The Eye of the Artist
3 Dec 2013
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.