Volume 6 • Number 3 • August 2013
The Old Man and the See
The Old Man and the See
by Huntington Witherill
OK… I’ll come right out and say it: I've recently experienced a rather significant retinal tear in my dominant eye. I figure I’m allowed to talk about this because, like it or not, at age 64, I’m fast approaching the threshold of becoming what they refer to as an old person. And talking about our maladies is what we old people tend to do. So, bear with me. I only bring this up to talk about the condition as it relates to my photography.
Although it’s not a big secret to those who know me well, I’ve always had less than optimal eyesight. From an early age I’ve worn the kind of eyeglasses that the school bully used to refer to as "Coke bottle bottoms." Without my glasses, my vision has consistently hovered in the range of 20/250 and 20/450 (meaning that, worst case, what a normal eye is able to clearly see at a distance of 450 feet, I would likely have trouble discerning at a distance beyond about 20 feet). However, with my eyeglasses, my vision is correctable to a range closer to 20/30 and 20/40. Thus, I’m easily able to get around without walking into the walls (as I was apparently prone to do prior to getting my first pair of eyeglasses at the age of four).
And of course, I'm not the only photographer who works with a visual impairment. There are many photographers, painters, sculptors, and other types of visual artists who have successfully (and historically) worked in the face of visual complications far worse than my own. Therefore, I’m not whining here (nor fishing for sympathy and/or advice). Contrarily, and though it may come as a surprise to some, my overall lack of visual acuity can actually serve as a decidedly positive and helpful tool in allowing me to more easily formulate and resolve photographic compositions (something I’ll further explain, below).
In light of this recent occurrence though, I just have to take the opportunity to count my lucky stars! Were it not for current laser treatment technologies and modern medicine (not to mention the advent of an autofocus camera!) I’d have long ago felt compelled to abandon photography for a career that didn’t depend so predominately upon one’s visual health.
My family history is such that a good number of my ancestors experienced total blindness by the time they were into their seventies. Thus, my own visual condition is an inherited one and really no different than what they experienced. It’s just that modern medicine has afforded me alternatives that were simply unavailable in their time. As my highly respected retinal specialist once told me when I inquired about the kinds of treatments available back in those days: "Unfortunately, in the old days, we could do little more than to wish our patients well… and issue them a cane!"
Needless to say, I am truly fortunate, and couldn’t be more thankful for the blessings, opportunities, and alternatives that I’ve been afforded!
At the same time, there are some visual complications that will need to be (and are currently being) addressed so as to insure that what I see in a photographic image (and here I mean physically, rather than aesthetically) is, as best it can be, the same thing that you are seeing. Actually, adjusting my photographs so that you see what I see is something that I’ve always had to contend with, so it’s not really a new situation for me. And, this is not the first time I’ve experienced a retinal tear. I had a similar occurrence (though not nearly as extensive) about 15 years ago. It’s just that my ability to make precisely assured judgments in terms of minor contrast adjustments, subtle color changes, and relative sharpness, have each been further complicated by this recent episode.
As luck would have it, I’ve been working digitally for nearly 22 years, now. Working with a computer to produce photographs (at its most basic level) essentially boils down a series of changes involving the use of numbers. And those numbers can be effectively adjusted and reconfigured to closely approximate and display the visual differences between what I actually see, and what you might see. As an example, I’ve always known that, due to my less than optimal visual acuity, I would be predisposed to over-sharpen an image so that I could see the image with greater clarity. However, knowing this to be the case, I’ve always consciously reduced the level of image sharpening that I employ (or, as is often the case, not sharpened the image, at all) in order to compensate for the relative disparity.
At the same time, a somewhat less desirable issue has now surfaced as a result of this recent event. And that has to do with my ability to work at a computer for as many hours each day. Up until a couple of months ago, I routinely found myself working at the computer for 10-12 hours most every day. Yet, I now find myself becoming visually fatigued (and too often frustrated) after just a few hours of work in front of the computer monitor. As a result, I’m beginning to see that my work production has slowed, considerably. Truth be told, I don’t worry about a slow-down in production because, of course, it is quality, and not quantity that is important. Nevertheless, I’m being forced to face the inevitable reality that nature is starting to catch up with me. I'm learning that, despite my wishes to the contrary, I simply cannot continue to work at the same relative pace that may have been my "standard operating procedure" in years past. Accordingly, I’m also taking a few steps to make some necessary adjustments in my work schedule. (And, at least in part, those adjustments are being reflected in the forthcoming print price increase and editions revision announcement).
Now, I previously mentioned the idea that my relative lack of visual acuity could serve to enhance my ability to formulate and frame photographic compositions. Here’s how that works for me: I refer to the phenomenon as being a kind of built-in "visual simplification" filter. Because of my near-sightedness, and upon initial inspection of a given scene, I may not necessarily see all of the finite details that the normal eye will be more easily able to identify and focus upon. I’m best able to focus and concentrate on the basic array of shapes and forms, their relative spatial relationships to one another, and the overall visual building blocks that tend to comprise the basis (the foundation) of a good photographic composition. By emphasizing the overall forms and shapes that comprise the scene (and minimizing attention to all the finite details), achieving a sense of visual balance and congruity within the composition, itself, becomes a far more direct and simplified process.
You can test this for yourself by trying the following exercise: Next time you are out searching for photographs, squint your eyes when viewing the scene. What you’ll notice is that most all of the details in the scene will disappear and you’ll be seeing the scene as little more than a series of larger "blobs" of shape and form. In the absence of all those details you will be viewing what amounts to a graphic over-simplification of the scene itself. Viewing the scene in this way, you may well find that establishing your initial composition and point of view will be more easily (and quickly) determined, resolved, and achieved.
How will the partial retinal detachment affect my ability to photograph into the future? Personally, I don’t see it as being a detriment. Though, obviously, you (the viewer) and Father Time shall serve as the final arbiters. I plan to forge ahead as though nothing has changed. And in fact, with my "visual simplification" filter having now been further refined, I look forward to the possibility of producing some of the best photographs I’ve ever been able to achieve. Not quite as many, perhaps. But hopefully... at least a worthy few.