Photo Essay

The Eye of the Artist

Let There Be Light

How would your world change if your vision decreased 100% overnight? Would you accept the change passively? Would you put your camera down without a fight? The answer is no. But vision doesn't disappear overnight. The loss is insidious. Each day as a bit more is taken, our body and brain adjusts to this loss and we are none the wiser.

Photography is an art form that is wholly visual. Unlike painting or sculpting, the eye is the only sensory organ used in its creation. We do not need to hear or taste or smell or touch it to shape it. It is our visual interpretation of the world around us. Yet, as vision is altered, so too are our images our art and, in the end, our ability to discern its beauty.

Photography is an extension of our century's old desire to capture... to document... life as we live it. Before cameras, images were chiseled on stone, or sculpted in metal, or painted on canvas. We call these artists by name, but how many of us know that Monet, Degas, Rembrandt, Cassatt and O'Keefe all suffered from severe visual decline during their creative years.

Monet's characteristic blurred paintings were not just artistic genius. They were the result of his worsening cataracts which eventually dropped his eyesight to 20/200 (a 100% decrease). Progressive age-related cataracts manifest as yellowing and darkening of the lens. This has a major effect on color perception as well as visual acuity. Colors become muted and are replaced by dark, muddied yellows and browns (lead image). Monet did reluctantly agree to cataract surgery in 1923. Afterward, when he saw what he had been painting during these years, he was so horrified that he threw many away.

Degas had retinal disease for the last 50 years of his career. His paintings grew increasingly rough, the shading and contrast of images became less defined and blurriness increased as his illness progressed. By the time Degas completed "Woman Drying Her Hair" in 1905, his eyesight had dropped to somewhere between 20/200 and 20/400. After 1900, there was virtually no detailing of faces or clothing in Degas' work.

Recently, I had bilateral corneal transplant and cataract surgery. The lead image is an example of my vision at that time. Besides the cataracts, I have a genetic disease called Fuchs Corneal Dystrophy. The inner layer of the cornea processes the eye's surface fluids. As the disease progresses, scars replace the cells of this layer and functionality is lost. The corneas fill with fluid, swell and when severe enough, blisters form then rupture causing painful surface ulcerations that scar the cornea.

Fuchs nearly blinded my father. His condition was misdiagnosed as herpes lesions. My sister's eye doctor diagnosed hers correctly and she's also had bilateral corneal transplants. Though I began having symptoms in my mid 30's, I was not diagnosed until I was 58 and that was by pure chance. So, surgery was in my future but I figured it could wait. And wait it did... for another 8 years. During that time, my vision deteriorated to the point that it was like looking through a sheet of wax paper most of the time. Driving at night ended a few years ago. Image 2 is what I saw at night.

Still, I was completely content with the foggy ostrich life I had fashioned for myself until it was time to renew my driver's license. No more pretending. Time to cowboy up. There was no way I was going to pass the eye test with the glasses I had so I scheduled an eye exam. The ones I walked out with were worse than the ones I had, but I couldn't risk suspension so I said a prayer and headed over to the DMV. Luckily, an eye test wasn't required. I dodged the scud but the handwriting I couldn't see was on the wall and my surgical odyssey began.

One day after my left eye surgery, and still looking through the bubble of air that held the graft in place, all I could say was, "Oh my God... white is actually white. Look at that red. Look at the sky. Look at all these colors. Who turned on the lights? Look at the edges.... everything has edges. Look at the words. I can read the words". That went on for weeks. You see, I had a point of reference... an eye that was still diseased. That was the biggest gift of all. By closing one eye and then the other, I could literally see the miracle. This is possible in no other situation. Diseased eyes see only diseased shapes and colors.

In time I will adjust to my new normal, but until then I will give thanks daily for eyes that are 5-years-old once more. No one is immune to eye infirmities and some of them, such as cataracts, are a given. If you continue to follow your photographic dream, eventually your art will be impacted. The issue is will you even know it?

Advice for my photog friends: Go regularly to an ophthalmologist for exams. Make sure the exams are thorough. Know your family medical history. And, finally, don't wait. Fix what can be fixed as soon as you are diagnosed.

I will forever be indebted to Dr. Francis Price (Price Vision Group, Indianapolis, IN) for the groundbreaking DMEK and cataract surgeries that have restored my vision. Dr. Price's research and dedication has made this my new reality.

Also, this story would not be possible without the selfless generosity of my corneal donors and their families. Despite their grief they chose to give me the gift of sight.

25 responses

  • Rey mos

    Rey mos said (3 Dec 2013):

    This is very interesting insight...our vision is really the window of our existence and we must protect it. Thanks to the advanced technologies and we could now regain our clear sights.

  • Saroj Swain

    Saroj Swain gave props (4 Dec 2013):

    Great shots!!! and nice narration.... Vote Bailey!!!

  • Elsa Mein

    Elsa Mein gave props (4 Dec 2013):

    Wonderful story and photos, voted!

  • Bailey Cooper

    Bailey Cooper   said (4 Dec 2013):

    Thank you Rey, for your comments and time. Visual loss is a given. Aging eyes and cataracts are a given. As you say, with today's technology, we need not become the Monets or Degas' of the this Millennium.

  • Bailey Cooper

    Bailey Cooper   said (4 Dec 2013):

    Many thanks to Saroj Swain for the nomination. Saroj also has a nominated essay, Wonder Wings. Please take the time view his contribution and beautiful images.

  • Bailey Cooper

    Bailey Cooper   said (4 Dec 2013):

    Thank you Elsa, for your time and your support.

  • John Linton

    John Linton gave props (5 Dec 2013):

    Hell YEAH! Rad!

  • Jason Platt

    Jason Platt   gave props (5 Dec 2013):

    Voted and hugs Bailey.

  • Litz Go

    Litz Go said (5 Dec 2013):

    Profoundly moving essay, Coop! My hubby was declared legally blind (20/2000) when he was 35 years old and we were early into our marriage. Before we know each other, he was operated on with retinal detachment due to him accidentally hitting his head with tennis bat. His mother lost her job because her employer won't let her take a prolonged vacation to attend to her son while he stayed in the hospital for almost a month.He regain his eyesight but have to wear a very thick eye glasses.
    His eyesight deteriorated later on that it was difficult for him to continue working. He was so embarrassed with his co worker who helped and understand his situation. He decided that he would quit his job and apply for disability. he was only in his 40's. Upon learning this, his doctor decided to operate on him. His doctor does not want to do it because of the risk of the operation, but this time, he decided that operating on him is worth the risk than having him be disabled for the rest of his life. The operation was a great success that his Doctor was so excited and have to call everyone around and proudly announced how successful was the operation! His vision returned to 20/20!
    I drove my hubby home after the operation and I was so teary eyed when he told me excitedly that he could read the license plate on the car in front of us! He is now 65 years old and still enjoying the result of the ground breaking operation, and I tell you, he enjoys wearing his sunglasses, too!

  • Litz Go

    Litz Go gave props (5 Dec 2013):

    voted!!

  • Bailey Cooper

    Bailey Cooper   said (5 Dec 2013):

    John and Jason ~ Thanks for stopping by and for the nod. As always, she does appreciate it.

  • Bailey Cooper

    Bailey Cooper   said (5 Dec 2013):

    Litz ~ When I read your response, at first I was overwhelmed and then, out of the blue, I just burst into uncontrollable tears (so NOT me). Your words and your miracle touched me. This morning, I was going to remove this essay and delete most of the images. I felt like the audience was, perhaps, too narrow for posting here. Then your words.

    More than one is not required and reminds me of the Mitch Albom novel, 'The Five People You Meet in Heaven'. The main character, Eddie is killed and sent to heaven, where he encounters five people who significantly impacted him while he was alive. I think you may be one of my five.

  • rekha nag

    rekha nag gave props (6 Dec 2013):

    So touching indeed! My vote Bailey! Hugs & loads of love!!

  • Michele Wambaugh

    Michele Wambaugh (Deleted) said (6 Dec 2013):

    Magnificent photo essay, Bailey! This hit such a personal cord! I was born extremely myopic. When my eyes reached -16 & could no longer be corrected with either contacts or glasses, I had a clear lens replacement in 1995. I wept with joy when I found I could see better than I ever had in my entire life!

  • Michele Wambaugh

    Michele Wambaugh (Deleted) said (6 Dec 2013):

    OXOX to you! Voted, of course!

  • JanElle

    JanElle   said (6 Dec 2013):

    A very excellent photo essay, it touched me deeply. I was reminded me of my grandmother`s struggle to see after botched cataract surgery all but destroyed her vision when she was in her thirties. Of course that was many years ago and eye surgery was nothing like what we have available today.

    A beautiful and very artistically talented woman, she was left to navigate around her home with heavy thick eyeglasses and a cane, unable to even read without the aid of a powerful magnifying glass. She had to have assistance anywhere outside of her home and that is how I remember her state of being, for all of the years I knew her.

    She accepted her fate with much grace and fortitude and remained a very dedicated wife, mother and grandmother for the remaining years of her life. She had a keen mind and an intensely creative, artistic nature and with the aid of her ever present magnifying glass created crewel embroidery and painted ceramic pieces of great beauty.. one piece she made just for me and how I cherish it!

    She was a source of much love and great inspiration to me, overcoming challenges that many of us could never imagine having to cope with. Yet she never lost her zeal for life and made the best of what she had with everything she had to give. I miss her deeply.

    Thank you for sharing your story, Bailey! I am inspired by your courage in carrying forward in spite of the challenges. I can`t imagine having to face such surgery.. it genuinely frightens me to think of anyone invading the eye area.. and I guess that reflects back on my grandmother`s experience. I am so happy for the good results you gained.. enjoy and take care!

  • Bailey Cooper

    Bailey Cooper   said (6 Dec 2013):

    Thank you Rekha, for taking the time to view this essay and for your kind words. Hugs and loads of love right back my friend.

  • Bailey Cooper

    Bailey Cooper   said (6 Dec 2013):

    Michele ~ As I said to Litz, I thought this essay may have not had much application for the JPG viewers even though I know cataracts are almost a certainty for everyone here at some point. As with Litz's response, your note demonstrates that there are more than a few of us out there dealing with these inssues daily regarding our photography and life in general.

    I would never have guessed, based on your body of work, that you were/are dealing with visual health. Trying to explain this is like trying to tell someone what it's like to give birth. You really have to be there to get it. You have been there and know what the gift of sight really means. Like you, I don't think I've ever been as excited as when I saw, in brilliant colors, what I'd been missing.

    Thanks for sharing and for your kind support. Love you, love you my friend.

  • Bailey Cooper

    Bailey Cooper   said (6 Dec 2013):

    JanElle ~ What a beautiful tribute. Your grandmother was very young when this happened to her. As I commented on one of the essay images, disease is not discerning. For her to have successfully managed a home and family with this type of disability is nothing short of amazing. That she pursued her love of the arts, even more so. There are two kinds of people in the world, 1) those that wallow in self-pity, and 2) those who suck it up and get on with it.

    Your grandmother was clearly an inspiration to you and countless others I’m sure. She accepted her burden with style and grace. Her beauty lives on… here and elsewhere. We never know what life will bring. All we can do if that day comes is remember your story and pay it forward.

    Thanks for your memories, for your grandma and for taking the time to let us know her too.

  • Ted Anderson

    Ted Anderson   gave props (8 Dec 2013):

    You have the artistic sensitivity and technical chops to share your story with great depth. It's what you do, brilliantly. Thanks.

  • Deborah Downes

    Deborah Downes   gave props (8 Jan 2014):

    So sorry I didn't see this incredible essay until now. Sure wish I could vote more than once. Thanks so much for sharing this. Truly inspiring and so beautifully written.

  • Rob Case

    Rob Case gave props (18 Mar 2014):

    Just seeing (pardon the pun) this story now - and in saying it that way I do not mean to make this a joke…(the pun thing just popped into my head.) This story is well written, it's clear; it's moving; and it's truth is inescapable. I've learned many things from this story and I will remember it and share it for a long time to come - that's something that truly makes this great. Thank you for sharing and kudos to your craft. I am a cinematographer by trade and have been coming to grips with the aging process of my eyes. I often imagine how life would be without sight. I'm often frustrated by the decline I've been experiencing over the last 20 years. With 20/15 vision as a kid, my sight fell away to the point where I needed contacts or glasses. I HATED sticking something in my eyes or needing something sitting on my face. R-K surgery returned my eyes back to 20/20 in 1999 but since then, time and age have taken it's toll to where I need reading glasses to see up-close and the strength of those glasses seems to go up every couple of years. Still…I can see and I'm very thankful for it. (However…..Maybe my still pix would be netter received if they had a bit of the old Monet, Degas, Rembrandt, Cassatt and O'Keefe blur treatment?!)

  • Bailey Cooper

    Bailey Cooper   said (21 Mar 2014):

    Thanks for the feedback Rob. I emailed my reply.

  • Scott Emery

    Scott Emery   said (28 Oct 2014):

    Thank you for being such a kind and experienced spiritual (meant in my humanistic vein) and practical companion to aging, reflection, and artistic sensibilities. The human eye is a marvelously subtle and supple instrument, adjusting to situations of the instant and, as you note, of the insidiously gradual variety. Your knowledge and admonition are well-taken, for not only sight, but other aspects of our fortunate existence should surely be remembered, nurtured and used for good purpose as well.

    Finally, I hope that you continue to do well with the implants you received. Is your sight still crisp and strong?

  • Bailey Cooper

    Bailey Cooper   said (2 Nov 2014):

    Scott ~ Eyes are doing great. I have my final appointment with Dr. Price Wednesday. Then just yearly exams. And yes, as an artist, you need to stay on top of the changes that come with aging eyes.

    I so appreciate your comments... your words. They always make me smile. They always urge me on. And... I am patiently waiting on your maiden photo essay voyage. Anything in the hopper?

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