Beauty in every sense.
Text: Jochen Förster | Photos: David Daub | Art: Pete Eckert | July 2017
Blind photographer Pete Eckert has interpreted the design and fine lines of the new Volkswagen Arteon by means of his unique light painting techniques. How are these images created, and how does the photographic artist work and feel? A glimpse behind the scenes of an unusual photo shoot.
Very slowly, almost reverently, he traces the lines, first with the left hand, then with all ten fingers at once, first the sides, then the cockpit, the doors, the wheel rims, the front, the roof, the back. Every square centimetre of the bodywork. Finally, after about an hour of intensive touching and feeling, Pete Eckert has captured the complete Arteon in his mind. Or, as he puts it: “The Arteon emerges before my mind’s eye.”
For five days, the American photographer from Sacramento, California has been in Hamburg to demonstrate how it works, what goes on and, above all, what it looks like when someone such as him envisions a car like the Volkswagen Arteon before his mind’s eye. Envisioning is exactly what he does, because the Californian actually creates “light paintings” with the aid of sound, touch, and memory. He uses both the artistic skills of a trained sculptor and the tools of modern photography. All without being able to see.
Eckert was in his mid-20s, had attended art college in Boston and San Francisco and was in the middle of preparing his master’s degree in architecture at Yale when he received the diagnosis: retinitis pigmentosa, an incurable retinal disease, which leads to complete blindness in just a few years. Pete sold his beloved Moto Guzzi, studied business management and gained a black belt in taekwondo. By the time he had completed his MBA, he was almost blind. And although Eckert could still see, no company wanted to hire him. And then one day he found his mother-in-law’s old Kodak camera – and this marked the beginning of an artistic career that has proved remarkable in every way.
Eckert taught himself photography, bought his own computer and a speaking scanner, devoured many photography books, and developed a visual language that is quite unique. In his photographic art work, the Californian combines classic exterior shots with complex studio processes, during which he experiments with long shutter times, multiple light sources, and intensive colouring and shaping. The artist’s shapes, figures and geometries are often reminiscent of human figures – but humans that have appeared from another dimension. They seem like figures at the threshold of a gravity-free fantasy world, a parallel artistic cosmos. Basically, says Eckert, he sees himself more as a conceptual artist than a photographer.
When Eckert takes photos in his studio, it is initially pitch black. Very slowly, almost reverently, the artist approaches his subject. He stalks it, so to speak, screening out the background noise, and first takes an entire series of frontal and side views of the new Arteon. The light, the outdoor motifs (shot the day before in the city of Hamburg), the colours and the lines of light, which distantly resemble shimmering neon signs, are chosen with great precision; he personally walks around the car and moves the light. “The Arteon is turmeric yellow; a glowing violet could provide a striking contrast to this,” he says. The more he intensifies the light during the days of shooting, the more contour the photo gains in his mind’s eye.
“I am a visual person,” he says. “I just can’t see.”
The result leaves no observer unmoved – which is due less to knowledge of Eckert’s background and more to the unmistakeable aura of his works. He creates a mise-en-scène for the Arteon, using movements which he carries out himself, and which seem to electrify what is probably the most perfectly shaped model of the Volkswagen family – with shining red fire fumes, for example, or with white cascades of light. He is enthusiastic about the object itself. “The Arteon is extremely well conceived and thought out,” says Eckert. “It is classically beautiful but with a masculine touch. And perfectly balanced right down to the smallest detail.“
In his creative process, Eckert performs almost all the working steps himself – from taking the photos to developing the film, right up to the finished prints. To this day, he still works with an analogue Mamiya medium-format camera; among its features are mechanics that can be identified by touch, and marker points on the lens. He discusses the image composition with his long-term assistant Boris, makes excerpts, and then asks Boris to explain exactly how close the result comes to his inner vision. “Boris and I have a very close and trusting relationship,” says Eckert. “Conversation with him is like a continual point of contact to the world of the seeing, in which I sometimes feel like a tourist. A crosser of borders, a mediator between the world of the seeing and the world of the blind.“
»You don’t need eyes to see beauty.«
Pete Eckert always speaks very deliberately. A lanky, imperturbable man of around 60 years old, modest, friendly, exuding calm, he works with the utmost concentration. Eckert’s life and work has sparked much international attention. He has taken photographs for the jeweller Swarovski among other clients. He has also won numerous prizes and given lectures. An entire episode of the U.S. special agent series “NCIS” was based on his work, and one of his motifs was recently immortalised on a United Nations stamp. Professionally speaking, things could hardly be going better. He has long since been counted among the most prominent blind photographers in the world – alongside Evgen Bavcar, Bruce Hall and Sonia Soberats. And he has been married to his wife Amy for 31 years. Is Pete Eckert, then, a happy photographic artist?
“I have a very positive view of my life,” he says. “And I am really very pleased that my art leaves such a strong impression in the world of the sighted. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that the world of my photos possesses strange, weightless, slightly ethereal quality. For me, beauty in art is universal. One does not need eyes in order to see it.”