The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
The Archives of Visibility
Since starting the click! photography changes everything project almost two years ago, my colleagues and I have set ourselves the task of thinking about the whole range of photography and that includes why and how photographers make photographs and how images are used by all of us. In other words, click! is as much about how we think about images as about what images look like. Fittingly (some might say perversely) we started with Stewart Brand imagining the effect of a photographic image of the whole earth that had not yet been made, an image that lived first in the imagination and not in the eye. John Waters' recent click! entry takes the “photo of the mind” into another direction considering images that we are told not to think about. So, I was intrigued when an email from the Annenberg Space for Photography arrived this week with an announcement for the upcoming showing of documentary film directed by Neil Leifer, Dark Light: The Art of Blind Photographers.
The movie features several photographers, including underwater photographer, Bruce Hall. Hall, who is legally blind, uses macro, or close-up photography to identify (and presumably enhance his limited eyesight) specific features of plant and animal life living along the southern California coastline. As an elementary school teacher in Costa Mesa, California until he left teaching in 2003, Hall used his photography to share his knowledge of local ocean life in the classroom to engage his students as well as to study and enjoy the undersea world after he has left it. Looking closely at previously unseen things: sounds like photography to me.
Blind photography: the very concept seems to depend on an extension of the imagination. Sight, vision, focus, view: all the words we attach to the photography seem challenged by the idea that a photographer might use more than his or her eye to decide on the picture. Images by photographers who are blind expose us to another aspect of photography: photography led by the imagination, sentiment, and indeed, all the senses. And that idea, photography of the senses, seems to be shared by a good deal of conversation about contemporary photography.
Last year the California Museum of Photography in Riverside California organized the exhibition Sight Unseen. The exhibit included work by photographers who are legally blind or born without or with limited sight. One participating photographer is Pete Eckert, an artist with multiple degrees in design and sculpture who only turned to photography after losing his vision in the mid-1980s. He opens the shutter on his camera and then uses flashlights, lasers, lighters, and candles to paint his scene on film. He explains: "The human brain is wired for optical input, for visualization. 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.” In a recent email communication, he elaborated:
"Seeing using the camera, I view as a fishing trip. Let me tell you a little story as an analogy. When you go fly fishing the whole environment is investigated; you learn about the life cycle of the fishes' favorite food. You learn the habits of the fish and their fears. You learn to cast and play with very nicely made tools. Then if you are lucky and skilled [you] catch a fish. You touch it briefly as you unhook and let it go. The satisfaction is the confirmation. You learned enough to do the job. You saw past the pretty stream to the fish and bugs. This is what taking photos is for me. I can't see my own work. But I see it better than sighted viewers do in galleries. I know exactly what I produce. It is a fish I let slip into the stream of the sighted world. The water is the barrier between my view of the world and those who have sight. My vision is slower with sound but no less clear."
Members of the limited vision photography collective, “Seeing With Photography” take a similar stance: “what,” they ask “is seeing”?
Which gets back to the inventory of ways of seeing that marks the accumulated archive of click! How we see, what we see, and how we express that vision is a conversation taking place in and across many disciplines. And ways of not seeing, literally and imaginatively, are also part, if not at the heart of, the conversation.
Merry Foresta is the Former Director of the Smithsonian Photography Initiative.