north of neutral dialog

05/01/2011

by anne lueneburger

 

Pete Eckert, Conceptual Artist, Sacramento, California

Good coaches are good listeners. Exceptional coaches master the art of listening which takes place at a deeper level. They receive information in what they hear with their ears, as well as through their other senses.

My recent conversation with Pete Eckert took place over the phone. As I asked him questions, I had the sense that he was listening to my every word and sensing its intonation with an almost palpable attention. It literally felt as if he was in the room with me. Like a master listener, he was fully engaged (and made me feel fully engaged!), in the moment.

His responses were candid, without obvious filtering even though, as he shares, “some of this is not so easy to talk about.” Pete Eckert is a photographer. He is also blind. An inspiring individual and trailblazer, his work and his life story build powerful bridges between the world of the blind and the sighted.

What he does and how it works

Equipped with three cameras: a digital point-and-shoot Canon; an old Mamia Flex Twin lens reflex, and a large 4×5 Toyo view camera with a Rodenstock lens, Eckert creates striking black and white images that reflect movement and light, adding hints of color. His art is shot mostly at nighttime.

So, how does he go about creating art without seeing? Eckert explains: ”In essence, while most ‘seeing’ photographers go out in the world searching for shots, I am looking from the inside out. I see myself more as a conceptual artist than a photographer. During a shoot I think about it a lot, I shoot very slowly. If I am photographing a woman’s face, for example, I may think of a flower, the transition of skin tone. It must be fairly specific, as when it is too broad, I cannot conceive what I am doing.”

Aside from his extraordinary imagination, Eckert sees the world through sound and touch. “Just take when I am approaching an object such as a parking meter. I sort of ‘see’ sound, perceive the waves of energy, the sounds of objects that are moving around it that are deflected from it.”

While blindness does not necessarily cause other senses (such as smell or hearing) to become more developed, the loss of eyesight facilitates using one’s other senses more effectively. “I would go so far as to say that vision actually masks the other senses. Not having the ability to see allows me to develop an entirely different ‘view’ of the world. I get insight and expand my mind as to what is possible.” Eckert, who was completely blind by the age of 42, also taps into his memory when it comes to investigating his creations.

Once the shoot is done Eckert develops the film and runs contact prints. Only then does he involve sighted people. “They give me feedback before I create large dramatic final prints. I want them involved, to get them thinking.”

Over the past twelve years of working in photography, this 54-year-old artist’s work has received a lot of attention by the sighted world. His art has been exhibited in numerous prestigious art galleries and shows around the country and abroad. In 2011, his art was exhibited at the Photo LA 2011, the 20th Annual International Los Angeles Photographic Art Exposition by the Blind Photographers Guild in Santa Monica (California). In 2010, Eckert was invited to exhibit In ‘Sight Unseen: International Photography by Blind Artists’ by the Falcon Gallery in Moscow (Russia), the ‘Fundacion Once III Bienal De Arte Contemporaneo’ in Madrid (Spain) and at the Centro de la Imagen exhibit ‘La Mirada Invisible: Colectiva Internacional De Fotógrafos Ciegos’ in Mexico City (Mexico) as well as nationally at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Washington, DC. In 2009, Apple invited the artist for a presentation at their Cupertino headquarters in California. Eckert has won 1st place at the Artist Wanted “Exposure” competition in New York, and came in 3rd place in “Global Art Look” at the International Juried Show, Matrix Arts, California. The San Francisco Arts Commission Gallery honored him with the ‘Award of Outstanding Artist’, and Eckert came in 1st on the Black & White 15th Annual Photography Competition in 2002.

Growing up, growing blind

Pete Eckert grew up on the East coast in rural Connecticut. His mother, a journalist, was head of a household of five children: three boys and two girls. His father, a civil engineer, was a creative spirit and always had projects going. Much like his father, Pete Eckert enjoyed to “build things and play mechanic. I was fairly solitary, wandering the woods and playing with small motorcycles.” Bright, but battling dyslexia, “the conventional school regimen was difficult.”

Based on his visual talent, he trained in sculpture and industrial design. While working as a carpenter, his dream was to study architecture at Yale. It was during this time that he started noticing that he was losing his sight. Following night blindness and tunnel vision, he was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic eye condition that leads to incurable blindness. At 28 he was considered legally blind: a person with this condition would need to stand 20 feet from an object to see it with the same degree of clarity as a normally sighted person could from 200 feet. “I was in shock, wondering how I could take care of myself and how I was to make a living.”

Orienteering

Engaged at the time, his (now wife) Amy stood by him during the two years that it took Eckert to bounce back and begin to think about his future again. Eckert decided that getting his MBA “was a very broad solution for an unknown problem. It was not yet clear to me what it would mean to be blind. I was the only one in my class in blue jeans and a motorcycle jacket. It was night school, and most of my classmates were in suits and ties. I stuck out like a sore thumb. It was hard to compete with me though because I was so determined to succeed. My intensity was fuelled by fear and desperation.”

Upon graduation from business school (with honors), Eckert struggled to find employment. “It was odd, as I was dressed up to get jobs, yet would have to pedal on my bike to these interviews as I no longer felt comfortable riding my Moto Guzzi.” There was abundant opportunity and interest in this bright and driven candidate among the traditional MBA hiring recruiters, yet as potential employers became aware of his visual impairment, they tended to back off.

Eckert decided to try a more linear approach to employment that would “fit his profile” – at least on paper. He secured a role as business consultant for rehabilitation with California’s Department Of Services For The Blind. Ironically, it was not long before he realized that this institution was “not a good place for blind person”. Rather than advocating the blind population, much of the bureaucracy seemed to support the 85% unemployment rate of blind people.

Eckert left the Department of Rehab: “I decided to get back into art work, to do something that I had enjoyed all my life. I started out using my machining and woodworking skills to produce 1750s type clocks. From that, other, larger wood works emerged. My production rate was slow, though, about four times lower than that of a seeing person.”

Blindness had also brought about a heightened sense of vulnerability around his physical safety. Shortly after receiving his MBA degree, Eckert’s training in martial arts earned him a black belt in tae kwon do. He now also decided to get a guide dog, a black German Shepherd named Uzu.

One day, cleaning out drawers, he came across a 1950’s Kodak, a camera that had belonged to his mother-in-law. After learning more about the functionality, Eckert was hooked. He picked up a computer and a talking scanner and began devouring books about photography. A local photo store loaned him a Mamiya Flex to get started: “I loved it. I used it so much that the camera started to show wear.”

Tipping point

Eckert found that his photos resonated with the world. Searching to find his authentic style, it was the comment of a friend of Eckerts, a guy from England, that pushed his work to a whole other level:”Pete, you could be just another shabby fashion photographer. Why do you follow the view of the sighted? Why not show the view of the blind?”

Eckert now went on regular nightly excursions with his cameras, in the company of his loyal companion, Uzu, to take the shots that characterize his work today. “My art does not represent all of the blind. It only represents my own view of the world. I strive to translate the non-visual graphically into a visual, sort of as a metaphor of blindness. It is a means to express color, to contain color. I try to portray what I perceive is in front of me.”

Eckert’s style, as for any artist, is ever evolving. He works in batches of photos, and his objects are driven by opportunity: ”I get inspired by situations I find myself in, and I often work in a stream of photos, typically in batches of about 100 photos that I can easily memorize.”

Blinded by assumptions

Eckert’s work is exceptional, not limited but expanded as a result of his life story. Not surprisingly, a number of people did not believe he was blind. “I was in galleries talking about my work. People challenged me that I was not blind.” Eckert still seems taken aback as he recalls this experience. “Their assumption was that a blind man’s photography could never be this good.”

On a very basic level, the reactions of the gallery owners are comprehensible, although they reveal a blindness even more profound. Eckert does not lead what, on the outside, you may expect to be a blind man’s life. You may see him in the fall, on top of the roof of his house, brushing off leaves. As he walks the streets, he wears regular sunglasses and has retrained his highly trained guide dog to behave more like a regular pet to the outside world: “Not standing out makes it easier for me to deal with the world. I feel more accepted.”

Lessons from Eckert

If I translate Eckert’s experience to my own work with leaders, then not questioning entrenched beliefs about one’s own story, or that of others, is one of the major challenges that the seemingly seeing person is blinded and subsequently limited by. When I ask Eckert what any of us can do to develop greater understanding about a world outside of their own, his response is passionate: “Stop assuming things. I am personally very careful about making assumptions, about anybody.” Taking this a step further and applying it to the day-to-day lives of professionals, a first step towards building bridges and strong relationships with others is to lead with questions. Strive to foster an open and inquisitive dialog, unburdened by preconceived notions.

Eckert’s yearning to remain a valued and appreciated part of the world of the seeing reminds me of something Erik Weihenmayer, the first blind man to summit Mount Everest, said in the documentary ‘Blindsight’: “When I was 15 I went blind, completely blind. I hated blindness. I wasn’t afraid to go blind and see darkness. That is a myth. I was afraid to be swept to the sidelines and be forgotten. To be obsolete.”

Biases towards blindness can take extreme forms. Tibetans believe that blindness is the divine punishment of bad behavior over the course of a previous life. It may manifest itself in a perceived inferiority when it comes to overall productivity and contribution at work (even if the obstacles of not seeing are not relevant in a given job context). It may show up in the form of aggression perpetuated on blind people from the sighted, as Eckert has seen a number of times:”One night I was attacked by three men. They almost ran me over, and based on their shouting it was obvious that there was purpose.”

Overcoming biases of the seeing world takes guts. To apply this more broadly, biases against who we are or what we stand for present tough and substantive challenges. Most of us experience this in some form at different times in our lives, be it in school, at work or at home. However, working on overcoming these challenges builds courage and fosters self-confidence and growth. And frequently it lets ordinary people produce extraordinary results.

Eckert consistently pushes himself and broadens his personal comfort zone to live his passion more fully “I believe it is better to risk all and die than to sit in the chair for the rest of my life.” He pauses, reflecting on the stakes, which in his case can translate into live and death moments, and adds: “As I get older, it is a bit scarier. Young men don’t fear dying as much.”

Choosing to see what matters

Eckert shared this example about how he can and does choose to experience life through his perceptions:

“There is this funky dive restaurant close to where we live. It is run down, next to a railroad crossing and not in a very good part of town. They serve great Japanese food and Amy and I like to go there. In my imagination, it has nice wooden paneling – from the 1850s – and there is an old train rumbling by! I have the liberty to choose how I perceive the world. It is my world full of spirits and it is up to me to see the good or to see the bad. It is a question of choice.”

And this choice is available to all of us, much of the time. This is not a question of positive thinking, it is not about taking something that is objectively difficult and challenging, such as a serious illness, and seeking what is good about it. It is instead about having a tool kit of tactics that enable us to embrace life and life’s challenges, and to broaden our own horizons through being anchored to who we are and what makes us unique. Through doing this we can build resilience, overcome obstacles and live a more fulfilled life. And Peter Eckert is an inspirational case-in-point.

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One Response to “north of neutral dialog”

  1. Chris Whitney Says:

    In Eric’s quote above, I think there is an underlying human fear. That is a human connection too, blind or not. I see a lot of Eric in Pete and a lot of Pete in Eric. I love when Pete talks about his inner vision, and then shows it to us. In some ways, he has helped me to “see” the world in a new light.


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