Sight Unseen: An Interview with Pete Eckert
Pete Eckert has been blind for half of his life. A gifted artist from California with university degrees in sculpture, art and design, he learned in his 20s that he was going blind. When he switched tracks and earned an MBA, he couldn’t get a banking job because of the stigma attached to blindness. He eventually returned to art and took up photography, exploring Sacramento (often at night) with a guide dog also trained to protect him. Eckert’s work is now featured in our exhibition Sight Unseen: International Photography by Blind Artists. Open until September 18, Sight Unseen explores the idea that blind people can often see in ways that sighted people cannot, and sparks thought and conversation about the rights of people with disabilities – and the attitudes or stereotypes that continue to pose barriers. I recently spoke with Pete Eckert to talk about the motivation behind his work, the challenges faced by persons with disabilities and the promise of new technologies for these groups.
Could describe your art to us?
I do something called “painting with light slow-speed photography” and I do long exposures. I look for metaphors to show people the world of the blind. So I describe it as seeing by the speed of sound instead of by the speed of light.
What does it represent and how do you go about creating it?
I jump from project to project. What I look for is metaphors to produce a visual image but I’m looking for ways to describe what it’s like to be a blind person.
When did you discover photography as an art form and why did you choose that medium to convey that message?
I was doing wood cuts. I was trained as a sculptor and I’ve always liked making things. I was a machinist. I made parts for a Pratt & Whitney aircraft. I was a carpenter and ran a small construction crew, so I like making things. Doing wood cuts is too slow and so I was looking for a faster method to produce a product. I figured if I succeeded, great. If I crashed and burned, I wouldn’t have put so much effort into it. I ran across an old camera, and I was hooked.
2016 is the 10th anniversary of the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of People with Disabilities. What do you think is the significance of featuring your art in a human rights museum?
It’s acknowledgement that the photography of the blind is an actual emerging art form. We’re beginning to be put into art history books, so it gives us credibility. We’re not just a novelty.
Many of the people – about two thirds of the people in the show I know personally. Some of whom I talk to quite often. Kurt Weston I know, and Alice Wingwall. Bruce Hall and I are in touch quite often. He and I are in a small group called the blind photographers’ guild, so we’re in contact quite often.
Are you active in human rights movements for the blind?
The blind, as a group, aren’t as cohesive as some of the other disabled groups. And so politically, we’re a little fractured, so I’ve done some projects of my own and I’ve done some with other blind folks, but I’ve never gotten into a large group. I’ve considered being a civil rights lawyer, specializing in work for the blind, and social security and disability cases too, but I’m a little bit high-strung and I thought that I would be so excitable about civil rights that it would shorten my life span and that I’d probably become very aggressive. So I’m basically going into a different route, going into art and having more fun.
You’ve said that this is probably the best time in history to be a blind person. Why is that?
As in the United States, Canada has a lot of laws that help enable the blind. Technology – the iPhone, all of the smart phones – are great tools for the blind, and my talkative guide dog here with me helps me out. So there’s more tools and possibilities. And there’s an actual implant called the Argus II – the company is called Second Sight – and I hope that at some time in my life, I will be able to see some again.1
You mentioned that things seem to be more progressive in Canada than in the United States. Why is that? What have you experienced here that is so different?
Well, for one, this museum! We have nothing like this in the States: a museum that has a mandate to be accessible to the disabled. You know, all the Museums and public spaces are to follow the Americans with Disabilities Act, but they’re slow to comply.
Are there any examples of accessibility features that you’ve really enjoyed here at the Museum that you haven’t experienced elsewhere?
Yes, the 3D tactile images that you all have for the Sight Unseen show. That’s the first time I’ve seen them and I’m very impressed with them.
1 For more information on what is also being called the “bionic eye” : http://www.secondsight.com/g-the-argus-ii-prosthesis-system-pf-en.html