Doug MacCash, art critic for the Times Picayune, reviews Sarah Wilson’s Blind Prom.
Emotional confusion leads to compassion
The Photographs in Sarah Wilson’s “Blind Prom” exhibit at the New Orleans Photo Alliance Gallery are confusing.
It’s prom night at The Texas School of the Blind and Visually Impaired, with the usual stiff suit coats, shiny gowns, corsages and cuddling. Only the thick glasses and white walking canes make the colorful shots seem a bit odd.
Anyone who has been to a high school prom remembers the awkwardness of the moment, the utter self-consciousness, the microscopic attention to appearance. You have to wonder how typical prom night vanity plays out among kids who cannot see.
And a touch embarrassing.
Isn’t there something inherently uncomfortable about enjoying photographs of people with disabilities?
In 2005, Wilson’s boyfriend, Keith Maitland, a documentary movie-maker, began a film about goalball, a game they play at the Texas School of the Blind in Austin. Wilson’s role in the project was to take still photographs. In time, Maitland’s film project and Wilson’s photo documentation expanded to cover other aspects of campus life at the live-in school. For three years, Wilson, 32, volunteered to do formal and candid shots of the prom. Students and their parents can download digital prom shots for a nominal fee.
Wilson, an Austin native, said she doesn’t sense the same level of prom anxiety among the School of the Blind students, as she did when she attended her own prom. Some kids pick their prom outfits by feel; others take the advice of sighted friends. She said that taking photographs always makes the moment seem all the more important — even if her subjects never see the results.
Wilson, who studied photography at New York University, said she understands the mixed reaction people might have when they first see her work. Before she began the project, Wilson said she’d never met a blind person, but any “apprehension left through time and exposure.” In the end she believes her prom photos produce an elevating emotional payoff.
“Isn’t it great they have this full teenage life, ” she said, defining the underlying theme of the show.
The initial confusion that Wilson’s photos produce is ultimately a kind of compassion. Despite her rather chilly style that blends Eggleston and Arbus, Wilson manages to communicate the dignity and warmth she feels for her subjects.
The judges of last year’s PhotoNOLA, an annual citywide fine art photo festival, recognized the power of her work. Of 64 contestants, they awarded her portfolio Review Prize winner.
‘Blind Prom’ opens with a reception from Sat (Dec.12) from 6 to 9 and continues through Jan. 20. Sarah Wilson will speak about the exhibit Sunday from 7 to 8 p.m.
PhotoNOLA, a citywide photography celebration including exhibits, lectures, portfolio viewing, workshops, gala, and other activities continues through Dec. 13 at scattered locations around New Orleans. Presented by the New Orleans Photo Alliance, PhotoNOLA was created in 2006 to aid in the cultural recovery of the city after Hurricane Katrina. PhotoWALK, an exhibit of portfolios by 60 photographers takes place Sat (Dec. 12) from 4:30 to 6 at the International House Hotel Conference Facility, 220 Camp Street. Free. Call 269-9740, write firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit www.photonola.org
New Orleans Photo Alliance, 1111 St. Mary St., 504.975.4002.
Arts writer Doug MacCash can be reached at email@example.com or 504.826.3481. For more art stories and videos, visit www.nola.com/arts.
This review originally appeared in the Times Picayune on Dec 11, 2009 and is also available online here: www.nola.com/arts/index.ssf/2009/12/review_sarah_wilsons_blind_pro.html