Wednesday, August 29, 2012

An Essay Question

Joel Sternfeld, A Blind Man in His Garden, Homer, Alaska, July 1984, (from American Prospects Series)

(Description a bearded man wearing a hat, a tan shirt, open at the neck and dark coloured pants stands beside and his shoulder is partially obscured by tall purple delphiniums in the centre of a garden.)

Joe and I made our way to the Flora and Fauna exhibit at the National Gallery and while rolling around found this picture called: A Blind Man in His Garden, Homer, Alaska, July 1984 by Joel Sternfeld. I admit to spending a lot of time looking at this picture. I kept trying to figure out what was being said to me, if anything was being said at all.

Questions popped around in my head:\

Why did the artist tell us that the man was blind? Is that an important aspect of the picture? If it is an important aspect of the picture, why?

And that my dear friends is my essay question for you all. I've had a long day, and am very tired, I'd like to think on this some more and this time respond to your comments rather than write mine out firsts.

So, the clock is ticking, get your fingers poised over the keyboard ... go!


rikke said...

It's a lovely photo, and it doesn't appear obviously relevant that the man is blind... but somehow the artist must have thought it was relevant since he mentioned it in the title. Maybe the artist was surprised that a person who is blind can have their own garden?

Anonymous said...

Yes, his blindness seems completely relevant to me, since this is about a man experiencing a garden through senses other than vision. His face is only inches from the flowers (smell), and he is standing in the middle of them, seemingly with his arm around them (touch). He presumably can hear any insects that might be buzzing around them, and hear them swaying in the wind. That sends a powerful message to me about my own limited perception of gardens as something to be looked at, generally from a distance.

But I have an question for you (or other readers). Even before reading your challenge to us, what struck me was your description of the photo. You told us what the man was wearing, that his collar was open, that his shoulder was obscured. But you did not mention the man's race or his age. Why not? Is it an important aspect of the picture that he is white and old? Would this have had a different meaning if he were non-white? Or young? Would you have mentioned it in your description if he were non-white or young? Why?

Just food for thought... I realize this isn't a blog on race or age.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting. Indeed it is a lovely photo. The magnitude of the delphiniums are almost overwhelming.

The description given is very important. For one - such lovely blooms must be exceedingly difficult in the cold growing climate of Alaska. An amazing feat. Secondly - from an artistic sense - what a juxtaposition. The immense visual beauty created by someone who will never enjoy it with his eyes.

First wave that hits is one of sadness. A sorrow that he will never really know the depth of the beauty from his hands. But that washes away quickly. Then a wave of wonderment as to why he would spend the time and effort to create such a visual element. Then the thought breaks over you - why not? Does it not truly speak to his abilities verses any disability? Is the enjoyment limited due to his blindness? Of course not.

Imagine all the aspects of the garden. The planning, the planting, the cultivating and the final product. So much of him is reflected in the beauty of the garden.

And even though others obviously enjoy his endeavours, one senses that he doesn't do it for the praise - otherwise he probably wouldn't be living in Homer - but for the personal satisfaction.

He seems to be defying and embracing his disability - in a glorious manner.

Mary said...

At a passing glance, the photo looks like a slightly scruffy bloke standing in an overgrown jumble of flora.

But the picture is not entitled "Man in a meadow," "Man in a nature reserve," or "Man in an overgrown backyard".

If someone says "garden", our initial construct is of something quite orderly (flowerbeds at least, maybe paths, lawns, bare earth where weeds have been removed) and often we will consider the visual appeal before anything else - even more so when we are being shown a photograph, a colour photograph. This photo is not what we expect from a photo of a garden.

More importantly, the word "his" implies ownership. This is not "a" garden he happens to be standing in, it's "his" garden.

Combine it with the clue "blind" and all of a sudden it becomes clear that this is not a garden designed to look pretty on a photograph.

That's the point where I fall down, because I don't know nearly enough about plants to be able to figure out what's happening there, and the web-res picture gives no clues to the man's emotion (which could well just be "ffs Junior, take your damn picture already so we can get back to the game," this looks more like a posed rather than a candid shot).

I don't know if those plants are there because he chose them, because they have wonderful scents and textures creating peaceful bliss - or if it's a hostile environment full of weeds and nettles and stinging things - or if maybe it was his traditional, orderly garden that he maintained before he lost his sight which has now run wild.

I guess whatever the story is, the artist believed the fact of the man's blindness was a relevant one.

Anonymous said...

Maybe we were told he was blind to remind us that gardens can be enjoyed on more than just the visual level. Like the senses that Anonymous 01:46 mentioned, including taste. Flower blossoms, grown without pesticides, can be delicious.

Ultimately, by pondering all the senses involved in tending a garden, one is reminded that gardens nurture not just one's senses, but one's very soul.


joanne said...

this photo would have caught my attention primarily because of the size of the flowers/delphinium. Living in northern Ontario, I find it a challenge to grow anything. Secondly, the mention that the man is blind inspires me to think of my garden in other ways than just through sight. Would I have the determination to continue to garden without my sight? Lastly, I too wondered why the description of his clothing? It reminded me of "watching" a t.v. comedy with the verbal descriptors (for persons who do not have vision) which seemed to completely miss the point. Can "seeing" people really point out accurately to "non-seeing" people what needs to be seen? (please excuse the vocabulary). Interesting Dave, thanks! have a great day all.

Anonymous said...

I'm a romantic. I like to think he grew the garden for his wife who loves flowers. ;) That being said, living with someone who is completely blind, I can say that the beauty of gardens and nature, in general, are never lost on her. She just enjoys them differently. I like to think the title told us he was blind b/c it makes you think about how things can be enjoyed beyond the most popular ways. Think about the responses he'd receive for such a lovely garden too. When I deliberated for days on the colour scheme of her bedroom, people thought I was crazy. However, how people respond to her room matters to her, having a favourite colour (or flower in his case) isn't a privilege just for the sighted. Thanks for sharing this, nice to be made to think sometimes instead of just consuming blog posts!

Alison Cummins said...

Completely relevant. The viewer of the photograph experiences the garden only visually; the gardener experiences the garden with all senses except vision. The photo is a little mini-essay about art and experience.

Liz Miller said...

I like Alison's answer best.

And also perhaps there is a bit of poignancy in the profusion of color, the vivid purple of the delphiniums that is almost an assault on the visual cortex that this man - standing in his own garden - doesn't experience.

I wonder if the scents in the garden make as powerful a statement as the color.

Defying Gravity said...

I was thinking about the fact that sighted people are used to thinking that vision is the 'best' way to understand the world, yet in this case the blind man will experience the garden much more vividly (because he's there in it) than the sighted people looking at the photograph will (because it's just a photo.)

However it also occurs to me that portrait photographers often use titles to distinguish between a series of photos of these kinds, and that they're often (deliberately I think) quite basic and not very illuminating.

Anonymous said...

Why did the artist tell us that the man was blind? Is that an important aspect of the picture? If it is an important aspect of the picture, why?

I like it that the artist told us the man was blind. It changes the picture for me completely.

First off, a person with good vision would look at that picture and think "pretty garden". It's visual, the picture. The viewer percieves the garden visually.

Knowing the man was blind, and that it's "his" garden is important. Suddenly the visually pretty garden is more - so much more. This garden is not visually seen by the man who made/keeps it. So it makes me think of all the things a garden really is, the smell of all the growing things. The texture of the soil and the feel of the plants. The insects and birds that will be present and the sounds they make. So very much more than just a "pretty picture".

Knowing the man is blind brings all those things to mind. Knowing the man is blind and cannot see the "pretty picture" brings to mind for me what he does "see" with his other senses.

That's why I like it.

Anonymous said...

So I did write an essay, it took me a while but that’s prob a good thing so I don’t clog up the message board. L

I think we can come at art deconstructing the artist’s intentions, and we can also simply respond the art without the spectre of the artist.

First up, ‘blind man and his garden’ gives me joy and a soaring feeling of veering away from stodgy imaginings of disability, characterised by dependence, missing out, indoors, limitations. The person’s agency, skill, enjoyment, gift to the world is foregrounded. His symbiosis with the garden, not a caregiver, is challenging of images of blindness, where we often see a person being lead, by guide or guide dog, when out in the world. I’m not criticizing circulation of such images, they are visual captures of what happens, but I think their effects frame our understanding of blindness in ways that compromise agency, individuality, self sufficiency.

So to me it IS really important that he is blind. The picture wouldn’t mean all that to me without the title.

But then there is also the artist and their modus operandi, and I did a little on line research. In Joel Sternfelds work (with a bit of help from the text on the net) I see people, with foregrounded identities, against American landscapes. I see how the landscapes and the identities interact, juxtapose, and exist as continuities to each other. How identities are cradled by landscapes- I guess we tend to think of people making their mark on the world around them, designing buildings, putting up posters, tending the world in ways that extend their identity beyond the bounds of the body, the personal presentation and attire. But in fact identities are related to communities and communities are more than people, they are places events design trends as well, so we are conferred identity by landscapes, which are more than backdrops to our lives.

In the Joel Sternfeld photos that I looked at, I saw a range of identities: buff gay men, a WASP girl, older White Southerners, a guy who owns a diner- stalwart of the American way of life. I see this treatment- landscape and identity- for the blind man too, and as a piece of art, I love it (it makes my heart sing).

My head can say lots of things about what the photo elides, what it doesn’t say, the implications of us discussing the photo, what it says about me that I comment as a sighted person without discussing with blind people.

I watched the paraolympic opening ceremony yesterday, ready to be amazed, but also ready to be disappointed. I enjoyed it. I could critique aspects of the portrayal of disability and so-called inclusion of people with disabilities as performers, but the critique would be against an ideal that is unattainable. What is the ideal, what enactment of pageant for the paraolympics is gonna be ok with me? I think the only answer is, where difference doesn’t matter, and that’s only gonna happen when the paraolympics and the Olympics are as one- where the different classes of athletes take part in the same forum, like the London Marathon (I don’t know what happens elsewhere) when men and women, different bodies walking running using wheelchair, amateurs serious athletes and fun mascots all run at the same event on the same course, with different classes for categorization of excellence and different starting times where this makes it safer.

That said, the paraolympics as they stand are, to me, a valuable and pragmatic way to respond to the exclusion and perjorification of people with disabilities. I enjoyed the ceremony and the message of go forward and be all you are and all you can be, in a sort of Disney-esque way, I enjoy a Disney film from time to time. The shebang failed to address privilege and exclusion, but I guess every work has it’s own message, and for me it’s a good idea to have the grace to apprehend the message not get distracted with but, but, but’s….no work has all the messages, unless you see the whole world and universe as a work in itself, in which case all the messages are RIGHT HERE.

Anonymous said...

completely agree about the more than one way to enjoy the garden. maybe he loves the smell and sound.

or maybe he just loves the process? Some people love to cook but don't like to eat. (I've never understood personally, but they're out there in the world. :-)

Some people like to drive to relax, even if they have no place to go.

Even if he couldn't see, hear, or smell, maybe there is something about being outdoors all day tending to the garden that he finds satisfying. Maybe that is the enjoyment he finds.

Colleen said...

Honestly, my first thought was - wow! nice garden! oh look is that a lupin?

It never occured to me until I read the comments that there would be some impediment to him enjoying the fruits of his labour. I think I just assumed that there are many ways to enjoy a garden, visually being only one. Visually is about the only way to enjoy a photograph and so I think that the title, including the fact that he is blind, introduces irony at that level.


Amanda said...

Many people have covered some of the best possible meanings for this. I won't cover them here because it's already been done. Here is one of the worst possible meanings:

"Look at this poor blind man. He will never be able to appreciate the beauty that he has created. How tragic. (But also, possibly) how inspiring that he strives to do what a normal person would have done anyway."

I don't want that to be the answer. But in this world, it's very possible.

I don't know if the way I experience plants has anything to do with the fact that I find vision painful and often difficult to use. But I know that the biggest part of my experience of them is not visual. I recently got an African violet for my apartment. I try not to touch it because plants can feel touch and it stresses them sometimes. (There is a wonderful book out very recently on plant senses and how they work.) But my experience of it has a lot of tactile-like components even if I am not petting it (I can't resist doing it sometimes, it is so furry).

It's almost like inside of me I feel the whole process of being a plant. What photosynthesis would feel like, what moving water and nutrients through the roots and growing feels like. It's impossible to put into words but every plant feels different in this regard. What it feels like to be rooted in soil. There are actually more sensations than I can explain neatly and precisely like this.

I doubt that all blind people experience things this way, but I assume some might if they're wired in a way that makes this kind of thing work for them. I don't know why I experience plants like this, I just do, it's something that seems to come with existing. So I'm very aware there are all kinds of non-visual ways to experience plants.

Plants themselves have a rudimentary sense of sight, but no brain to interpret it with. That shows them how to turn towards the sun. They are constantly taking in information from their surroundings and responding to it both internally and with obvious external movements. Most people have no idea how complex being a plant is. I'd long suspected, but it was amazing to read about it in detail -- from a credible scientist. As in not someone who designs bad (and disproven) experiments to "show" that plants are telepathic or that they hate rock music. Couldn't recommend the book highly enough. Will post its title in another comment.

Amanda said...

Okay back now. Had to do it like that because I can't leave this app and come back on an iPod. The title of the book is What A Plant Knows. And would recommend it highly to tell you what you never knew about plants.