UC Riverside photography museum hosts exhibit of blind photographers

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A new exhibit at UC Riverside's California Museum of Photography explores the work of artists working in, or near, total blindness. For some of them, the world is a permanent dark room. For others it's a haze of blurry half-light. KPCC's Steven Cuevas discovered that the camera may be their only toehold to the world of the sighted, but the exhibit may offer sighted people a new perspective on blindness.

Steven Cuevas: I know what you're thinking – how do blind photographers take pictures? The short answer: just like anyone else... sort of.

Douglas McColloh: They have a more round about way of getting them. Either they conjure them up and create a photograph that matches that original in their head, or they shoot something and then get feedback.

Cuevas: Sighted photographer Douglas McColloh is curator of the "Sight Unseen" exhibit, here at the California Museum of Photography.

McColloh: The truth is, these are very visual people. They just can't see. And what they do is populate their minds with images. They crave images the same way we sighted people crave images.

They can look at their images by directing our sight at the images and having sighted people describe it to them. As Eugene Balchar, one of the photographers in this show, says, "I have never seen that photograph, but I know it exists and it affects me deeply."

Photography is really about inner vision. It's about the ideas underneath it. Blind people who don't have the disability of sight, who aren't in the visual pollution we live in, have a clearer vision of the world than sighted photographers. You know, we're standing in front of photographs by Pete Eckert. He says, "I slip photographs of under the door from the world of the blind to the world of the sighted."

Cuevas: Were some of these photographers able to see at one time prior to becoming photographers, then lost their vision after they became photographers?

McColloh: One was a fashion photographer in Chicago before losing their sight. Interestingly, at least four that were sighted and became blind took up photography after they became blind. At the point they could no longer see they decided, you know, I think I'll become a photographer.

Michael Richard here in L.A. was a session musician and when he became blind at 52 he went to the Braille Institute. They had a course on photography. He said, you know, I expected it to be a lecture class, and they handed me a camera.

Cuevas: You rely on your sight for your craft, have you ever worried or had nightmares about losing your vision?

McColloh: In a very strange way I would find myself privileged. Because sighted photographers are re-working the same old mine that photography has done for the last 160 years. These small number of photographers are doing a new thing.

So they have a very strange and rare opportunity for artists – a frontier that has not been explored late. And that level of exploration of the new is throughout the work of these blind photographers.

[Sound of diver splashing into water; waves lap at boat]

Bruce Hall: Everything underwater, all the sea life has always attracted my attention. And being legally blind, it's kind of a blurry impression, but once I take the photo and blow it up I can get up and see detail I didn't see at the time.

Cuevas: Bruce Hall is an underwater photographer from Orange County. Legally blind since birth, he has roughly 5 percent of his vision intact. Cameras help illuminate a world that would otherwise be a blurry jungle of shifting shadows – kind of like the valleys of sea kelp he explores off Catalina Island.

Hall: I think my vision, my eyesight creates a different perspective. I'm fascinated by things that are small underwater. I love the really tiny things you can't tell what it is, that's why I like to photograph it and blow it up. Where as many people with 20/20 vision swim around looking for the obvious.

Cuevas: Well the first photograph I saw of yours was this one which is something underwater, but it looks like an eye.

Hall: This is an animal called a limpet, and a limpet is an undersea mollusk, and this was in Laguna Beach in 20 feet of water on the rocks. And the limpets spend their entire lives in one spot, and at night they move around to feed, and they always come back to the same spot.

I made a number of dives there and kept seeing this same limpet and would just stop and stare at it. Visibility isn't always that great – it's not super clear water like many other places. But I love the kelp. It's like a forest.

[Sound of scuba diver breathing underwater]

Cuevas: It sounds like picking up a camera gave you a view into the world that you just didn't have before.

Hall: Yes. Absolutely. From the time I was very young photography has been an optical device to help me see. I use magnifiers, I use good lenses. I've got a little Canon pocket camera with 20x zoom &ndsah; if I wanna read street sign, I look like I'm taking a photograph! You can sorta sneak around and people don't notice, and they don't make assumptions; there's a blind guy. No, there's a guy taking a picture.

Cuevas: And with that, Hall steps back, points his camera towards me, and snaps the shutter. The exhibit of international blind photography is called Sight Unseen. It's on view at UC Riverside's California Museum of Photography through August.

[Sound of shutter snapping]

Hall: There we go.