PETE ECKERT Sacramento, California
"I slip photos under the door from the world of the blind to be viewed in the light of the sighted."
To Pete Eckert, blindness is his advantage. "Vision is so strong that it masks other senses, other abilities; it even overrides visualization. Sighted photographers always talk about the difficulty of what they call 'seeing.' I tell them 'If you can't see, it's because your vision is getting in the way.'"
Eckert holds a degree in sculpture from the Art Institute of Boston, and degrees in art and design from California State University San Francisco. But it was only after he became completely blind in the mid-1980s that Eckert began to pursue photography. He started with a 1954 Kodak Retina IIa, a camera with infrared focus settings on the German-made lens. "I'm blind, so making photographs using a nonvisible wavelength really appealed to me." Eckert has an adventurous streak-he owns and occasionally rides a motorcycle and holds a first degree black belt in Tae Kwon do. Streetwise and unafraid, Eckert undertook much of his early infrared shooting late at night in far flung precincts of urban San Francisco.
"The human brain is wired for optical input, for visualization," says Eckert. "The optic nerve bundle is huge. Even with no input, or maybe especially with no input, the brain keeps creating images. I'm a very visual person, I just can't see."
Eckert considers his current mode of image-making "one shot cinema." The aim is to create open-ended narratives and capture them in a single frame. Eckert conjures up increasingly complex images and devises a way to shoot them on location or, more frequently, in the 30-foot deep studio he has built in his Sacramento backyard. He casts friends and neighbors and builds props. He sets up his Toyo 4" x 5" composite body view camera on a tripod. He notched the focus rail with set focus points using a diamond-coated jewelry file. When all is ready, Eckert throws the switches that drop his studio into total darkness and opens the camera. Eckert roams the space and "paints" his image with light.
"I use any light source I can understand." His palette includes flashlights, candles, lasers, lighters, even black powder. The roving light is an uncanny substitute for the artist's missing sight. The touch of the light sketches an image onto the film. Areas that the light misses remain blanks, darkness, unseen.
Shutter open, Eckert moves through the darkness deploying his lights to build the image he sees in his mind. "Where I'm going is so different that I have to have a plan. I structure all my shoots the same way. I visualize and then I adapt. I assume it will be about three-quarters the way I planned, and a quarter what happens." The photograph, of course, is a record of a scene before the camera. But with Eckert, it captures more: the artist's gesture, the passage of time, the realization of a mental image, and the outward manifestation of a purely inner mode of seeing.