Check out blind photographers’ exhibit ‘Sight Unseen’ in Walnut Creek
By Lou Fancher
Vision is a slippery word that in application slides beyond the human eye’s physiological capabilities to reach the more allusive way of seeing referred to as “visionary.”
This idea is made emphatically by “Sight Unseen: International Photography by Blind Artists,” an exhibit running July 8 through Sept. 17 in the Bedford Gallery at Walnut Creek’s downtown Lesher Center for the Arts (bedfordgallery.org/exhibitions/current-season/sight-unseen).
On tour via Pasadena-based Curatorial Assistance Traveling Exhibitions and originating from UC Riverside’s California Museum of photography (an affiliate institution of UC Riverside’s ARTSblock), the exhibit curated by photographer Douglas McCulloh features the work of 13 world-renowned blind photographers.
The featured artists have a range of sight impairment, from completely to legally blind to vision that is significantly limited. The causes are varied and include some, like Henry Butler, a musician who was born blind; other photographers whose complete or partial vision loss came suddenly due to injury; or photographers such as Berkeley-based Alice Wingwall, who lost the ability to see — but never her vision — over decades due to retinitis pigmentosa, a progressive disease that affects the retina.
Wingwall says images form in her mind well before they begin the long journey to becoming photographs. Relying on her deep knowledge of texture, color, composition, form, framing and other visual elements drawn from a background that includes a master of fine arts degree in sculpture from UC Berkeley, Wingwall’s work often features double exposures, overlaid fragments, juxtaposed perspectives or complete repetition of the same image in one photo.
Architecture, seeing-eye dogs, California landscapes and self-portraits constitute most of her images. Signature framing places and often crops what is the central focus by making use of edges or corners.
“I intended to and enjoyed cutting off half of my face,” Wingwall says of one selfie’s cropping.
As she lost her sight, Wingwall says she learned new approaches to photography.
“I had to be super-flexible and take chances, move my camera back and forth and scan over a broad area. Sometimes in a city, the sound of dogs barking or cars strikes me as pandemonium, but I can listen and pick up how much is out there. I can see in my brain what I want, then collect the fragments that make up total things.”
Once, on a plane, a man next to her who worked for Lucas Films on the “Jurassic Park” film series and made scans for dinosaur skin and bones, told her there were 60,000 colors perceivable by the human eye.
“But that’s too much, so we simply choose one color, like a red that becomes the lead red color,” Wingwall said. “I can’t do that, but I can smash together that idea of color in my mind and ask people if they see what I want seen. You know, a viewfinder is really a prison because it limits what we see and cameras limit the colors we see, so really, we’re all reliant on memory.”
Wingwall as of 2020 has been completely blind and works with increasing frequency in collaboration with her husband, architect Donlyn Lyndon, or other family members, friends, colleagues and artists.
Bestowing only partial influence, even with her most trusted advisors, she says, “If I’ve downloaded images in my computer and my husband says, ‘You should cut this or change that,’ I won’t listen to him. But if he makes a big intake of breath, I know the image has moved him. I’ll ask him to talk to me about his reaction and if I have what I see in my mind. I trust that.”
“Sight Unseen” exhibit curator McCulloh says his involvement with photographers who have impaired sight but tremendous inner vision is beyond obligation and has become an obsession.
“I’ve always been interested in the chance aspect of photography,” he said. “What’s the most extreme version of that? I thought it was blind artists.
“But I came quickly to realize I had that upside-down, backwards. I had it that they were shooting in the dark, but in reality they’re operating right at the center of photography. These are ideas that become photographs. Only after they have real illumination and visualization do they set out to create images.”
McCulloh says discovering that most blind artists start with inner visualization and then join the “dance with chance” that all photographers take was revelatory.
“This is photography as a mental operation, and the photographs come second. Parisian photographer Evgen Bavcar was asked why he made photographs he could never see and responded that the questioner’s premise was wrong. He said the original was in his mind and everyone else had to make due with what is only a reproduction.”
He says the “hook” that brings people to “Sight Unseen” — blind photographers — does not go unappreciated by him or the exhibit’s viewers but universally drops in importance as the exhibit becomes equally about photographs and philosophy.
“These are some of the most accomplished blind photographers in the world, but they are also political, philosophical or image-makers and not all the same,” McCulloh says. “We live in a haze of image pollution, it’s like an onslaught. It’s a whirlpool of images, a visual swamp.
“Blind photographers say people have become blinded by being in the flow of Instagram images, which is a giant hall of mirrors where every image picks up another image and repeats it. If you’re blind you can’t be impacted by those images and have only original vision. We end up questioning not how blind photographers do what they do but how we see, and ‘do we really see?’ ”
McCulloh says he hopes people leave the exhibit having realized that true seeing is complex.
“We have a simple, trusted version of sight. We stencil that off and place trust in photographs as real and eventually see only what we expect or want to see. I hope people don’t come away marveling at the phenomenon of these artists’ work but at how unusual their own sight is.”
Wingwall says inner vision is equally complex.
“I don’t know if I completely form images in my head or if they start working as I photograph. Always, it’s, ‘Am I getting the image that’s in my head?’ I won’t know until they’re printed and I hear what people say. I just hope for the best penetration of the image, rely on instinct and experience, put it out there and hope it works out.”