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Review: 'Sight Unseen' at UCR/California Museum of Photography

June 16, 2009 |  9:20 pm

Ralph Baker pair

“Sight Unseen” is the kind of exhibition that, sight unseen, might lead to easy jests. The subtitle of the show tells why.

“International Photography by Blind Artists” is a notion that, at first, seems like an oxymoron. How can a non-sighted artist make photographs? The answer, of course, especially in this era of point-and-shoot digital cameras, is that taking pictures does not require fully functioning eyesight — or, indeed, any eyesight at all. Point, shoot.

The complication comes not in taking photographs but, as always, in making powerful art.

At UC Riverside's California Museum of Photography, guest curator Douglas McCulloh has assembled 87 works by 11 artists and one collective. (New York's Seeing With Photography Collective has had a shifting membership since its founding in 1988; the current roster numbers 27.) Although the show includes artists from France (Evgen Bavcar and Annie Hesse), Scotland (Rosita McKenzie) and Mexico (Gerardo Nigenda), the selection suggests this is mostly an American phenomenon.

However, it is not yet a very compelling one. For all the curiosity the show impels, few of the photographs match the high-intensity rhetorical overload of its central thesis, which is that “blind photographers possess the clearest vision on the planet.” Replacing familiar negative stereotypes with an unfamiliar positive stereotype is small benefit.

Ucr Eight of the 11 photographers are either partially sighted or else lost their eyesight in childhood, adolescence or adulthood. Yet all of them operate in an era defined by a previously unimaginable image-overload, which the sighted take for granted but which by and large does not affect the blind.

Two of the strongest bodies of work are by photographers working in environments of unusual visual abundance. One is based in Manhattan's raucous Times Square, the other in freewheeling New Orleans.

Ralph Baker (above) is an untrained photographer who gets by on income made from taking tourists' pictures at street events in New York. Like a director instructing an actor to hit his mark, he tells the subjects to stand at a tape-line on the street and then, using a previously positioned camera on a tripod, shoots their picture. The conceptually unpretentious results are visually rich and exuberant, with the flashy environment and the high-spirited sitters playing off one another. According to a wall text, Baker's subjects rarely if ever even know that he is blind.

Likewise, Henry Butler's vernacular photographs are less about art than about general visual culture. (“I don't always know exactly, literally what I've captured,” Butler is quoted as saying.) His pictures of carnival revelers and drag queens are closely cropped and intimate, as if shot by a full participant in the lively festivities. Mardi Gras photographs are a dime a dozen, but Butler's disconcert because they thoroughly subvert the usual voyeurism, replacing it with a sense of cheerful collusion.

Michael Richard Strata Various 2004 The third compelling body of work is by the late Michael Richard (right). In 2002 he had a malignant tumor removed from behind his eyes. As he lost his vision, he began what can only be described as an exercise in intense looking.

Before his death four years later at age 58, Richard had completed a series of black and white photographs, often architectural, taken in and around urban Los Angeles. They are elegant abstractions of complex spatial ambiguity, often employing reflection (mirrors, puddles, shiny surfaces, etc.) as a means to cram deep vistas into narrow slots. Many are difficult views through and between tightly constricted areas, like stairways or alleys, which makes them not only a powerful metaphor for Richard's experience of losing his eyesight but for anyone's struggle to glimpse the beauty between life's shattering cracks.

The show proposes three general types of work. One group of artists uses photography as a means to bring their inner visions into the world of the sighted. Another captures the existing world as any photographer might, except without the usual preconceptions a sighted person would apply to the effort. The third group, composed of partially sighted but legally blind artists, literally uses the camera as a mechanical aid in seeing.

Two-thirds of the works are in color, although most often color is simply topical, rather than the focus of scrutiny or metaphor. The remainder is black and white.

For making art, blind artists face a special conundrum with camera-work. Photography is an artistic medium that is without tactile surface properties. Mexican photographer Nigenda highlights the dilemma by punching descriptive text into his photographs of a nude woman with a Braille writer, colliding a textual code with a visual one. Some can “see” one, the other or both.

But the medium is also one whose most fundamental property is light. (As explained by William Henry Fox Talbot and Sir John F.W. Herschel, two of photography's 19th century inventors, the basic task of a photographer is “to arrest the action of light.”) Blindness is an impairment of light perception, which several of these artists address by employing light-emitting devices, such as flashlights or copy machines..

Blind, of course, is also a word regularly used to signify a lack of knowledge. “Sight Unseen” is most successful in undercutting that notion. The show proposes that these photographs be considered more akin to Conceptual art than to traditional camera-work.

Perhaps that's one explanation for why I frequently found the lengthy biographical texts posted adjacent to the photographers' work to be more striking than a lot of the photographs. The human urge for visual communication is powerful and, as the curator writes: “A blind person pressing the camera shutter is also a political act that lays claim to the visual world and forces a reevaluation of ideas about blindness.” The show is politically cogent.

What it left me wondering, though, is the degree to which this work might also be considered collaborative — a negotiation between those with and without sight. It's one thing to make an image and quite another to choose to show it. Pressing the shutter is just the beginning of any complex artistic process. Artists edit, refine and alter their work all the time, from beginning to end. “Sight Unseen” doesn't offer much insight into the nature of that extended process.

-- Christopher Knight

"Sight Unseen," UCR California Museum of Photography, 3824 Main St, Riverside. UCR California Museum of Photography, 3824 Main St, Riverside. $3. (951) 827-4787.

Photos: Ralph Baker, "Untitled," n.d.; Michael Richard, "Strata Various," 2004; Credit: UCR / California Museum of Photography