Thanks to a Diamonstein-Spielvogel Fellowship, New York Public Library will be my office this fall! I’m excited to bang around the library telling people I’m doing research in the Wallach Photography Collection…
Face of the Blind: Essays on Photography
Proposal by M. Leona Godin
Many anonymous blind people populate the photographs of NYPL’s Wallach Collection. Through a series of essays, I will contextualize these blind faces within a cultural, historical, and theoretical framework. My academic, artistic, and personal interest in blindness and disability theory urges me to consider the blind subjects with as much nuance and research as possible in order to push back at the critical and curatorial tendency to focus attention almost exclusively on the sighted photographers.
Image description itself will be both a tool and a target of this research that will, as a matter of course (and, in most cases, for the first time), make these photos of blind people of the past accessible to blind people of the present and future. Additionally, the stark discontinuities between what different viewers see in the same photo helps unravel naïve ideas of the supposed obviousness of what we see.
In her 2018 book More than Meets the Eye: What Blindness Brings to Art, Georgina Kleege advocates for a playful (as well as informative) approach to image description in museum settings, and “quibbles” with the assumption that “absolute objectivity is possible or even desirable.” .
In that spirit, I turn to several individuals to describe the photos I write about. Each brings new details and perspectives to a single photo, developing the photo in my mind’s eye. It’s a kind of slow seeing, reminiscent of Susan Sontag’s call for “acts of criticism which would supply a really accurate, sharp, loving description of the appearance of a work of art,” as she wrote in “Against Interpretation.”
Among my image describers is disabled artist Finnegan Shannon. Together with blind artist Bojana Coklyat, they created the Alt Text as Poetry website and curriculum, which is doing ground-breaking work on recognizing the artistry of image description, thereby giving it the respect it deserves as sensory translation.
Similar to translation from one language to another, in translating image to text, something will be lost and something gained. The description will not be the same as the image just as The Odyssey in English is not the same as The Odyssey in Greek, but the beauty and perspective of the translation gives the ancient poem new life each time it is translated for a new generation. And it is not just about artistry, it’s about access. The poem would have been lost long ago to our cultural imagination if we had to learn ancient Greek to read it. Access then should be understood as a cultural necessity that has been with humans for a very long time. Furthermore, access is not unidirectional: when new audiences gain access to works of art, new perspectives on those works of art blossom.
Paul Strand’s iconic 1916 Blind Woman is the subject of my first essay (an excerpt of which I include as my writing sample). The photograph of a blind newspaper peddler is one of a series taken on the streets of New York City with a special prismatic lens that allowed Strand to point the camera in one direction while focusing in another. I grapple with notions of agency and objectification, identity and representation with the help of such theoretical texts as: Susan Sontag’s “The Heroism of Vision,” which contextualizes “Blind Woman” in a kind of aesthetics of misery; Jacques Derrida’s Memoirs of the Blind, which many consider a proto-disability studies text; and Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida, which introduced the punctum, a concept that helps me to begin theorizing what insights image description and the blind viewer might bring not only to “Blind Woman” but also to photography generally.
My searches of the NYPL Prints and Photos catalogue began with simple queries such as “blind woman” and “blind man,” which yielded only five hits for the former and 29 for the latter. This speaks to an underrepresentation of the blind woman in our cultural imagination. As a blind woman myself, I feel some kinship with the blind woman of the photo and employ my perspective to unravel biases about who may be the artist, who the subject, and who the critic. Presumably, the sighted curators of exhibitions that include “Blind Woman” identify not with the subject but rather with the artist, which is why they tend to focus their attention on Strand’s biography and methods. The assumed viewer (and critic) is sighted, not blind, and hence the curatorial bias.
To excavate the entrenched ableism and ocularcentrism in our cultural institutions, I’ll turn to such cornerstone texts of disability studies as Rosemarie Garland-Thomson’s Extraordinary Bodies, where she coined the term “normate” to designate a cultural position that defines itself against what it is not, namely the disabled: “Normate, then, is the constructed identity of those who, by way of the bodily configurations and cultural capital they assume, can step into a position of authority and wield the power it grants them.”
Although the subjects and themes of this collection of essays on photography have little in common with that of my book, There Plant Eyes: A Personal and Cultural History of Blindness (Pantheon, 2021), they share a methodological impulse to include as many blind and disabled voices as possible. For example, in my essay on “Blind Woman,” I quote the legally blind street photographer Flo Fox, whose words help to contextualize Strand’s somewhat devious prism-lens methods, but I expect our conversations will continue to enliven future essays.
Furthermore, this project dialogues with the work of other blind writers who wrestle with the blind types and tropes that pervade our cultural imagination. Photos that include blind street people such as beggars, musicians, and pencil sellers can be read in terms of what scholar David Bolt calls the “metanarrative of blindness,” where the blind characters of our cultural productions seem to leap out of their artform to influence how blind people are seen and treated in the “real world.”
Strand’s is not the only “Blind Woman” in the collection. There is also a 1963 photo by American photographer Neal Slaven, which should provide a nice contrast with its predecessor. In this case, I will seek to interview the photographer, perhaps even get his perspective on Strand’s photo as well as the story behind his own “Blind Woman.” Coincidentally, I’ve been a subject of Slaven’s work when he came to take a large format group photo of the blind students of the Lighthouse Music School (now the FMDG Music School) in New York City.
Besides these two blind women, there are a number of blind men possibilities, for example: two photos from the Farm Securities Administration (FSA) from 1939, “Blind Man – Paris” by Austrian-American photographer Lisette Model (1937), “Night Scene (Blind Man with Dog) by N. Jay Jaffee (1981), and “Blind Homeless Man with Couple in Ruffles with Dog” by Neil A. Meyerhoff (1990). Altogether, I’ve found 76 potential items in NYPL’s photography catalogue using the search term “blind” that describes a variety of individuals, such as “Blind musician,” “Blind veteran,” and “blind panhandler.”
With support from the NEH Long-Term Fellowship, I would be able to complete a significant number of essays while I continued to gather and investigate potential photographs for my growing database. With the ultimate goal of collecting the essays into a book, I plan to submit completed pieces to literary magazines along the way. “Blind Woman” is currently on submission with two literary magazines. Furthermore, although I can only use portions of the thoughtful and varied image descriptions I receive in the essays themselves, I plan to publish them in their entirety on my website (with the describers permission, of course), thereby making these photos accessible to blind people everywhere. Finally, I have been in touch with Chancey Fleet, who is the director of the Dimensions project at the Andrew Heiskell Library for the Blind. With her help, I’ll be able to create a series of tactile graphics that would also make these photos accessible to touch.
I believe “Face of the Blind” has the potential to expand both the reach of photography and photographic criticism, while it highlights and makes accessible a few of the wonderful objects in the NYPL Wallach Photography Collection.