[accessibleimage] Blind photographers

  • From: Lisa Yayla <fnugg@xxxxxxxxx>
  • To: accessibleimage@xxxxxxxxxxxxx, art_beyond_sight_learning_tools@xxxxxxxxxx, art_beyond_sight_advocacy@xxxxxxxxxx, artbeyondsightmuseums@xxxxxxxxxx, art_beyond_sight_learning_tools@xxxxxxxxxx, art_beyond_sight_educators@xxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: Tue, 14 Sep 2004 22:19:07 +0200

Bob Marek sent me a very nice article about photography and
the blind. I found the articles link on the web
It is for a book called Invisible Power.(I enclose the
article at the end) There is an interesting bit about
special copying machine -rittai kopii-ki which embosses
photos made by Minolta. Anyone know anything about this
Looked a bit more and came across an article about 2 blind
photographers John Dugdale and Flo Fox
And here is a link to Aperture Foundation and the exhibition
Shooting Blind: Photographs by the Visually Impaired with
dates and places of where it will be held 


Invisible Power
Impressions: For most of us, going blind is one of our worst
fears. Especially for a photographer. After all, how can you
take pictures and look at pictures if you're blind?

Ask a blind photographer to answer such questions. Yes,
there are blind photographers. How do they do it? Well,
imagine how you would take pictures if you were blind.
First, your ears would serve as a guide. By listening
carefully, you can tell where the subject is and how far
away. If you want to photograph a person, take the picture
when you hear laughter. Your ears can serve well as a guide
to when to take the shot.

For still-life subjects, you can touch the object (flowers,
etc.) and decide which angle to photograph it from. If
you're waiting for a sunrise, feel the heat of the sun on
your skin before taking the picture. You can also discern
which direction the sun is in. Besides using your other four
senses, a major boon is having a seeing person tell you
what's going on and when to take the picture.

And that's how they do it. It's truly amazing how adaptive
and strong humans can be to overcome any kind of handicap.
The same applies to the blind. In Tokyo, sometimes I see a
blind person taking a subway or train. You know how
difficult it is even for seeing people to navigate through
all those crowds in the train/subway stations? There are
pimpled tiles on the ground to guide the blind, but still,
the blind are truly awesome to venture out by themselves. It
is the "unseen or invisible power." Of course, we all have
it, but most of us don't really know how to tap into it.

As for the question of how a blind person can "see"
photographs, this book gives the answer. Besides regular
color photographs, it includes nine pictures that you can
touch and feel. They are embossed images (that smell like
rubber), and each one is captioned in Braille. The book
claims to be the first photo book in Japan to include such
images for the blind. All the pictures are of typical
subjects that most amateurs in Japan pursue: Mt. Fuji,
cherry blossoms, festivals, flowers, family and friends,
children, and even fireworks. You can't help but be
impressed by the quality of the photos while knowing that
they were all taken by a blind person.

The book says that photography by blind people started with
the invention of fully automatic cameras and embossed
printing technology. There is a special copying machine
(rittai kopii-ki) that can produce an embossed image of the
copied photograph.

The photographs in the book come from the best ones that
have been shown at the annual blind photographers exhibition
held annually in the past 15 years in Tokyo. The common
reaction of most visitors to these exhibitions is, "Blind
people taking pictures? I don't believe it!" Their disbelief
soon turns into admiration, and the common notion that blind
people cannot take pictures is totally dispelled. Such is
the power of the blind, not only in being able to take
pictures, but in also affecting normal seeing people in
positive ways.

The National Blind Photographers Exhibition (Zenkoku Mojin
Shashin-ten) was first held in 1985 in Tokyo. Over 200
pictures by blind people all over Japan are submitted and a
panel of judges select about 60 pictures for the exhibition
held every Dec. in Shinjuku, Tokyo. The exhibition displays
each photograph in two ways. There's the normal photograph,
and then there's an embossed version (made by the special
copying machine) of the same picture that the blind can
touch and feel with their fingers.

The exhibition is not only about the photographs themselves,
but also about the determination and effort by the blind and
the loving support of family members. It's about the people
behind the camera and about tapping that "power" that lies
within (usually dormant for most of us). The exhibition is
supported by corporations (like Minolta which developed the
special copying machine), organizations, and prominent pro
photographers. The honorary chairman of the panel of judges
is Prince Mikasa, a relative of the Emperor. Personally, I
think it's just fantastic that blind people are able to take
pictures and look at them. Having a means of self-expression
is so important to all humans. (Reviewed by Philbert Ono)

(note subtitles of photos in article, but did not copy
photos over)

Challenged Visions
Robert A. Schaefer Jr. discovers how John Dugdale and Flo
Fox don't let their physical challenges stand in the way of

"Physically challenged" has not always been the buzz word it
has become to describe people with disabilities. In earlier
times in the United States, negative terms like
"handicapped," "retarded" or "crippled" were used to
describe persons with disabilities. Little thought was given
to either their quality of life or inclusion in society;
often families of disabled persons banished them to private
rooms of the house or sent them to institutions.

In sharp contrast to these earlier practices the 31st New
York City Marathon, as has become the standard since the
mid-70's, included physically challenged participants who
were given a 30-minute early start over the other
participants.They were a very visible part of this event. On
that same day the Museum of Natural History, the Margaret
Mead Film and Video Festival 2000 and Aperture Foundation
presented Shooting Blind: Photographs by the Visually
Impaired. Unfortunately, I was not able to attend this
one-day slide show event, but it made me question how one
would be able to create photographs with a physical
challenge è especially a visual one.To gain insight into
this area, I interviewed two fine art photographers who live
and work with disabilities on a daily basis.

Image above: I exist as I am by John Dugdale

Walking along 23rd Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues
in Manhattan, you might see a slender middle-aged woman in a
motorized wheelchair being assisted in pressing her camera's
shutter release button. This would be Flo Fox. Florence Fox
was born on September 26, 1945 in Miami, Florida, where her
father had a honey factory. He died of a heart attack when
she was two, and her mother moved Flo, her two sisters and
brother to Woodside, Queens where she and her late husband
were originally from. Flo's mother passed away when she was
fourteen and at that time she decided that she would never
use the name Florence again - and ran away from home. Later
she went to live with an aunt in Levittown, Long Island.
When she finished high school - "just by the skin of my
teeth," as she puts it - she moved in with her sister in
Queens, where she worked as a paste-up artist for the Yellow
Pages. Perhaps this is why her imagery often uses graphic
elements . She left the Yellow Pages in 1964, got married
and gave birth to her son, Ron During this period Fox worked
as a freelance tailor, most notably for Revlon, Inc. She
also pursued art in the form of drawing and painting
portraits. In 1972 she used her first big paycheck to buy a
Minolta SRT 101.

Image above: Trying Their Wings, 1984 Flo Fox

She was born blind in one eye, so, according to her, she was
an automatic photographer because she never needed to close
an eye to take a picture. She lost the vision in her other
eye in 1975 and was declared legally blind just at the time
that she photographed herself nude for Playboy and
Penthouse. It was at this time that one of Flo's sisters was
diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. Soon thereafter Flo began
experiencing numbness in one of her hands and legs and had
herself tested for MS.The results were positive. She has
remained determined to not let this news change anything in
her career as a fine arts photographer. This has not been
easy with her direction in the medium which is predominately
street imagery of people and places predominately set in New
York City. It has necessitated her getting out of her
apartment to capture it, although she also does a lot of
nude Polaroid portraits in her Chelsea studio.

When asked how her disabilities have affected her work, Fox
said that she started seeing interfering patterns in 1975
and soon thereafter could no longer focus on an image
because of dead nerve endings. As her MS progressed, Flo's
muscle tone deteriorated and she went from using a cane to a
motorized scooter. In August 1999 a van transporting her
made a sharp turn, and Flo fell over in the scooter,
subsequently causing her to lose the use of her right hand.
She still takes a camera with her wherever she goes but now
needs to ask someone to push the shutter release button.
Even this has not dimmed Flo's spirits."People can be strong
no matter what," she told me,

I try to set an example by taking the negative and making it
positive - both in life and in my work.

Among her more many notable accomplishments, she was given
the first autofocus camera by Konica to field test for the
magazine Camera 35. She was even recognized in Ripley's
Believe It or Not as a blind photographer and originated a
course in photography at the Lighthouse for the
Blind.Typical of her sense of humor, Flo described this
literally as "the blind leading the blind" - positively! She
has also presented seminars on her photography at the Nikon
House and Park West Camera Club in New York City; at the
Philadelphia Museum of Art and at the Boston Museum of Fine
Arts. As a photographer she has also appeared on the Today
show, Tomorrow with Tom Snyder and Live with Regis and
Kathie Lee. At one point she hosted her own cable TV show
called The Foto Flo Show. Documentaries on her life have
also been done for Japanese (1994) and German (1997)

Flo had a one-person exhibit (in which she shared a wall
with Bill Brandt) at the Photographers Gallery in London, UK
in 1974 and another at the Nikon House in New York in 1987.
Later that same year she had a two-person show with "Weegee
the Famous" in Paris, France. In 1998 she had a oneperson
exhibition at the Icebox Gallery in Minneapolis, MN. Group
shows include the IBM Gallery (now called the Newseum) in
New York City, the International Center of Photography in
New York City and the Meguro Museum of Art in Tokyo, Japan.
Her work has also been published in Black and White New
York. Complete volumes of her work include Asphalt Gardens
and My True Story. Fox was published in Life Magazine's
September, 1994 issue. Her next scheduled exhibition is at
the Times Square Hotel (255 West 43rd Street) where she
often exhibits her work.

My second interview takes place on a beautiful fall day in
the West Village of Manhattan with photographer John
Dugdale. He opens the door for me, and as we ascend the
stairs to his studio, I am transported into the19th
century.The house is a brick federal built in 1828, and his
studio is the former attic. There is an elevated sleeping
area at one end of the studio and a reading area at the
other. A wood slat floor in the studio supports three
standing view cameras and some props. John is having his
hand photographed holding some lilacs.He speaks at length
with his assistant Dan Levin before the shutter is released.
Potentially this image will be used in his upcoming
exhibition, Epic of the Starry Heavens, at the Wessel &
O'Connor Gallery in a month. John explains that his poor
eyesight requires that another person with good vision
actually take the shot since he is legally blind. "Even so,"
he relates,

I have explained the concept to Dan so exactly that it is my
image, and it is this,my art, which has saved my life.

John was born in Stamford, Connecticut on June 2,1960. He
has a sister Kathleen who is four years younger and a
brother, Robert, who is eight years younger and with whom he
shares a birthday.The three siblings are close, and John
regularly uses them in his photography.This might not seem
so unusual; except when one sees that the images with his
brother and sister are nudes. Few photographers have
explored the realm of nudity with adult family members.
John's images in this area reveal a love and trust that the
three share with each other.

John says that he started taking family album pictures at
age 11 but it wasn't until the 11th grade that he became
serious about photography. One of his teachers referred him
to the School of Visual Arts in New York City where he
studied from 1980 to 1984. During that time an instructor at
SVA told him that his imagery was not in keeping with the
trends of that time. Luckily John had defined his
photographic style prior to attending SVA, so this criticism
did not thwart him An image John created for a class
assignment to photograph flowers led to commercial work for
Ralph Lauren, Bloomingdales, Bergdorf Goodman and Martha
Stewart. His career had started to thrive; unfortunately,
his health was another matter.

Although John tested HIV-positive in 1982, he did not seek
treatment because he felt that he would be fine. However,
the end of a long-standing affair combined with work-related
stress caused his immune system to fall apart in1993. Soon
after he discovered that he had CMV retinitis; a condition
which usually occurs in the last stages of AIDS and causes
blindness. Along with this he had a stroke which left him
paralyzed for seven months. His career came to a halt."So
what should I tell your clients?" John's manager asked him.
John replied,

Tell them the truth.

He thought he would never work again and almost didn't.He
contracted AIDS-related viral meningitis, pneumonia and
suffered six more strokes. From November to December 1993
John's doctors were unable to make a diagnosis, and he felt
his sight slipping further away. Had this all happened
months earlier he probably would have died because there was
absolutely no medicine on the market at that time which
could treat his condition. Instead of dying, he became a
blind photographer, but there was a positive side to it. He
wasn't afraid anymore; just glad to be alive. His illness
had freed him to leave commercial photography and delve into
the type of work he had always felt that he was born to do.
Besides himself and his family, he also does portraits of
friends and acquaintances more often nude than clothed. All
exude his own particular brand of vibrant dignity.

Image above: The Perfume of Parlors by John Dugdale. Image
below: ´neath the Eiffel Tower, 1987 Flo Fox 

Dugdale's portraits as well as landscapes and still lifes
are printed almost exclusively using the cyanotype process.
Several years earlier, on an outing to Jones Beach, John had
met John Wessel and Billy O'Connor of the Wessel & O'Connor
Gallery. He had previously participated in a successful
exhibition at their gallery in 1991, entitled Three
Photographers: Dugdale, Morrison and Villarruba ,followed by
a solo show of New Photographs.When he finally got out of
the hospital in December 1993, he called Wessel and O'Connor
and told them that he was thinking of a new series of
photographs for an exhibition which could also be published
as a book. "Great!" they said and gave him six weeks to put
the show together. John was very worried about the time
frame, he admits, but accepted the challenge. In preparing
for it he learned how to use a Kodak 6 x10 Universal
camera.He feels that the huge audience for the opening of
this exhibition was a show of support,"But nobody was
prepared for how emotional it turned out to be. People were
standing in front of the work with tears streaming down
their faces." One of the guests that evening was Jack Woody,
who invited John to produce a book for Twin Palm Publishers,
and thus Lengthening Shadows Before Nightfall was published
in 1995. John confides:

It was a bit of a rush job, they wanted to have it published
before my eyesight left.

Fortunately, this never happened. The CMV did destroy one
eye but stopped with his other one - a fact his doctors
can't explain. John tells me to close one eye and imagine
putting six layers of wax paper over the other."That's my
vision," he says. Fortunately over the course of eight years
his mind has learned to compensate for this. "I miss reading
(he listens to his favorite poets,Walt Whitman and Emily
Dickinson on tape) and driving, and I hate banging my head
on things I can't see. But I feel I can do anything now
instead of the reverse." And that he has done: he has had an
exhibition every year since his first big Wessel & O'Connor
show.This year I attended his November opening, and it was
wonderful to witness so many people honoring his work.
Besides his New York gallery, John also shows at the
Kathleen Ewing Gallery in Washington, DC, as well as the
Catherine Edelman Gallery in Chicago, plus a host of others
in the US and around the world. He has published three other
books this year: Life's Evening Hour by the August Press
Limited, New Suns will Arise by the Hyperion Press and The
Clandestine Mind by 21st: The Journal of Contemporary
Photography. In addition, there have also been countless
articles written about him and three video films produced.
Besides his photography, John relates that he has also
become a kind of spokesperson and promotional speaker for
The Archive Project, which archives the work of artists with
HIV/AIDS. In describing his first speaking engagement for
The Archive Project, John says,"There were a lot of people,
and I didn't have anything prepared, but I just got up to
the podium and the words came tumbling out." When I ask John
what his biggest challenge is, he doesn't mention any of his
physical limitations. Instead he explains that his biggest
challenge is keeping his imagery fresh. He has become very
connected to the works of Emily Dickinson, Henry David
Thoreau, and Walt Whitman.When photographing friends and
family, John explains that he looks for the mind underneath.

It's all about illustrating an idea, not grabbing a moment.
Even I have to wait to drain a facade or guise before I take
a picture of myself.

He hands me the frontal nude self-portrait, A Temple of Thy
Spirit Divine which will be seen by the public for the first
time at his November opening. His explanation is visibly

Like many people in general and possibly more so those
working in the fine arts, I sometimes feel overwhelmed by
the problems of productivity and promotion. Meeting and
talking with photographers Flo Fox and John Dugdale has
helped me to put such problems into perspective.

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