Sacramento photographer Pete Eckert, who went blind 15 years ago, is going international. His electrified image, “Electro Man,” is one of six new United Nations postage stamps honoring the work of international artists with disabilities.
The stamps, entitled “Break Barriers - Open Doors,” were issued last month for a United Nations summit on disability and development in New York.
“Pete was the epitome of what these stamps are about,” said United Nations Postal Administration Creative Director Rorie Katz, who spent months scouring the internet to find the different artists. “When you look at the art on these stamps, they’re just beautiful images – the emphasis is on ability, not disability.”
Eckert’s photo “is all about light and electricity, it’s fantastic, an inspiration and it’s hard to believe it was taken by a man who can’t see,” said Katz.
Eckert’s work was selected along with paralyzed painter Chuck Closeand one-armed artist Matt Sesow of the United States; The China Disabled Peoples’ Performing Art Troupe; “Tears And Laughter,” ink on paper by British artist Josephine King, who has struggled with suicidal tendencies and bipolar disorder; and “See the Girl with the Red Dress On,” oil on canvas by blind British artist Sargy Mann.
Eckert, 56, has been showing in Sacramento and San Francisco since 2001, and in 2010 he and Bruce Hallbecame the first blind photographers to shoot a spread for Playboy.
“As an old married man, I had to come up with a way to shoot naked women without touching, so all the Playboy stuff was done by sonar, like a bat,” he said. “As I speak, my voice bounces off the walls and wraps around objects, so I can locate them by echo.” The model he shot, Hiromi Oshima of Japan, had high heels on, so they could communicate by tapping their feet.
He created his U.N. stamp, “Electro Man,” in his Sacramento studio. “I’m a totally blind person, so I take photos by memory, touch and location,” he explained. “Most photographers take their camera and go out looking for images – I go in the other direction, I come up with preconceived images and then build them.”
“Electro Man” depicts a barefoot apparition with a skeleton of lights that seems to have appeared in a puff of smoke amid lightning bolts.
“I was just playing with how to make flames, how to make electricity and how to draw the skeletal stuff in,” Eckert said. “”I was trying to interpret the elements like fire and electricity, and this particular image was almost as if the guy got hit with bolts of lightning coming through the floor.”
He used flashlights and multiple exposures to produce the electrified image, and has used candles and incandescent lights, “anything where I can get an idea of how much light it’s producing,” said Eckert, who learned how to create the image of fog creeping into a room by studying techniques used in old Bela Lugosi horror flicks such as “Dracula” and “Son of Frankenstein.”
“I didn’t take photography seriously until I went blind,” said Eckert, a carpenter who planned to study architecture at Yale when he began to lose his sight. “I noticed a stripe that was kind of pastel in my vision, but I went to a number of eye doctors and no one would tell me what was going on. Eventually, one doctor did a test and told me I had retinitis pigmentosa but gave me no other information.”
Finally, while listening to Dr. Dean Edell’s radio show, he learned retinitis pigmentosa robs a person of their vision until they go totally blind. “It hit me like a hammer,” Eckert said. “It took me two years to recover and figure out what to do. One of the ways I defeated blindness was through education. I got a degree in fine art, a degree in industrial design and an MBA, and I still know how to draw and I know about color palettes.”
After asking “a thousand questions” at a local camera store, Eckert started taking photos “and people liked them – I had found a medium. I use photography as a reflection of what’s in my mind’s eye and imagination. I ‘see’ each shot very clearly, then build the image in real time, memorizing everything I’m doing. I do ask people to look at my contact sheets, because I could have made a mistake.
“I am more of a conceptual artist than a photographer,” Eckert said. “My influences come from my past memory of art and what I now find in the world at large.”
Eckert is so adept at managing life, he said he was kicked out of a downtown nightclub because the bouncer didn’t believe he was blind and thought his dog was a prop.
The U.N. is printing 129,000 “Electro Man” stamps of .70 euros, or about 91 cents. A sheet of 20 stamps costs $18.25 and can be purchased at http://unstamps.org or by calling 1-800-234-8672. The stamps can only be used on mail sent from U.N. headquarters in New York, or at U.N. offices in Geneva and Vienna.
Eckert, Hall and Alice Wingwall have started the Blind Photographer’s Guild. To view more of Eckert’s work, go to www.peteeckert.com.
Call The Bee’s Stephen Magagnini, (916) 321-1072.