- Associated Press - Sunday, October 30, 2016

HUNTINGTON, W.Va. (AP) - At a Mardi Gras past, New Orleans photographer and jazz pianist Henry Butler heard the jingle jangle of a costumed person strolling by.

Butler, who is blind, quickly turned his camera toward the sound to snap a lively pic of that street music from a person dancing in a costume adorned with dozens of jingling keys - capturing in that moment a colorful slice of the famous party.

Armed with a keen ear for sound and utilizing his other senses, the blind photographer, who now lives in New York, is able to capture compelling images of the world around him from people in the parks to fellow musicians like director Woody Allen wailing on the clarinet.

Butler, who uses a sighted assistant who helps him aim the camera, develop the film and edit, is one of a dozen blind photographers from around the world whose works are part of the touring exhibit “Sight Unseen: International Photography by Blind Artists,” which is up at the Huntington Museum of Art through Jan. 8.

Curated in 2009 by Douglas McCulloh and originated by UCR/California Museum of Photography, an affiliate institution of ARTSblock, the University of California, Riverside, “Sight Unseen” is toured by Curatorial Assistance, Pasadena, California. The exhibit, which has more than 100 photographs, has created a stir wherever it has been shown, from Russia to Korea and from Canada to Mexico and all over the United States. It also spawned an HBO documentary about blind photographers.

As McCulloh points out in the description of the exhibit, “Sight Unseen” proves that “great art is not a product of the eyes, but of the mind. Beethoven composed music without the ability to hear, and blind writers Milton and Homer conjured the landscapes of the heavens and the underworld. Similarly, the artists of ‘Sight Unseen,’ in bringing their inner visions into the world of the sighted, reveal a rich visual and emotionally complex blending of the physical and conceptual worlds.”

Senior curator Christopher Hatten said the museum is excited to be able to host the exhibit, which features some of the world’s best blind photographers including: Ralph Baker, New York; Evgen Bavcar, Paris, France; Henry Butler, New Orleans, Louisiana; Pete Eckert, Sacramento, California; Bruce Hall, Irvine, California; Annie Hesse, Paris, France; Alex de Jong, The Netherlands; Rosita McKenzie, Edinburgh, Scotland; (with tactile drawings by Criss Roden); Gerardo Nigenda, Oaxaca, Mexico; Michael Richard, Los Angeles; Seeing With Photography Collective, New York; Kurt Weston, Huntington Beach, California; and Alice Wingwall, Berkeley, California.

“Normally, we might want a straight-on shot of somebody or something, and that is one of the great things about this show is that they are not shackled by any kind of convention,” Hatten said. “It is great work, and it is also very inspiring.”

Hatten said a number of the pieces come from photographers who are in a New York photography collective for the visually impaired - Seeing With Photography- that does a lot of experimentation with lighting and effects.

“Again, just sort of the marvel of all of this of being able to shoot photographs - some of them are totally blind, some have limited sight, some use assistants, some use clues like smell or sound, and some use the camera to see, they can take pictures and magnify them tremendously,” Hatton said. ” and every one of these people have a great story,” Hatten said. “… Kurt Weston was a fashion photographer who contracted AIDS and lost his sight. He uses a scanner. People will put their head down on the scanner, and the faces are very expressive.”

Speaking by phone from California, Bruce Hall has been a photographer for more than 30 years. Best known for his underwater photos, Hall also was the first blind photographer to shoot for Playboy and has since 2009 been enjoying the interactions as “Sight Unseen” travels the world raising people’s awareness of blind photographers.

Hall said he is particularly proud the exhibit is now up in West Virginia, since he owns family land in Doddridge County, where his late grandmother, Ruth Virginia Maxwell, was born, and where his great-grandfather, Lewis Maxwell, was a congressman.

On a basic level, Hall said “Sight Unseen” celebrates the vast different styles of the photographers and their commonality.

“We are all different - just like writers are all different and have different styles and voices, our approaches are different,” Hall said. “I have three or four pretty close friends who have photos in the show, and we think the one common thread is that they are all determined people. ‘What do you mean I can’t do it?’ I think that is how we have to be in life. We have obstacles thrown in our path, and we can choose to do nothing or knock it out of the way or climb over it.”

For Hall overcoming obstacles to be a photographer has been a life-long obsession. When the now 63-year-old was 8 or 9 he had a box camera that he used to get a second look at the wonderful world around him.

“I am not totally blind. I can only see clearly about three inches from my face, so if you sit across from me at a table I see shapes and colors. We have to be nose-to-nose for me to see you. When I take a picture, I go to the computer, and then I can see you. So I do take a lot of pictures of people. I say, ‘May I take your picture because I want to see you.’ I have never had anyone say no.”

Hall said he knows a lot of people who come to the exhibit will ask what the exhibit is about or how do blind people take photos, but the better question is why.

“How can a blind person take a photo? Well that is easy, you put a camera in their hand,” Hall said. “The better question is why, and all the reasons are different. I have always taken pictures of things that were out of reach, then I bring them in to see. A friend of mine said a long time ago that I see everything twice. I have a blurred impression, and then I get to see it again with all of the details.”

In the past 15 years, the camera more often than not has been turned onto his own family after the 2001 birth of his two sons. Jack and James, who have severe autism and very limited communication.

“The first 10 years were really tough on the family, and I couldn’t do a lot of the things I had been doing for years and years,” Hall said. “It was around the clock dealing with behaviors and a lot of craziness. I started photographing everything they did in part as a study in how to connect. I really can’t see them and can’t see details, so it is just my way of observing everything about them.”

Looking for inroads in how to communicate with his sons, Hall, who has always loved water and underwater photography, said he got the idea to play with the boys with water one day.

“We had hoses and buckets, and we were throwing water all over the place, and I just gave up control. As a photographer, I was used to controlling everything and locking it down, but I just got in there in the middle of the action and was shooting like a street photographer, and what happened was I was looking at the photos that night and I got four or five really amazing images,” Hall said.

While some of those images are in the “Sight Unseen” exhibit, Hall continues to document the good and the bad of having children with severe autism. The bad pics have helped doctors pinpoint better care for seizures; the good pics show pure joy.

With some 226,000 images of the boys, and his wife Valerie writing descriptions of moments and photos, the two have teamed up and released a photo book, “Immersed: Our Experience With Autism,” to share their experiences raising their now 15-year-old sons.

“I originally just did this for myself, but a lot of the pictures my friends would say, ‘These are really great and you need to share them with the world,’” Hall said. “I originally showed some of the pictures in early 2010 in Los Angeles. A woman was talking to me for about a half hour, and she was a curator at the Library of Congress, and they bought some of the photos, so there was this validation. Those are some of the photos in the exhibit, and those are the first 10 years. They are going on 16 now, and I am not going to stop.”


If you go

WHAT: The James H. and Alice Teubert Charitable Trust Presents “Sight Unseen: International Photography by Blind Artists” at the Huntington Museum of Art through Jan. 8, 2017.

WHERE: Huntington Museum or Art, 2033 McCoy Rd., Huntington.


Information from: The Herald-Dispatch, https://www.herald-dispatch.com

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