Photographer Dorothea Lange made the observation that “the camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera.” Her statement may refer to the viewer, whose senses are affected by an image that has been presented by a photographer, or it may refer to the mental crafting that takes place before a photographer points and shoots.
How is this process altered, then, when the photographer cannot see? According to Sight Unseen Curator Douglas McCulloh, rather than being a hindrance, the absence of sight opens the way for a heightened expression of the artist’s unseen thoughts and ideas. “Blind photographers possess the clearest vision on the planet,” he says, noting that “their images are elaborately realized internal visualizations first, photographs second.”
Modern art has placed a great deal of value on the translation of an artist’s personalized conceptions into something tangible. Since the invention of photography, we no longer need painters to recreate nature; anyone with a cell phone or drugstore camera can produce a likeness that is faithful to the original source. The challenge for contemporary artists is to rise above mere imitation and grab the attention of the viewer by producing an image that provokes and stimulates. For the photographers in the Sight Unseen exhibition, the worlds inside their minds become accessible to others through their remarkable work. “I’m a very visual person,” says Pete Eckert, “I just can’t see.” Paris-based artist Evgen Bavcar expresses a similar thought when he says “I have a private gallery, but, unfortunately, I am the only one who can visit it. Others can enter it by means of my photographs.”
The exhibition assembles more than 100 works by a dozen photographers from all over the world. Some of them pursue a purely conceptual art from the regions of their own minds, others use sensory cues such as hearing and smell to guide their cameras or rely on pure chance. A third group, made up of artists with very limited sight, uses the camera to amplify visual images as they pursue an enhanced method of seeing. The resulting photographs are a testament to the artists’ refusal to accept limitations and to the desire of all humans to have a creative voice. The work stands firmly on its own, highly original and comparable to the best in contemporary photography.
“I can’t belong to this world if I can’t imagine it in my own way,” says Evgen Bavcar. “When a blind person says ‘I imagine,’ it means he too has an inner representation of external realities.” By opening up their world through their work, the artists in Sight Unseen invite you to share their creative ideas and at the same time challenge you to think twice about your notions of what visualization and creative expression are all about.
Credit: Exhibition overview from museum website.