Legally blind man shoots out-of-sight photos

Sunday, January 11, 2009 | 4:14 p.m. CST; updated 8:57 p.m. CST, Sunday, January 11, 2009

TURNERS — Although he is legally blind, photographer Bob White does not let that stand in the way of his passion.

Using a 300-mm telephoto lens, he captures the beauty of rural life around him — plants, buildings, wildlife and people.

For example, the shadow cast by an oak leaf, sun sparkling on a single pampas grass plume or single flower blossom. Or perhaps the beauty of a stacked stone foundation or an old window.

And then there are the old buildings, with the energy from days past glowing with the sun through school or church windows.

"The large lens acts as a magnifier," said White, 62, of Turners. "It does not allow me to see more, but it allows me to see what I can see better."

White has no central vision and must use peripheral vision when using the viewfinder. He shoots 35-mm film because he can't see the prompts or the small screen on a digital camera.

"I find a hole in my periphery and my camera is an autofocus F stop that takes over those functions that I can't see to do myself," he said.

He works in his yard unless his wife, Julie White, chauffeurs him, because he can't drive anymore — except in his golf cart on back roads.

"My photography has been my out," Bob White explained. "Each individual experiences loss in their own way, whether it's physical or emotional loss. Only the individuals themselves know. What is shared by those experiencing a loss is the need to rise above and move beyond the loss and to not let that loss control their lives by regaining a focus through positive experience."

He began to lose his eyesight in his early 30s. Originally, the doctors called it ocular degeneration, an eye disease common in older adults.

"The diagnosis, they just didn't know what to call it so they called it that," said Julie White, noting that her husband is healthy otherwise. "It's been called several other things, but they can't figure what brought it on."

While Bob does not describe his photography as stark, he uses no special effects.

"For me to see something, I have to look away from it to actually see it. I get as close to it as I can and try to get a good background."

He zeroed in on a pampas grass plume.

"What we all see is light reflecting and that's what I use to see it," he said. "I'm getting a background of green grass behind the beautiful yellow plume and because I'm using a telephoto lens (from about 10 feet away), the background is blurred, only the one plume is clear. The sun sparkles in it; it's just beautiful."

He also demonstrated that taking a photo up close of a yucca plant showed an interesting angle — like a fan accented with alternating light and shadows from sun.

The mat that frames a photo is what really makes the picture, he said, adding that it changes the whole dynamic.

"I try different colors and shades to make the picture better," he said.

But to mat and frame a picture is tedious work for White. A large-screen laminator that White calls his eye on the world allows him to view the pictures. He keeps an ocular at his fingertips everywhere he works and in his pocket at all times.

A person with normal sight would only have to glance at the photo to make sure it's placed correctly, but White must go slowly around the entire mat with his magnifier.

"It's routine enough that it isn't a big deal now," he said. "I enjoy the activity of it. The hard part is not having enough hands to hold the magnifier, the tape measure, whatever."

The finishing touch is initialing and naming the picture, then placing a Rural Photography label on the back with his name and phone number.

"And that's the picture," he said.

White said photography led him out of deep depression triggered by his failing eyesight. He became interested in photography while in the service during the Vietnam War.

His friend, a war photographer, taught him a lot about it while they were in the rice paddies, he said.

"I wanted to see if I could do it, and it took me about two years to adapt," he said.

Julie White — a longtime employee of the Busy Bee Store — said her husband believes that sitting around the house will make a person crazy.

"Photography is a good stress reliever and gives him a creative way to express himself," she said. "Sometimes the days get a little long while I'm at work. You've got to keep yourself busy, get out of your own bounds and find something to do."

Several of Bob's photos hang in the railroad room at Turners Station Mercantile.

"It's wonderful to have local artists and friends show their work here in the store. I try to feature different artists because I really enjoy everybody's talent. This is a nice place to show their talent off," said store proprietor Jill Elsey-Stoner.

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