On October 19, 2023, I was honored to present my work-in-progress as a 2023-24 NYPL Diamonstein-Spielvogel Fellow at the New York Public Library. Thanks to Deirdre Donohue and David Lowe for supporting this talk with their brilliance and kindness! The entire talk with ASL interpreters is below as a Vimeo link and my lecture notes follow.
Face of the Blind: Essays on Photography
*You may notice that many of my lines are cut short in these notes. That is because, sadly, my Braille skills are still not swift enough to pull off a lecture. Instead of using my eyes or fingers to read, I use my ears. That is, I repeat what is said into my right earbud by my screen reader (text-to-speech app). Although I format the Word doc with very large margins, I find that I need to doctor it further by putting line breaks where they match punctuation and phrasing so that, as I arrow down through the document, I have a chance of sounding “natural.”*
Thank you Deirdre and thanks to all of you for being here!
I’ll begin with a self-description:
I am a blind person
of northern and southern European peasant ancestry
I’ve got long brown hair.
And AI says I appear to be in my thirties or forties, so we’re going with that.
I’m wearing a sheer black turtleneck and black jacket, and my brand new silver bat earrings are dangling!
Self description is a kind of image description
that provides access to the visual world for people who are blind.
Quick note on my use of the word, blind.
I’m using it in its broadest sense.
The vast majority
of us have some vision
or have had some vision.
I was born with a degenerative eye disease and have lived on pretty much every notch of the sight-blindness spectrum.
I no longer have vision myself, but still consider my self to be a very visual person.
When I get a good image description, or several, the image takes shape in my mind’s eye.
At some point it turns from being a collection of words to being an image that is stored in my brain as a mental picture.
I should say that
not all blind people construct or retain mental images in this way,
any more than all sighted people do.
For those who have some residual vision, an image description can help them organize or identify what they can see.
Here’s an underlying theme in this talk:
What appears at first as accessibility for a specific disabled group, actually benefits all of us.
This is kind of a law of universal design. The classic example is curb cuts. They were fought for
by wheelchair users,
but benefit those with strollers and suitcases.
More salient here is the fact that audio described movies began as accessibility but are now enjoyed by uber drivers and long-haul truckers!
In the self-describe access moment,
we also have the opportunity to identify ourselves in the way we want.
We can take control of the way others perceive us.
We have a chance to direct the gaze and show our personality.
A couple weeks ago the NYPL Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs hosted an image description workshop led by disabled artists Bojana Coklyat and
Finnegan Shannon. They founded
We began the workshop by self-describing and it was a great ice-breaker. Things I learned during this session:
one librarian wore clothes to work that are as close to pajamas as she can get away with.
And another wore a bob’s Burgers Lanyard. We were all envious!
And That David and Deirdre were wearing matching pinstripe cap and suit respectively.
In the self-describe access moment people also have a chance to tell others their pronouns, race identities, and disability status.
In a way, self-description allows for a moment of staring that can be productive in the way that disability scholar,
Rosemarie Garland-Thomson discusses in,
How We Look.
“staring can roil up
common unease on both sides of those ogling eyes,”
the angst can be productive:
“Triggered by the sight of someone who seems unlike us, staring can begin an exploratory expedition into ourselves
and outward into new worlds.”
Self-describing can help direct the stare and control it to some extent.
I think the photographs of blind people I’m discovering in the collection
A few of which we’ll be discussing today have a similar potential.
Portraiture is a kind of rarified staring.
When we put what we see into words, it is often the case that we must confront
our dearly-held ideas about difference.
Image description may force us to put things that are scary or distasteful into language, and to challenge our ideas of normalcy.
My project is called Face of the Blind.
It’s a planned series of essays
anonymous blind photographic subjects.
In these essays I’m working to contextualize the blind faces within a cultural, historical, and theoretical framework.
My academic, artistic,
and personal interest in blindness and
urges me to consider the blind subjects
with as much nuance and research as possible.
this is in order to push back at the critical and curatorial tendency to focus attention almost exclusively
on the sighted photographers.
It’s vital, and revitalizing,
to make photos
of blind people of the past accessible
to blind people of the present and future.
For the most part,
these representations have not been accessible to the very people who share the identity of the subjects.
Access is the first step in reframing the critical and curatorial conversation
to include the blind perspective.
In this way
Image description can bring something to the art of photography itself.
Seeing through language is necessarily a slowed-down kind of seeing that forces the sighted viewer to see more.
As someone said in our alt text workshop, “The more you look, the more you see.”
Additionally, the stark discontinuities between what different viewers see
in the same photo
helps to unravel
about the supposed obviousness and immediacy
of sight itself.
Our identities and experience determine what we see in a very literal way.
Seeing happens not just in the eyes but in the brain.
Just as the self-describe allows us
to encode what others see of us,
image description can direct the gaze to alternate aspects of a photo.
I like to call this kind of seeing through language, slow seeing.
The concept was inspired by 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.”
Description itself has the power to transform what we see
(or hear, smell, touch)
in a work of art.
A quick note about alt text versus image description.
Image description is a widely used and generic term for translating the visual into the verbal.
Art historians are very good at describing images. If you’ve ever had a tour in a museum, you’ve probably had the experience of having things in a painting pointed out to you that were, after all right before your eyes, and yet hidden.
Alt text is a specific type of image description that embeds text into a digital image that is accessible to blind people through text to speech software and braille displays.
This kind of image description should be kept fairly brief.
As the Alt Text as Poetry workbook states:
“While there are times for long and lavish descriptions, alt-text usually aims for brevity.
For most images, one to two sentences will do.
Poetry has a lot to teach us about paring down language to create something that is expressive,
Today, David and I will use the term alt text to designate our brief initial descriptions of the photos
We’ll be discussing.
to distinguish them from the longer and more involved descriptions we’ll refer to,
which I’m using as source material for my writing.
They are not literal alt text, but could be used as such!
As a blind person, I’ve noticed that a lot of sighted people are shy about image description. They tend to be afraid that they are going to do it wrong.
I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that the only wrong kind of image description is
an absent image description.
I’m also going to stretch and say that image description cannot be truly objective,
and to put that kind of restraint on a human necessarily makes them tongue-tied.
what image description brings to photography
riffs on the subtitle
of the 2018 book
More than Meets the Eye:
What Blindness Brings to Art
by Georgina Kleege
Kleege is a blind author and “art lover.”
She 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 photograph, developing the photo in the mind’s eye.
Now are some image descriptions better than others?
Of course. Just like some of us are better writers or speakers than others.
That doesn’t stop us from shooting off emails and our mouths!
And of course, the more you do it, the more comfortable you are with it.
There are many ways into a verbal description.
Naming the first thing that you notice is a great way to start.
in Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes, famously discusses the punctum.
The punctum, he says,
“is this element which rises from the scene,
shoots out of it like an arrow,
and pierces” the individual viewer in a very particular way.
So the thing that reaches out and pierces you as an individual is something you might start with.
In an image description.
As I’m a blind person studying photographs,
image description is both source material and access to source material.
What do I mean by that?
First and most simply, image descriptions provide access to these photos. Or I should say to the stuff in the photos.
Even before that though,
I need to find the photos.
I need the metadata in a catalogue record
to tell me that the subject is blind, or appears blind.
This would be the case even if I were a sighted researcher.
First access is curtesy meta data.
Thus, when we are afraid to name a disability because of squeamishness about disability,
it creates a barrier to access.
We will all sometimes get things wrong when it comes to the identity of the other. We need to be ok with that. Ok with making mistakes.
If we are afraid to call a person blind, or say that they appear blind, that is a kind of erasure.
And I must say that I’ve encountered this kind of timidity in the image descriptions generated by both humans and AI!
Metadata can be helped along by image descriptions. The two things combined provide access.
These first layers of access have a cascading effect
that result in the possibility of a blind critical gaze.
As Kleege puts it:
“True access needs to be understood as something more than a one-sided act of generosity or charity.
The presence of those formerly excluded people must be understood to invite a wholesale scrutiny of what the culture takes for granted about itself.”
“blind people can bring a perspective that has not been articulated before.”
Considering the blind critic and researcher means confronting anew such questions as:
have been silenced
in the broadest terms,
and what cultural losses accrue because of such curatorial and critical silences?
Conversation with David Lowe
With those heavy questions hanging in the air, I’ll invite David Lowe, photo specialist
In the Wallach Division of art, prints and photographs
into the conversation.
David, thanks so much for being here with me!
You want to self-describe?
Paul Strand – New York City – Blind Woman (1917):
A black and white image of a woman from the bust-up, centered and against a plain masonry wall. Much of the photo is dark tones, but her face and the placard around her neck are lighter. The placard, in all caps, says “BLIND.” The image is printed on the right page of an open journal (Camera Work), and the ink has created a reversed ghost image on the left page.
The origin of this project
The prism camera and the likelihood that BW had some vision.
The usefulness of the sign. No white canes back then.
Context: no newspapers, but her peddler pendent.
One informant mentioned he noticed a scowl. Perhaps explained in part by this article:
“Cheating the Blind: Sad Experiences of Sightless Newsdealers”
One woman from a husband and wife newspaper selling team told the Times in 1921:
“Do people try to cheat us?” Mrs. Lyon laughed heartily. ” Do they, honey why they’d take the eyes out of our head If we had ’em and didn’t watch out! ”
Walter Silver – Blind Pencil Vender (1950’s):
A man in a heavy coat sits on the ledge of what appears to be a department store window with a woman visible behind the glass. The man holds pencils in one hand and a sign written on the lid of the box that he’s holding on his lap with the words: “Blind” in big letters, and in smaller print: “Please buy a pencil. Thank you.” He has a wood hook cane and he is looking down. In front of the window next to him, there is a stack of newspapers bundled neatly.
More context than Strand. Another sign.
Holding his pencils and perhaps dropping money into the box for safety.
Pencil venders were already an old, sad story in 1890. How the Other Half Lives by Jacob Riis:
“The blind beggar alone is winked at in New York’s streets, because the authorities do not know what else to do with him. There is no provision for him anywhere after he is old enough to strike out for himself. The annual pittance of thirty or forty dollars which he receives from the city serves to keep his landlord in good humor; for the rest his misfortune and his thin disguise of selling pencils on the street corners must provide.”
Neal Slavin – New York City – Blind Woman (1963):
A black and white photograph showing 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. The print is fairly high contrast, dominated by solid blacks and pure white highlights, and most of the grays are lighter than dark.
No context without talking to Neal. As one informant (his wife!) said:
“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.”
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.”
Was this a photo that had “blind” in its original title?
Shyness of describers, including Be My AI, in mentioning her eyes that indicate some level of blindness.
This leads to a discussion about the relationship between image description and metadata.
And then we open up for questions!