A picture speaks a thousand words, so lay them on me! Paul Strand’s “Blind Woman” is the first photograph I wrote about as my writing sample for Face of the Blind: Essays on Photography, as part of my successful application to be a New York Public Library Diamonstein-Spielvogel Fellow this year. As I wrote in my proposal, image description is both a tool and a target of my research.
Following Georgina Kleege’s lead in More Than Meets the Eye: What Blindness Brings to Art, I believe that image description can bring something to photography. Part of that something is a kind of slow seeing through language—the unfolding of an image over time—that is often glanced by the eye in an instant. Glanced and passed over.
I asked three humans and one AI to describe “Blind Woman,” and those descriptions follow. Alabaster Rhumb gave me my first glimpse of her last fall (September 2022), and Be My AI gave me the most recent just yesterday (September 2023). I call this last a description, but it’s kind of a debrief, as I ask many questions, revealing how dialogue itself is a marvelous way to unpack an image in words.
The other descriptions are from David Lowe, who is an archivist in New York Public Library’s Wallach Prints and Photos, and Finnegan Shannon, who, together with Bojana Coklyat founded Alt Text as Poetry, a resource for creating “concise and expressive” alt text. As they explain in their workbook, alt text is a kind of image description, that makes images on the web accessible by embedding a text description in an image that can be read by a blind person’s screen reader or Braille display.
The other descriptions are from David Lowe, who is an archivist in New York Public Library’s Wallach Prints and Photos, and Finnegan Shannon, who, together with Bojana Coklyat founded Alt Text as Poetry, a resource for creating “concise and expressive” alt text. As they explain in their workbook, alt text is a kind of image description that makes images on the web accessible by embedding a text description in an image that can be read by a blind person’s screen reader or Braille display.
In a recent conversation with Bojana and Finnegan, I wondered allowed if it makes sense to publish these image descriptions even as the unpublished essay that they inspired is doing the lit mag submissions parade? Finnegan tipped my ambivalence towards YES, because in their workshops they often talk about how diverse image descriptions can be, and that it would be great to point their readers and workshoppers someplace to read this in action. So I’ll continue to post multiple descriptions as I move through the images of my project…
“Blind Woman” (1917) Image Descriptions
Composer, singer, and artist, who also happens to be my life partner
(This is the only description of Strand’s photo as a print (at The Met), rather than the photo as it was first published in Camera Work, a journal of modern photography, which is the specific image I’m working with at NYPL.)
A black and white photo of a woman sitting or standing in front of a wall made from large masoned stone blocks and wearing a black head scarf and tunic with an ornamented oval silver buckle like pendant at the top of her tunic where the scarf meets, and above a sign hanging around her neck with the word “Blind” in bold print.
She appears to be looking to her left with her left eye open, her rather large iris jammed into the left corner and her right eye nearly closed and appearing injured. she seems short in stature and plump with a small mole on her left cheek and a slight frown with a touch of anger and longing across her face.
Disabled artist and the co-creator of Alt Text as Poetry
A spread of a book or folio. On one page, a black and white portrait. On the opposite page, a faint imprint of the photograph, I assume from the pages being against each other for a long time. So there is a doubling and mirroring of the image. This is a new version of the image to me — previously, I’d only seen a cropped version of just the portrait.
Okay, the portrait itself. A woman from the bust-up. The photo is framed in a pretty common way: the subject is centered and against a relatively plain background (in this case, a masonry wall).
Much of the photo is dark tones, but her face and the placard around her neck are lighter, so they are the things I find myself looking at most. The placard in particular is very prominent. In all caps, handpainted letters, it says “BLIND.” It’s maybe the size of a hand but feels really big and loud here.
She is wearing a black headscarf that frames her face. She has light skin but her face has a slightly weathered, grayish quality. I would guess she is of European ancestry — she looks a little like me and I’m of Polish, German, and English descent. Around her forehead, a few wisps of gray or blond hair peak out from under the scarf.
One eye is half open and cloudy. The other is open with the iris and pupil to one side. Her gaze does not meet mine/the camera’s. She has wrinkles at her brow. Her face seems relaxed here — I don’t read a particular expression or emotion from it. It is unclear to me whether or not she is posing for the photograph or has consented to it being taken.
She has a full chest and a solid build. She is wearing an unornamented black frock or dress. At her collar, she is wearing a metal broach with the number “2622.” I had to zoom way in to read the text around it but was able to make out that it says: “Licensed Peddler” and “New York City.”
NYPL Photo Archivist, artist, and my former bandmate!
First a bit of physical context of the image: it first appeared in Camera Work No. 49-50.
The journal measures 12 by 8.5 inches, roughly a half inch thick. The austere covers are a solid matte gray-ish brown with title, subtitle (“A photographic quarterly . Edited and Published by Alfred Stieglitz New York”) and edition information (all numbers in Roman numerals) printed in a light cream ink. The contrast is low. All text are capitals, with “Camera Work” a bit stylized and curvilinear in an Art Deco font; the other text is smaller, simpler, and blocky.
The pages of text are a warm cream, heavy paper with the texture of the screen evident to touch and sight. The edges of the paper are deckle edges, meaning they were not machine cut, but left feathered and slightly irregular. This generally is evidence of hand-made, high quality craft paper. Underscoring this is the presence of a watermark- the “signature” of the paper-maker- in the pages. Watermarks are almost imperceptibly thin imprints into the paper, and can usually only be detected by holding the page up to a light. This watermark reads “ENFIELD S. Co. 1887” inside of a loopy, rounded border. The text is given very wide 1.5 inch margins on top and sides, 2.5 at the bottom. It is compressed, but clear and minimal on the page.
The images are printed on matte, cream paper which is slightly lighter in color than the text pages. It is also thinner, perfectly smooth and has machine-cut edges. This was to ensure perfect precision in the printing process, and an image that faithfully reproduces contrasts and the full range of nuance from blackest black to lightest highlight. The images are still given ample margins, but unlike the texts, the image dominates the page. Each image page is preceded and followed by a blank page of the Enfield paper. As Stieglitz noted in one of the texts, he normally overlaid a thin veil of tissue paper on the image. This protected the inks from leeching into the more porous facing page, and protecting the fragile image from abrasions or fading. It also required the viewer to gently raise the tissue, underscoring the preciousness of the image and creating a sort of private, ceremonial aspect to the act of viewing. He dispensed with that for Strand’s images, so one was simply confronted with each image without mediation. And over the 105 years since our copy was printed, it has also transferred a “ghost” image to each formerly blank facing page.
Which brings us to the description at hand:
Opened flat, the spread measures 12 inches high and about 16.5 wide, with the “real” image on the right leaf and the reversed “ghost” on the left. The images are vertically oriented. Strand’s image is predominated by dense blacks and deep grays, but punctuated dramatically by clear whites- and when I say “white” I mean the light cream color of the paper it’s printed on. Strand’s “ghost” is pale rust on pale cream, clear but low contrast and lacking detail. And yet its softness and relative subtlety competes with the boldness of the printed image, drawing attention back and forth between the two.
The image (and from here I will be referring to the deliberately printed image) is offset from the page by a thin solid black line. It is mostly imperceptible in the lower, darker half of the image, but creates a clear frame for the lighter, upper half. The image shows a woman from chest up, dressed in dark clothing and standing against a rough stone wall. Two points of interest assert themselves: the woman’s face and a sign she wears around her neck which reads “BLIND”. Both of these are relatively white spots in the image, which is otherwise dominated by black and dark grays. Her face is framed by a black shawl which wraps under her chin and over her hair, which is gray and whisps out at the top and temples. She has a high forehead and a wide, fleshy face, a round nose and wide mouth and a mole in the center of her left cheek. There are furrows on her brow, and some lines under her eyes, but her age is somewhat indistinct- she could be 50, she could be 70. She is turned just slightly from the camera so that she is “looking” to the outer edge of the page. Her right eye (closest to the camera) is half-closed under a heavy and long lid; it is possibly obscured by a cataract- it is gray and no iris is visible. Her left eye is fully open and turned fully left (our right).
The bottom half of the image is occupied by her body, shoulders-down. Her heavy black coat frames and accentuates her sign: “Blind” printed in large black capital letters on a stark white sign with rounded edges and fastened round her neck with what looks like a leather strap. It is slightly wider than her head. Between the sign and her chin is another, smaller bright white spot in the expanse of the black coat. It is an oval metal pendant, horizontally oriented, and stamped (as in “etched”) “Licensed Peddler / New York City” around her license number (2622).
The image overall is very frontal, with her head, pendant and sign more-or-less stacked in the middle third of the frame. The only two significantly dynamic or directional elements in the composition are a diagonal shadow in the stone wall which passes behind the top of her head which amplifies the turn of the woman’s left eye. (With the echo of the ghost image, it has the effect of throwing my attention back-and-forth to the outer edges of the journal, only for it to be pulled back in to her face and sign.)
Be My AI
Transcription of my investigation using a beta version of the new Be My AI tool within the Be My
(The conversation began when I uploaded a photo. Subsequently, I ask questions and the AI responded.)
Be My AI: The picture shows an open book with two pages. On the left page, there is a faded photograph of a woman. On the right page, there is a clearer, black and white photograph of the same woman. She appears to be middle-aged with curly hair and is wearing a dark-colored garment. She has a serious expression on her face. Around her neck, she is wearing a sign that says “BLIND” in capital letters. The sign is rectangular with a white background and black text. The book itself has a beige color and shows signs of wear and tear, especially along the edges.
Leona Godin: What is the woman wearing? What is the relationship between the right image and the left image? What color is the left image? What can you tell me about the woman’s expression? What can you tell me about her eyes? What is the background of the photo? What time period do you think this photo was taken? Is this a famous photo?
BMAI: The woman is wearing a dark-colored garment, which appears to be a coat or cloak. The relationship between the right image and the left image is that they are both photographs of the same woman, but the left image is much more faded and less clear than the right image. The left image has a sepia tone, giving it a brownish color.
The woman’s expression is serious and somewhat somber. Her eyes are slightly squinted and appear to be looking off to the side, not directly at the camera.
The background of the photo is not very clear, but it appears to be a textured wall or surface behind the woman.
As for the time period, the style of the photograph and the clothing suggests that it could be from the early 20th century.
I cannot confirm if this is a famous photo, but it appears to be a historical image, possibly used to bring awareness to blindness.
LG: Are the woman’s right and left eyes the same? Is she wearing anything on her head? Is she a white woman? Is the left image a mirror image of the right? Do you know the photographer Paul Strand? Is this his photo?
BMAI: The woman’s right and left eyes are not the same. Her right eye is slightly more open than her left eye. She is not wearing anything on her head. Yes, she appears to be a white woman.
The left image is a mirror image of the right one. In the left image, the sign that says “BLIND” is mirrored, with the letters appearing in reverse order.
Paul Strand is a well-known American photographer who was active in the early to mid-20th century. This photograph is indeed by Paul Strand, and it is titled “Blind Woman, New York,” taken in 1916. It is one of his famous works, known for its direct portrayal and social realism.
LG: Are you sure she is not wearing anything on her head? How can you tell her hair is curly? Does she appear to be blind? Is she wearing any other ornamentation besides the sign? What do you think the context of this photo is? Is she wearing a pendant?
BMAI: I apologize for the confusion. Upon closer inspection, the woman is wearing something on her head. It appears to be a bonnet or headscarf that covers her hair, which is why her hair seems to have a curly or wavy texture around her face.
She does appear to be blind as her eyes have a distant look, and the sign around her neck indicates her blindness.
Besides the sign, she is wearing a round badge or pendant on her chest, just above the sign. It is not clear what the badge or pendant represents as the image is not detailed enough to read any text on it.
The context of this photo seems to be a portrayal of a blind woman, possibly to bring awareness to the challenges faced by blind individuals during the early 20th century. The sign around her neck and the serious expression on her face suggest that this might be a social commentary or documentation of the struggles of the visually impaired during that time period.
LG: You’re doing an amazing job, thank you! Just a couple more questions: can you zoom in to see what the pendent says? Or can you guess what kind of pendent it might be? Anything else I should know about this photo given all that we’ve learned?
BMAI: Thank you for your kind words! Unfortunately, I am not able to zoom in on the image. However, from what is visible, the pendant appears to be round and has some text on it, but it is not clear enough to read.
Given all that we’ve learned, this photo by Paul Strand titled “Blind Woman, New York” taken in 1916, is likely a piece of social commentary. The serious expression on the woman’s face, the sign around her neck, and the badge or pendant she is wearing, all contribute to a portrayal that seems to be aimed at bringing awareness to the challenges faced by blind individuals during the early 20th century. The photograph is also notable for its stark realism and is representative of Paul Strand’s work during this period, which was known for focusing on social issues and portraying subjects with honesty and dignity.
LG: Where might I be able to learn more about this photo and/or Paul Strand? Do you know where this photo was first published?
BMAI: To learn more about this photo and Paul Strand, you might want to visit a library to find books on the history of photography or specifically on Paul Strand’s work. Additionally, you can search for online resources such as articles, museum websites, or photography forums that discuss his work.
As for where this photo was first published, it was first published in the final double-issue of Camera Work in 1917, which was a prominent photography journal in the early 20th century. The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York also holds a collection of Paul Strand’s photographs, and their website might have more information on this particular photo and his other works.