The Labyrinth of Night, an essay

My parents tell me that my first word was "light". Of that word, I can still remember almost unbearable delight throwing my head way back in the rear seat of their car, gazing upside - down through the window at the glowing Bronx streetlights whizzing by, a dizzying sensation of above/below flying. They wondered if I would become an electrician.

I couldn't see in the dark as others could and walked into walls and needed my sister's hand as I tried to join my friends running around at night. I could follow their sounds in the bruising darkness that yielded grudgingly just the brightest of lights, and I sighed with relief when I finally stumbled into some high wattage. There was normalcy there. I puzzled them, failing their night vision tests, hands hopefully waving in front of my face. Sometimes they talked about stars and I didn't understand "What stars?" I craned and scanned, trying and squinting at the unyielding blackness, imagining every variation..."Why can't you see them?" I didn't know. Neither did my eye doctor.

There was a moment - awareness, that photography could contain power, more than just a snapshot or slick advertisement or entertainment. As a teenager, I had seen a History of Photography book, and became enthralled with Henry Fox Talbot and Daguerre's early experiments to record the transient image. Those scratchy and grey pictures transmitted something at once accurate and mysterious.

Copying and improvising this early archaic technique, I devised a shoe box camera with a magnifying -glass lens, and duplicated the formula for light sensitive paper. In doubtful candlelight, silver - nitrate was brushed into salt saturated writing paper, creating a light sensitive film ( my fingertips blackened for weeks ) Targeting my own bedroom window was a sort of homage to Talbot's first permanent photographic image. From inky darkness -a view out one of his many Gothic windows at his estate, Lacock Abbey. Five long rectangles poised above another, more rounded five, like diamond - paned fingers, glazes muffling the vista of blurry trees and enticingly brooding sky of 1835. My own less ornate window and shutters appeared upside down now, at the far end of my shoe box, dappled with the sparkling color of a focused lens. I thumb tacked this homemade sensitized paper and quickly closed the box. Impatient, I cheated and peeked through the box top. I saw it then, mesmerized. The slow creation of an image from nothing.

Faintly at first, the little rectangle of my window was unmistakably appearing. Darkening, it seemed to almost smolder slowly to a rich red - brown, it ripened all shadowy and strange, transformed the unremarkable into a negative before my eyes, etched into the damp paper and my memory too.

Those primitive and soon to fade little tracings translated a powdery blue sky and a partly shuttered window into a gateway of possibilities. But not probabilities. It took a long time to find resonance between "idea" and "print". Photographic explorations were put aside as I felt another media's exhilarating pull, and Majored in Fine Art and Painting. In paint or charcoal, responsive to ideas and close to the pulse of imagination, I was at home.

It seemed the realities of the camera were too concrete and literal and tied to physical laws which painting never submitted to. Where was the performance, the unity of eye, hand and mind? Where were the washes, the dipped cotton rag's swaddled and certain finger reworking or erasing worlds, or the knitted brushstrokes describing containment, bound by four corners? Photography's impact dimmed. 35 mm just couldn't deliver any promising images for me. Maintaining a link with serious photography was half hearted and I gave up the notion of myself as a photographer...I'll make a bonfire one day.

By the time graduation approached, the night blindness was becoming more than a nuisance, the gut churning collisions with strangers more frequent. .But, now in the daylight too. My friend's face would struggle as he tried to contain fear and doubt when I drove the car, and once he grabbed the steering wheel from me, screaming that I almost hit a tree -I thought he was exaggerating. My roommate, scooping my apartment keys up before me on the table, dangled them in front of my face yelling incredulously, sarcastically "HERE! Right in front of your nose, why can't you find it? What is WRONG with you?"

At 24, a new and more competent eye doctor informed me I had a genetic retina dissolving disease with a deceivingly elegant name. So, I was missing that insanely minute DNA strand - that graceful arc of latticed proteins almost, almost got the sequence right in it's (my) first twist of life. That diagnosis explained a lot, but implied the unbearable. There was no cure...there is no cure. It was going to get a lot worse. What is it like? Put your hand behind the back of your head, is it blackness? It is visually... nothing. Floating in a sea of dizzying nothingness is a small, besieged island of struggling vision, a tunnel, pebbly and organic. Circular, violet tinged ripples pulse and simmer around the dimming screen on which I gaze at the world. A foot above my desk is a 100 watt lamp beaming hotly down, and that is still too dark. I almost cannot read anymore, and now use a white cane. What I clutch is, I realize, still...a lot, a world really. Still, this tiny, cloudy, tunnel affords...something, sometimes... and it is enough paint still. To recognize bright store lights as navigation at night. To see a fragment of a Roman fresco's nuanced brushwork modeling some plump, transparent glass bowl piled with vivid, glowing plums and quinces, it's rounded, delicately shimmering glass lip nicked with the ancient light an anonymous painter once clearly lingered over.

If we need our pilots Hawkeyed, then we might make allowances for artists after all, and I continue to paint.

I joined a photography class for the blind around 1993, wanting to reconnect. It wasn't that surprising when my first teacher there laughed as I explained my ideas to him. He clutched his assumptions I suppose. I was at a Blind Service Organization now, not Art School. A few years later Mark Andres took over - here was a serious and committed artist, curious about perception and the mind, and respectful of our efforts taking pictures. Talking with him about sight and its relevance has always energized. Later on, Mark remained with us through difficult times, and if it wasn't for his determination to grow together, as SWP, little would have come of our efforts. When he lugged in his old speed graphic view cameras, we first experimented with light painting. Early on, I felt that some nervy and really novel things were happening. I hadn't seen photographs like them before and Bacon or Soutine came to mind. Some found the portraits scary or weird, too unusual, wanting if not flattery, then normalcy. Many others delighted in having two noses or an ear protruding from the forehead. It never bothered me, I always liked Cubism.

It can happen that I might catch a glance, in my visions small tunnel, of someone's face, another window-fogger escaping from a street corner...perplexed, stoic or curious, staring at me half politely, trying to place me, define me (glasses and white cane?) to understand, pausing long enough to register. Similarly, SWP resists easy categorization... our work can disorient, an unfamiliar reflection or echo.

Now, finally, using Light Painting, there is no inflexible boundary for me between painting and photography, as each nourishes the other. I can integrate and include my own artwork into the photograph, often as a background, relating to the person...For example, a bird painted on Braille paper, blindfolds - implying not seeing-along side a drawn image of someone gazing at a reflection. Contradictions that have a rhythm. Occasionally I force myself to close my eyes tightly while I use the flashlight, becoming for a few concentrated minutes totally blind too. I learned this here, it is revealing.

From painting I take to the dark rooms lessons of simple shapes, pattern and arrangement. Complicated areas along side bigger graphic areas, the underlying structure, are primal to other aspects. It's interesting to distort things a bit, move them around as the exposure is made, fishing for some hoped - for - accidental alignments. It's interesting to jump in... And not know.

My friend and I were discussing my portrait "Maria" and in considering this he asked why I thought it was an interesting image. Maybe some qualities of light, a dark horizon behind her, the symmetry and balance were apparent?...His own attention and remarks were about her ring, to him the most obvious and relevant aspect "What ring?" I asked. I was confused and insisted there was no ring, having looked many, many times at this image, even enlarged, and I was certain he was mistaken."No-no, look again...she is showing you this power - object that our culture prizes, don't you see this?" and, sure enough, this important detail never registered.

Tapping and chiseling the sidewalk's territory with my cane, it is an effort to remember that all the many sighted people really are not superb beings gliding about, dodging and stepping effortlessly over and deftly around; superb beings with vibrant peripherals on able- bodied- auto- pilot. They can seem that. Awe isn't necessary. I know. I can hear enough. Some photographers hunt with eyes and capture their decisive, indelible moment like pet fish snap at their floating dinnerflakes. Am I not bold enough or not wanting to intrude? Hunting with a viewfinder, I'd starve fast.

I chose not to grab my fixed - focus camera while running out the door one horrific and frantic morning in September of 2001. I needed to verify, to witness for myself, and I never regretted that choice. What my vision "saw" that day (and my camera would have too) can't be equivalent to my internal memories, which are indelible in other ways. Both realities of that historic and overwhelming event seem valid, and valuable.

Mark, Victorine and I were teaching workshops SWP gave in the Netherlands, on this morning at the recently opened Arts Center " Cultuurherberg de Legende", run by Anja Ligtenberg's sister, Petra. Among the arriving students one morning, visible in the eastern brightness, a father, mother and two very blond twin boys, maybe five, one blind, one nearly so.

Entering the lofty room, long ago a Military Dining Hall, they led their sons tenderly into the bright sunshine on the floor flooding in from an enormous window. Feeling it's warmth on this cold morning, they lingered in it's angled embrace, heads bowed, talking softly, the sightless boy enveloped in the luminosity, walking the light's boundaries. Capturing that moment on Kodacolor seemed important in that "instant". It was too easy. A poignant cliché. I didn't click.

But another moment, a longer, many layered moment, created after that window's black velvet curtains were closed tightly later in the day, retained more meaning. Mark worked with this Dutch family, Victorine and I had different groups of students. The kids felt the camera, held the bright flashlight up to their eyes. Spun it around the floor. The blind child sensed the light, and they chose their picture ideas. Occupied with my own group, I saw their results later, scattered on the table, mixed with all that days work. Their version of reality-Archaic and amazing, intimate and sculpturally evolved, like an underwater, ethereal monument of a father tenderly balancing and embracing his sons, a silvery pyramid of strength. In other images, overexposed like submarine searchlights bleach the depths, revealing discoveries... all arms and snuggling, each lighting while posing too, now hugging, now teasing, lighting each other's faces or proudly exposed bellies or teeth, as only one's beloved can.

Something happens when any dark curtains are pulled across a window and, with the lights off, night envelopes us while we work. As odd as it may seem, after seven years together in SWP, a density has lifted and I am aware of something ablaze, and rather shocking to me... seeing may be irrelevant. This awareness is slow, very, very slow. I am uncertain of its meaning even as I write. Voices seem expansive as our hands find the cold metal of the tripod, ideas more direct and exaggerated. There is room for possibility. It is a... something ...which does not churn my gut as flinching night once did... something does happen creating imagery in the dark, with the dark, all us sighted or blind together. Mark, Victorine, myself the dozen or so participants in our workshop, Anja Ligtenberg, the filmmaker Harry Timmerman, for the moment abandoning his video - camera, trying out some light painting for himself ... feeling, thinking, trying, laughing, describing, listening...weaving something probable.

Light is essentially indifferent, angled into the lens of an eye or cold camera, we give it meaning. In the intertwining of sighted and not sighted, one thread describing another, eventually we all close our eyes in sleep, lightless sighted and blind alike, and all our dreaming eyes understand and gaze and see.
Steven Erra, 2005