At the Light Painting World Alliance website, you’ll find the phrase “Night is Canvas”. Night is no ordinary word for me, I suffer from night blindness. It’s a powerful, often frightening word, separating me from the able bodied, putting me in the folder labelled “Unable”- legally blind, asking for help to cross the street. Night, and its draining, light-less hardships, needn’t be only that. After all, the other part, “canvas” is what matters more in the end.
I belong to a group of photographers based in New York City called the Seeing With photography Collective. Many in our art group are blind or sight impaired, like myself. We create and exhibit light paintings. The very nature of our visual limitations can provoke any viewer or perceiver of these images … “Is less, more? What is he/she seeing?”
Night is often our permanent reality too, as sightless people. I myself am nearly blind, but I see a little too, now and then, so I stand in two realms. Every cast shadow, each building entrance, robs me of sight. I’m desperate for light really, any light, any scrap of stray, ineffectual photon, I feel the desperation – my dying retinas ravenous to see, like an emaciated, skeletal dog will gnaw and scour the air off the alley.
From the context of blindness, the word “ light” glows with particular, symbolism beyond its physical nature. It glows with reflected and diming echoes morphing with sighs and regrets at its intolerable loss, its hopes, its whispered paradises … of incandescent agility and certainty. Light’s abandonment lingers like afterglow, we swallow hard, loosing spectacle, comparison, choice and pleasure. To speak of light, we speak of its opposite nature too, embedded and not apparent. A dual part barely recognized, yet always there lurking, frowning and nodding within – the dark.
Our group originated from a photography class for blind and sight impaired students. Mark Andres, our teacher, taught us the technique of light painting in 1997. Mark was interested to learn what we would make of the technique as it involves using the mind in a place where we all were equally in the dark. It wasn’t about capturing a decisive moment, as much as constructing something. There was resonance with the technique, and we as a group, haven’t put down our flashlights yet.
There are a variety of people who shoot light paintings but can’t see. Some have little background in photography or any visual art media, some enjoyed photography for the usual reasons before loosing their eyesight. Others were actively involved in serious image making for a very long time, and found there an artistic outlet to explore. Some in our group see nothing, though many have some remaining, but minimal vision. A few see well, even what’s termed “normally”.
When I was told there was an actual photography class for blind and sight impaired students back in 1993, I remember I was surprised, a little sceptical, but beaming with happiness because others had understood that making visual art and not seeing were not mutually exclusive. I felt like a connection was made between two threads that had been re- attached. Two electric wires that needed to join, finally did in that bland basement classroom at the VISIONS Blind Services Organization, where we work.
At first it sounds improbable, but just at first. Like some new rhythm, some unfamiliar but absorbing thing.
Memories play a part in our group’s imagery, but they aren’t the sole theme by any means.
Sunshine and faces, that funny red chair, costumes, picnics and monsters, movies and night clubs, cartoons and sports events, ancient frescoes and scary subway rides, and countless other memories of the world of light, all reform before our flashlights. Despite sight loss we all have memory and ideas to explore in our mind’s eye long after our biological eyes give up on the act and art of looking.
We re- create them again, different maybe, not duplicates, not snapshots, but works that bring out that memory or theme with the perspectives all shifted, energized, sparkling.
The light painter’s dark frame invites all photographers to come and illuminate. I think it must be hard for any photographer to resist the urge to try one given the chance. Its darkness is very familiar territory, our default color, our resigned dark velvet blindfold that we can’t tear away. We run our hands around the framed out scene, through the central spaces, feeling fringes and walls,touching what’s on the other side of the camera’s view. And shine our little flashlights on that night canvas, painting with light…quivering fabrics shaken and moved around fire beings amid Interstellar jewels.
The light paintings aren’t made quickly, they take a few minutes and our models shift a little, droop a little over time. The laughs ensue at the results, three eyes, squashed noses, pinheads, people morphed into squat statuettes and ghostly elfs.
Mostly it’s a collaborative effort when we work, but more experienced artists can work independently too. And focusing? That’s done by a sighted assistant but does a film director focus their own motion picture cameras? The minor things like focusing are a different story from the major things like ideas, composition and lighting, that are done by the sightless, sighted, or sight impaired photographer. None of this is surprising of course, as a visual artist I understand it.
The blind photographers will also direct where each person, object or background area is, and how all should be positioned, so again, the creative control is left to the photographer, the sighted assistant just letting them know things like what’s in, or not in the camera’s frame.
There’s struggle, there’s the battle against the dark. I sense this in our work, but, maybe it’s my own internal projection. We light-less, enact on some level, a very core, very primal encounter that’s a universal archetype – the struggle of light over dark. It’s mainly subconscious and maybe not fully realized, even by we who make the work. Archetypes can work well as form, as far as art goes, I think.
And there’s defiance in that frame too – the flashlight as weapon in this effort, this determination to hold on, and not go quietly into the darkness.
Some have said our imagery can be nightmarish or sad, and that’s sometimes so. Yet there’s an enormous variety of themes and styles found among our member’s work, fashionable runway stylizations, Biblical tableaux, happy partying and old Master re-enactments are all here, cheerfully hued, non angst- ridden enough to be hung comfortably above a living room sofa.
Comparing our group’s work with other light paintings, I see a difference but I’m not sure what it is. I don’t see us as being fixated on pretty lights or special effects, just for the sake of prettiness or coolness that you forget a minute later. They seem simpler, but still visually nuanced and raw simultaneously.
We sometimes teach workshops and I recall some photographers who had a difficult time letting go of their light meter mind -set, and stared at me in sceptical disapproval when I said the timing was a matter of experience. It was sort of fun being a guy with a white blind cane walking into things, and giving lessons on how to make photographs. You get used to these sorts of things really.
In a way taking images without seeing is a significant reorganization of expectations.
A blindfold can work great as a teaching tool. We use them with the sighted students. Many really are thrilled to be blindfolded, and smile, and grope around, saying “Wow” and getting goose -bumps feeling things, and just delving into their other senses that are mainly ignored in the photography studio. But other photographers have quite a hard time letting go.
By deliberately shutting out light itself, and briefly inviting in the harrowing, dreadful fear of any visual artist, blindfolding touches on certain elements of psychology and creativity that are good to be aware of.
Donald Martinez, a sighted member of our collective, sometimes closes his eyes when he makes a light painting, to distance himself further from the tightness, the crispness and control, the domination of light upon the mind.
Human nature doesn’t want to relinquish feedback from our efforts, our ears from our music, our taste from our cooking, yet some can never have the full visual assessment of their work that eyes provide.
How does the blind photographer know what they have made? Those who can see describe, and become the eyes …providing the scope, the tone, and narrative that will form the structure of the new creation, glowing unseen on the camera’s digital screen and glowing too in a different way, in the internal mind of the unseeing artist.
Lately the work of blind and sight impaired visual artists is becoming more widely known. It’s a new facet in the cultural legacy of art. What do we have to offer the world of light? Maybe we can act as a sort of mirror. One that reflects your views, maybe shifting and nudging cozy presumptions.
I’ve no confident theory to present on the nature of blind photography. For me, and many in the Seeing With Photography Collective, it’s an experience to be lived, dim and flickering sometimes, loud and warm at others.
Without light … voices take on an expansive, rich meaning. Ideas loom more directly. There’s less distraction by visual clutter. Working in the dark with my group causes me no gut-churning dread, no dizzying loss. Something memorable happens creating imagery in the dark, with the dark, the dark as our supportive friend, all of us sighted or blind together, thinking, trying, laughing, describing, listening … weaving something.
Light is essentially indifferent, angled into the lens of an eye or cold camera, we give it meaning and arrange its context. In the intertwining of sighted and not sighted, one thread describing another, eventually we all must close our eyes in sleep, lightless sighted and blind alike, and all our dreaming eyes understand and gaze, and see.
Steven Erra is a visual artist, a photographer and painter. He has been legally blind for many years due to Retinitis Pigmentosa. He has a B.F.A. from Parsons School of Design. In 1993 Steven joined a photography class for the blind and sight impaired and it from this group, from which the Seeing With Photography Collective started in 1997. More recently he joined the Light Painting World Alliance (LPWA). Steven has had work in numerous exhibitions and publications.