This entry is from Gail Johnson.
Pete Eckert is a visual person. Trained in sculpture and industrial design, he had hoped to study architecture at Yale. But Eckert’s plans were abruptly put on hold when he began to lose his sight, and was subsequently diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic eye condition that leads to permanent blindness. One might think that such a condition would put an end to Eckert’s artistic dreams, yet his passion for all things visual pushed him towards an art form that – for a blind person – seemed impossible: photography.
But how does someone who cannot actually see take photographs? Eckert opens the shutter on his camera and then uses flashlights, lasers, lighters, and candles to paint his scene on film. He relies on sound and sometimes touch to familiarize himself with the environment of his shoots. “Occasionally people refuse to believe I am blind,” he says, aptly stating, “I am a visual person. I just can’t see.”
In 2008, Eckert won the ‘Artists Wanted’ award for emerging artists. The prize included a reception held in New York City, a $10,000 cash prize, and international publicity, launching his career with a bang.
In a recent interview with MutualArt.com, Eckert describes what it means to be a blind photographer in the world of the sighted.
You said you’re “a visual person who can’t see.” Can you please explain what you mean?
I translate my other senses into mind’s-eye images. I have been doing this for about twenty years. I sharpened this sparring in martial arts. About a decade ago I applied the technique to photography. Shooting a camera is very similar to working with weapons. I used to shoot at National Rifle Association competitions – that means you have a steady grip, you can target well and focus on breath control, which is similar to shooting photographs.
What role does sound play in your art?
A great deal in the seeing of a subject. After all, who knows exactly where the edge of perception is? Sound and touch for images of a cathedral for example, meant that before shooting I would inspect the glass windows and the woodwork to get an idea of what I’m dealing with. If I were in a saloon I could listen to people talking so I can target them and also use touch as I navigate through the chairs or bar.
Please talk about your process. What is unique to your approach and technique?
When you think of the process of taking a photo there is the event and there is the product. During the event stage of photography I conceive the photo, I use a camera with no assistance, I develop the film and I print samples. I then seek critique from sighted friends to compare it to my memory of the event and then I pick out the ones I want. Otherwise, it would be very expensive if I made a technical error and then tried to print really large.
I’ve altered all of my equipment so my camera has Braille dots for the f-stops and the shutter speed. To focus the camera I have an old Mamiyaflex and put indentations to estimate distance by sound; then I pick up the right notch filed into the rails and I roll the camera out and then back to focus.
I use a lot of slow shutter speeds. I do this because I am trying to relate graphic images to a non-visual world. I search for metaphors to relate to blindness.
Do you use any form of digital photography?
I only used my mother-in-law’s 1954 35mm camera. Since Kodak raised the film price, it rarely gets used. I have retired it for a small Cannon digital. Jumping to digital took up quite a bit of research to figure out how I was going to conquer those modes because it’s not giving me any feedback as to what mode I’m in. Eventually I bought a very simple Cannon 84-85 for like $100. These little digital cameras are great, they do so many things.
Sighted people see the world as if sitting in front of a painting. Blind people see the world in 360 degrees immersed in water. It doesn’t make any difference to me if I’m facing one way and holding the camera above my head taking pictures that are behind me because I’m doing it by sound anyway.
How did you get in touch with Artists Wanted? Tell us about the experience of winning their award. How has it affected your career?
A friend, Bruce Hall, told me about the Exposure competition. Winning it was a great experience. It helped me get much more exposure. The Artist Wanted staff are fantastic. It couldn’t have come at a better time. My wife had just lost her job at the newspaper. I had a new guide dog after my beloved Uzu passed. Bruce Hall offered to come help with the trip: what a good friend. Before I was just an odd duck in a flock of swans. I can call what I do a career now. Having that funky New Orleans band come down the street into the gallery was a blind-visual I’ll never forget. Screening my images huge on buildings: I love my stuff big (see image below).
How has your work evolved in the last few years?
For the last few years I have been doing all color work. Recently, I learned how to get better blacks in B/W using Photoshop. I need help using Photoshop. But if I can get true blacks I’m up for doing B/W again. My black and white printing shop closed. That was a hardship. A lot of shops are closing. Shopping at fast-paced shops or the Internet doesn’t do it for me. I like to ask lots of questions of people who love photography.
What new or different methods, equipment/media systems have you incorporated into creating your photographs?
I have bought an Apple mini-computer. I’m setting up a platform to do digital. This involves learning voice over the speech out software for the Mac. I have to learn some Photoshop too. I can’t see to use Photoshop. I just need to know enough about the program to direct others. This is hard. It takes time to build a relationship with a printer.
What are you currently working on?
A group of photos I call “Slip Stream”. I have some deaf-blind friends. Instead of making the mistake of assumptions about their reality I am working on the surreal. Think of it as taking one step closer to the abyss. The photos aren’t exactly about being blind or deaf, only being caught between the real and surreal.
Written by MutualArt.com staff