in a space between the outdoors and indoors.

Untitled. Copyright Gerardo Ramirez Pfizer
Gerardo Ramirez Pfizer shot his hand of bananas in much the same way as Alicia Melendez portrayed her shoes: nose-to-nose. This extreme close-up is seen a lot in the book and no doubt reflect the necessity of the partially-sighted to hold things close to examine them. This results in unusual and striking perspectives, like this one of looming, aggressive bananas. Are they sighted with black eyes that are examining us? Are they creeping up on us? These are experienced bananas, fruit to which we bear a relationship. It's not sitting
Untitled. Copyright Aaron Ramos. Another fine example of
the close examination. Did sound lead Ramos to the subject?
Imagine the patience and slow movement required to get
this shot.

there waiting to be consumed. It's something individual out there in a world where objects do not automatically have value or precedence one over another; most are experienced singly. Right now, it's bananas. Let's close in. Maybe they'll open up to us.

McWilliam's "felt sight" has particular interest for the blind photographer's relation to human subjects, of which this collection has many wonderful examples. I'm fascinated by this photo of a seated female. It feels very traditional and
Untitled. Copyright Mickel Smithen
 formal: Just look at her pose, her position within the picture frame, and her contemplative, far-away expression. But I find her expression a little odd because the pupils of her eyes are unusually dilated. Possibly she too is blind.

Once more, the possibilities of blindness—now on the parts of both photographer and subject—reorient our view of the image. Is it or is it not a formal portrait, for instance. 

Did the subject "dress for the occasion?" Are the brightly colored clothes special, or what a partially-sighted woman chooses on a daily basis? Is her expression the expression she assumes when she is between tasks or waiting, since she may not be acquainted with the wide variety of facial signals the sighted use for tiny distinctions of mood or occasion? To the photographer, this may be a woman in a chair and not at all a formal portrait. Did it matter to her that she was being photographed? Would she be interested in the resulting picture—or vain about the outcome?

On the other hand, McWilliam points out that blind photographers never point and shoot; that all of their work is accomplished over a longer period of time than most sighted photographers take. Setting up the equipment, let alone the shot, is especially time-consuming without the aid of vision.

So we may be sure that Smithen at least had the chair waiting for an occupant. For her? For a series of people? For whoever sat down? This shoot was purposeful, but to what degree the shoot depended on this subject is uncertain, particularly since the image is untitled.
Untitled. Copyright Tanvir Bush.
The variety of photographs in The Blind Photographer is surprising and wonderful, far too many to touch in a review. But it would be a pity not to share this from a series of photographs of this young man lifting this weight. There are several such series, in which a sighted subject playfully performs some act of athletic skill for the photographer. They "show off" and as they do, and they keep their eyes directly on the camera in a way I suspect they would not if they were certain that the photographer could see them. In this shot, the young man seems to be measuring the photographer's capacity as much as he is demonstrating his own strength. He appears to have no doubt about the latter: It is a means for getting a peek at the blind person with the camera. Which is looking at him? The person or the machine? Is either more imbued with sight than the other? Or does each confer sight upon the other?

The photographer's blindness is disinhibiting for the sighted subject here and in other photographs. They express their curiosity, their swagger, their uninhibited joy in their accomplishment and activity in ways I haven't experienced in other photographs. Go to the library and ask for this book: Take a look. It is so much fun!

Not being familiar with Candia McWilliam, I looked her up. Her writing in The Blind Photographer is exceptionally fine and insightful. I shouldn't have been surprised to find that she is blind. Apparently her eyes function, but ten years ago she contracted blepharospasm, a disease that makes it impossible for the eyelids to open. She writes by holding an eyelid open with one hand and typing with the other. Her memoir, What to Look for in Winter: A Memoir in Blindness (2010), is on my list.


  1. This is a fascinating glimpse into another realm of perception. Thank you so much for sharing.

  2. Thank you. I can't express how much pleasure it gave me to write this.

  3. Thank you for sharing this information with us. You always inspire us.

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