SIGHT UNSEEN
International Photography by Blind Artists
May 02, 2009 - August 29, 2009
Opening Reception: May 02, 6:00 PM - 9:00 PM

Curated by Douglas McCulloh

Introduction  |  Shooting Blind  |  Blind to Our Own Blindness  |  Seeing Beyond Sight


II. Blind to Our Own Blindness


Inescapably, Sight Unseen questions the sight of the sighted. Sight is so pervasive and powerful that it makes us unaware of our own blindness. Stated another way, sight itself abets blindness. We see, and this is so strong that we think we understand. Our minds are an internal Groucho Marx: "Who are you going to believe, me or your own two eyes?"

A central revelation of Sight Unseen is this: photographers-commonly viewed as specialized seers-are perhaps the blindest people of all. The logic is undeniable. Modern photography is the easiest thing possible. Get a camera, put it on automatic, and press the shutter. The result: photographs.

What is the purpose, then, of photographic training, toil, tuition, assignments, critique, student loans, graduate school, curatorial exercises, photo museums, carefully staged exhibitions? British photographer Terence Donovan puts his finger on it: "The real skill of photography is organized visual lying." A convincing lie takes practice. Photographers, therefore, internalize a lengthy set of conventions: traditional subjects (or rebellious countermoves), suitable angles, appropriate lenses, depth of field choices, proper color balance, correct compositional techniques (and vague countermoves), geometric balances, effective crops, ephemeral gestures, decisive moments. The list is-click by click-a successive ratcheting down, a narrowing of vision. It is, in fact, a progressive blindness.

Compounding this, we live in a visual era. We are so inundated with images that we use them to build our world. Photographers, consequently, inflict their blindness on us all. Their blindness has become a contagion. Professional photography is thus a strange priesthood that floods the world with images moving and still. People trust the priesthood to provide sight (and possibly even vision), but it offers blindness. This is why travel is such a shock. Pick any iconic place and visit. Compare image to reality. The Roman Coliseum? It's a remnant stranded in swirling Roman traffic. Disneyland? The photo version is a happy, ethnically balanced group of children posing with Mickey in front of the castle. The reality is largely concrete, crowd control, and people lined up to buy things.

In the meantime, cameras proliferate. Photography is consciousness in its acquisitive mode, writes Susan Sontag. As such, it's the perfect technology for an acquisitive populace. In late 2008, Facebook crossed the threshold of serving up 15 billion photographs per day. "To celebrate," said Facebook engineer Doug Beaver, "we got a bunch of cupcakes and handed them out to our engineering and operations groups. One of our engineers calculated that if we had gotten one cupcake for each of our photos, and lined them up side by side, the line would reach halfway to the moon."

Questions arise. How can so many people photograph so much and show us so little? Can the deluge of photographs depict everything and reveal nothing? Has the actual practice of photography-in truth an amazing means of acquisition-been confused with seeing? Are we sighted, or blind? Photographs are the keystones of our cultural memory, and in his book on blindness and art, Jacques Derrida connects memory, blindness, and ruin. "Ruin is... this memory open like an eye, or a hole in the bone socket that lets you see without showing you anything at all, anything of the all. This, for showing you nothing at all, nothing of the all."

Cameras produce clichés. In fact, the French word cliché has two meanings-a trite expression and a photographic negative. I grew up traveling to National Parks across the west. My family would carefully locate Kodak's signs marking where visitors should stand with their cameras. Such assistance is no longer required. People have so completely internalized photography's circumscribed clichés that they now hew to convention without direction. We know where to stand. Artists express their mild rebellion by taking a step back and including the sign itself. We are blind to other options. "I went on to Flickr and it was just thousands of pieces of shit, and I just couldn't believe it," said photographer Stephen Shore. "It's just all conventional, it's all cliches, it's just one visual convention after another."

In White Noise, Don Dellilo describes a visit to "the most photographed barn" in America. We walked along a cowpath to the slightly elevated spot set aside for viewing and photographing. All the people had cameras; some had tripods, telephoto lenses, filter kits. A man in a booth sold postcards and slides-pictures of the barn taken from the elevated spot. We stood near a grove of trees and watched the photographers. Murray maintained a prolonged silence, occasionally scrawling some notes in a little book.

"No one sees the barn," he said finally.

A long silence followed.

"Once you've seen the signs about the barn, it becomes impossible to see the barn."

He fell silent once more. People with cameras left the elevated site, replaced at once by others.

"We're not here to capture an image. We're here to maintain one. Can you feel it, Jack? An accumulation of nameless energies."

"Traditional photographers are the ones who are really a little bit blind from being constantly bombarded with images," writes Evgen Bavcar. "I sometimes ask them what they see, but it's hard for them to tell me. It's very difficult for them to find genuine images, beyond clichés. It's the world that's blind: there are too many images, a kind of pollution. Nobody can see anything. You have to cut through them to discover true images."

José Saramago's great novel Blindness depicts a city in which everyone has been stricken blind. On the last page of the novel, the Portuguese Nobel prize laureate summarizes: "Why did we become blind, I don't know, perhaps one day we'll find out, Do you want me to tell you what I think, Yes, do, I don't think we did go blind, I think we are blind, Blind but seeing, Blind people who can see, but do not see."