“New York City, Blind Woman” (1963) is by Neal Slavin, world-respected photographer and film director. I first met Neal, briefly, at the old Lighthouse Music School (now FMDG Music School), where he brought his ICP students to assist him in taking a large group shot of all us students—children and adults, with and without our instruments. More on that photo to come…
David Lowe re-introduced us, and the three of us met in NYPL’s Wallach Prints and Photos room in Schwarzman to chat about his “Blind Woman,” which was among the first serious photos Neal ever took!
Despite it being sixty years, Neal perfectly recalls seeing this woman begging on the subway, moving between cars with her white cane. “She was so impressive to me,” he said, “that I had to photograph her.”
“Blind Woman” (1963) Image Descriptions
Be My AI
This was my first glimpse of her. Notice that Be My AI does not recognize the woman as blind. In other photos I’ve showed it and asked, “does the person appear blind,” the AI makes tentative identifications when there is a white cane or dark glasses involved. In this case, it does not notice the facial features that indicate blindness—the closed eye and upturned eyeball.
Be My AI: The picture you’ve shared is a black and white portrait of an elderly woman. She is wearing a dark-colored beret-style hat. Her face is the main focus of the image, and she has a serious expression. The woman’s skin shows signs of aging with wrinkles, especially around her eyes and mouth. The background is blurred and not very distinguishable. The photograph has a vintage feel to it.
Leona Godin: Does the woman appear to be blind? Is she wearing any jewelry? Can you say anything about what she’s wearing? What’s her hair like? Does she appear to be blind? What color are her eyes? Is she a white woman? Is she wearing makeup?
BMAI: The woman does not appear to be blind in the picture. She is not wearing any jewelry that is visible. She is wearing a dark-colored beret-style hat, but the rest of her clothing is not visible in the picture. Her hair is not visible as it is covered by the hat. Her eyes are not distinguishable in color since the photo is black and white, but they appear to be light-colored. She appears to be a white woman. It does not seem like she is wearing any makeup.
LG: Does she appear to be looking into the camera? Are her shoulders or any part of her body visible?
BMAI: The woman does not appear to be looking directly into the camera; her gaze seems to be slightly off to the side. Her shoulders and the upper part of her chest are visible in the picture. She seems to be wearing a dark-colored outfit, but specific details of the clothing are not distinguishable.
LG: What time period do you think this photo was taken? Is the photographer famous? Do you know Neal Slavin? Is this his photo?
BMAI: The photo has a vintage feel to it, which might suggest it could be from the mid-20th century, but it’s hard to determine the exact time period just from the image. There is no information available in the picture to indicate if the photographer is famous or if it was taken by Neal Slavin. Neal Slavin is a known photographer, but without any specific markings or signatures, it’s not possible to confirm if this photo is his work.
LG: What style of photography would you say this is?
BMAI: This photograph can be categorized as a portrait in black and white. The style seems to focus on capturing the subject’s facial expression and mood, which is often referred to as “expressive portraiture”. The vintage feel and the close-up framing of the face are characteristic of classic portraiture. The black and white color scheme adds a timeless and somewhat dramatic effect to the image.
David is a photo archivist in the Wallach Division of Prints and Photos at NYPL. He emailed me this description in advance of our meeting with Neal.`
Neal Slavin’s “New York City, Blind Woman” (1963) is a small (about the size of a small paperback book) black and white photograph. It is fairly high contrast, dominated by solid blacks and pure white highlights, and most of the grays are lighter than dark.
It shows a frontal view of a woman’s face, occupying the upper 2/3 or more of the frame. She is very slightly left of center. She wears a dark cap which forms a black crescent at the upper edge of the image, and her dark dress makes the lower third of the image almost uniformly black. This composition concentrates attention on the woman’s features. Bangs sweep downward from under the cap, stopping just short of her arched brows. Her eyes are set deeply, with dark shadows over each of them. She is lit from her right, our left, so the shadows are deeper overall in the center and right of the image.
Her eyes are separated by a broad nose, her right slightly open and the left almost completely closed. The iris of her right eye is directed upward. Her cheekbones are broad, and her left cheek sunken beneath, causing a deep shadow. Her mouth is wide and unsmiling, the lower lip thin and pale under two irregular arches of the upper lip, rendered black perhaps by dark lipstick. Under her sunken cheek, to the side of her mouth, the skin is irregularly creased or wrinkled. Her jaw and chin are only slightly tapered, but come to a shallow point accentuated by her black clothing.
As the image is closely focused on her face, there is very little background. However, in the upper right corner is an arched form, likely some architectural detail. It is a thin gray band which cuts off the upper right corner of the image, and echoes the black crescent of the woman’s hat.
LG Note: I shared Be My AI’s description with David and he replied: “I didn’t address her age. The elderly may be overstating. Sixties?”
I put Neal Slavin’s Wife on the spot for a description when she came to meet him at the library, and she totally rose to the occasion! Also present was David Lowe who pops in and out of our conversation. There was quite a lot going on around us at that point, so I’ve lightly edited our conversation, and all transcription errors are mine. One thing to note is how enjoyable live image description is. There’s something about the back and forth of conversation that really helps to cement an image in my mind’s eye.
Leona Godin: You can start anywhere. There are no wrong answers!
Anita Burkhart: When I look at this photo, it could either be very contemporary, or it could be fifty years ago. we have room for things.
It’s a black and white photograph. Her bangs show below what could be a cap, or a large headband. Then she’s got a black–looks like it might be a black—scarf. That’s what I see. And she’s wrapped up for the winter.
That’s really all you can see. The focal point is her face.
You can’t really tell how old she is other than the fact that her eyes, the lids, come down. Her eyes are half closed. One eye is definitely closed. The left eye.
We can’t really tell how old she is, because you can’t see if she has a lot of wrinkles. One of her cheeks is sort of sunken in.
LG: Is it just because of the shadows?
AB: It doesn’t look like that. Her cheek is sunken. So I don’t think it is the shadow.
AB: Because it’s a shadow where it’s depressed.
I always look at this image and find it very haunting. A very haunting photograph. Because you don’t know if there’s something wrong with her . And there are a lot of questions.
But I would say that my guess would be that maybe she is partially blind.
LG: That would be the most obvious?
AB: I think that’s the first thing you look at, her eyes.
LG: What I understand is that the one that’s not closed is like, looking up.
AB: Yeah, it looks like her eyeball is looking back, looking up and back. So it’s not quite functioning properly.
LG: Does it look like she’s wearing makeup or anything?
AB: It looks like she has on lipstick. And it doesn’t look like it was put on too carefully.
LG: [Laughs] Gotcha.
AB: Or else, It could be just the shape of her lips.
LG to David Lowe: Yeah, you said something about that too. That her lips were a little askew?
DL: Yeah, a bit irregular.
AB: And she has a very thin lip. But it is hard to tell how old she is.
LG: So she doesn’t have a lot of wrinkles, aside from that depression?
AB: Yeah, the cheek.
LG: I wonder if it’s like missing teeth?
AB: It could be. This was taken on the Bowery, right?
LG: I just learned from Neal that it was on the subway. She was begging on the subway.
One describer said that her hat looked like a beret…
AB: It looks like a close knit cap, so it could be the same material as a beret.
LG: So like a winter cap.
AB: Or it could be one of those headbands that go around the top of your head and cover your ears.
AB: But it’s hard to tell. There’s some light behind but it’s just silhouetting.
AB to DL: It’s not a beret, right? Just a knit cap.
DL: I think that’s what I said.
LG: It’s covering her ears? That’s what makes it look like a winter cap?
DL: I think in the printing Neal pushed the blacks, so if there were details to indicate what kind of hat, it’s kind of lost.
AB: Yes, the blacks are all kind of the same.
LG: And now knowing it was a subway, I wonder if those light parts behind her could be subway lights?
AB: Yeah, but they just silhouette her. You can’t really tell what they are.
LG: See, I knew you’d be good at this! Thank you.
For a fun comparison, check out these image descriptions for Paul Strand’s “Blind Woman,” published in Camera Work in 1917.