The subjects of Dark Light agree, the very idea of a blind photographer might seem paradoxical.
"Let's face it," says Henry Butler. "Everything is just vibrations." And by everything, he means just that -- sound and heat, light and color. A musician and photographer based in New Orleans, Butler pays close attention to vibrations in order to do his work. "I want to know the color scheme," he says, as his companion describes the scene around them, "What nature is surrounding the objects that we may be looking at. I want to know about distance. I want to know about sun." And he wants to know the people. Interacting with them via his camera, Butler enjoys the improvisation, as much a part of photography as the jazz piano he likes to play. Sometimes, he admits, his subjects are surprised. "Yeah," he smiles at one man. "It's a blind man taking your picture."
Butler is one of three blind photographers profiled in Dark Light: The Art of Blind Photographers, a short documentary premiering 17 November on HBO2. And yes, they agree, the very idea of a blind photographer might seem paradoxical. Sighted photographer Mary Ellen Mark imagines, "You could tell someone to put the lights in a certain place, but you have to look at it. So I don’t see how one can be a blind photographer."
Or, as James Nachtwey puts it, the potential problem involves all aspects of the artistic process. First, taking the photo: "I don’t know how a non-sighted person could perceive light," he says. "Perhaps there is a way to perceive light. I just don’t know what it would be." And then again, Nachtwey continues, the photo itself would be difficult to perceive without sight: "The sensory input that you get from reality, sounds, vibrations, instinct. You can't get from a piece of paper, so how do you translate? How do you know what you did?"
As pertinent as all these questions may seem, the photographers in Dark Light work around them. For Butler, blinded by infantile glaucoma that was diagnosed too late (in the one black hospital in New Orleans at the time), the negotiations have to do with energy, the feelings he experiences with his subjects. For Pete Eckert, who lost his sight as an adult after contracting Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP), photographs are one way to share his experience with others. "The world I belong to now is the world of the blind," he says.
When he takes photos, Eckert works with his models, but not with sighted crewmembers. He describes the "reflected light," he feels during a session, "outlining some of the woman's parts and illuminating some of the woman with a small flashlight." He can perceive space by sound, such that his own voice, he says, "like a bat, bounces off the object. If there's a sound behind her, it wraps around her and comes to me." He doesn't like to "taint" the process by working with sighted assistants. "This isn't a collaboration: my perspective has nothing to do with the sighted perspective."
While Eckert underlines his sense of difference, Bruce Hall uses his photography to make connections, in particular, with his two sons, both autistic. "It's almost therapy," he says, "It helps me deal with [and] understand the loss." He means his own loss as a father, the loss of conventional expectations. "The last thing you want to hear," he says, is that "your boys basically have no future." And so they live in a vivid, very mobile present, shaped in part by father and sons' love of the water. Most of Hall's professional work takes the form of underwater photography (he retains about 5% of his sight), and his boys also "love the water." As the film records here, they splash and smile and share time and space in water. Taking their pictures, he imagines, will be a "lifelong project."
As the artists describe their processes, Dark Light offers examples of their work as well commentary by curator Douglas McCullogh. If he sometimes repeats himself ("They're making purely mental constructions of these photographs"), McCullogh also demonstrates the difficulty a sighted person might have in imagining or describing a blind photographer's experience. It's a dilemma for the film, too, which is directed by sighted photographer Neil Leifer. It shows the men as they work and solicits their own accounts, but still, what happens as they make their art remains elusive, much like any art.
McCullogh says he was first drawn to this project because of his interest in how chance shapes photography. "I thought blind photography would be the chanciest," he asserts. Even when he says he's found out something like the opposite, that their work is also a function of "huge amounts of control," the film suggests otherwise, that like the work of other artists, "the work of blind photographers" is shaped by multiple factors, simultaneously ordered and unplanned, revelatory and inexplicable.