Sighted people tend to take photographs to capture an image of a loved one's face, to have a visual record of a person, place or event that they don't want to forget. For George Covington, a camera is more than a means to help him remember -- it's a tool that has helped him to see.
George was born legally blind with 20/400 vision in both eyes. Due to a combination of astigmatism, nastagmus, eccentric fixation and myopia, his eyesight was not optically correctable. His vision impairment was no match for a strong drive to succeed. After attending and graduating from college, and then from law school, George has worked as an attorney, a journalism professor, an author and as a Press Aide and Special Assistant for Disability Policy (1989-93) to the Vice President of the United States.
A Developing Interest in Photography
George "discovered" photography while helping a friend who was shooting landscape photos. While his friend prepared for the shoot, George wandered about the sites, experiencing the landscape on his own. Later that day his friend handed him four photos from the shoot. "I held her photographs in my hand and realized I did not recognize any of the scenes. What I had 'seen' was strictly in my mind," he recalls.
That moment led George to an inspiration: he could use photographs to enhance his limited visual abilities. As he explains in a self-penned article, "Faces I See: Digital Photography, a Tool for Sight":
"I can walk into a room for the first time and see almost nothing. As I learn the contents of the room, my brain interprets what I perceive as a visual image. When I have become familiar with that room, I can describe every object in it and its placement. I actually 'see' the contents of that room by interpreting small bits of information that upon first entry were totally confusing. My malfunctioning eyes are augmented by memory, imagination, and experience. I interpret as much as I actually see, and photography helps speed up and improve the interpretation."
George began taking his own photos, experimenting almost daily with photographs of friends, neighbors and family members. He learned to focus the camera by estimating the distance between himself and his subject. "Scale focusing", as this is called, and the use of a camera with a wide-angled lens enabled George to take sharp pictures.
As the prints were developed, George realized that the high contrast nature of a conventional print provided him with the information he need to "see" the picture. More often than not what George saw when he viewed the images surprised him. "I discovered that old friends had familiar faces, while new friends sometimes did not look anything like I thought they did," he explains. "Friendships made after the slow degeneration process (of his retina) began had faces created by imagination."
The first 20 years of his photography was conventional, chemical-based photography. For the past 5 years, as his eyesight has gotten progressively and rapidly worse, he has converted almost exclusively to digital cameras, scanners and computers.
George's opportunity to take control of the developing process came in the mid-1990s with the advent of digital cameras. Using a digital camera, George could take a photo and upload the image directly to his PC. Then he could manipulate the image, drawing out details or adjusting colors and brightness, using software programs such as Adobe Photoshop. This new level of control allowed George to alter the image until he could view it most clearly.
"A manipulated image allows persons with diminished vision to view the scene or object represented by the photograph in the best light and a distance from their eyes that compensates for their particular problem," he explains.
In essence, George had found a method for making the camera and computer his own "digital darkroom", a custom-tool for tailoring images to his unique visual capabilities.
The Process to Perfection
Over the intervening years, George has tweaked and honed the developing process until it produces the sharpest images for his remaining eyesight. Here's the process he uses.
Using Photoshop, George transforms his images into sketches using a variety of Adobe filters. The result is an "artistic sketch". In some cases he deletes a distracting or cluttered background in order to highlight a key area of the photograph. He prints out copies of the image after applying effects and uses these as guideposts that will lead to the final image. (George stresses that each person will need to experiment to find the process that works best for their specific visual requirements.)
When George is happy with the image, he prints out two final copies: one for himself and another, if the photo was a portrait, to present as a gift to the subject.
Today George takes pictures using both conventional and digital equipment. He especially enjoys working with digital images. "Digital photography has given me a much wider range of control than I had in my conventional darkroom."
Highlights and alterations to images that once took hours to perform in a chemical darkroom can now be accomplished in minutes and even seconds in his "digital darkroom." On some issues, however, George prefers low-tech over hi-tech. For example, while computer software gives George a palette of colors to work with, he prefers black and white or sepia.
George has taught photography to sighted and visually impaired students in North Carolina, Maryland, and a number of Museums within the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC. Today he frequently hosts photography workshops for visually impaired students where he teaches the use of camera as an aid to seeing. In these workshops he introduces student photographers who are vision impaired and blind to the two main principles of his process, the manipulation of perspective and detail.
While George doesn't submit his work for gallery shows or art contests, he does exhibit his photos from time to time alongside those created by his workshop students. He says that the workshops have allowed him to re-live through his students a little of the excitement he felt that first time he viewed a photograph he'd taken.
Build your own "Digital Darkroom"
Fred's Head asked George Covington what equipment someone would need in order to build their own "digital darkroom." Here is his response:
"Beginning photographers need nothing more than a conventional camera and film to get started. To get your pictures into a digital format, ask to have the negatives burned on Kodak's picture CD, or use a scanner to digitize prints."
"My own ideal digital darkroom would consist of:
1) Apple iMac, 700 mhz with 256 MB of RAM
2) A digital camera of 2.1 megapixels or above
3) 2GB Jaz Drive
4) Scanner capable of scanning at least 600 x 1200 dpi resolution
5) Ink jet printer capable of at least 1440 x 720 dpi
6) A photography manipulation software in the caliber of Adobe PhotoDeluxe or PhotoShop"
Covington, George. "Let Your Camera do the Seeing: The World's First Photography Manual for the Legally Blind." National Access Center. Available free to all legally blind and physically disabled people through the Library of Congress National Library Service Division of the Blind and Physically Handicapped (cassette RC 17386).
Covington, George. "Access by Design." Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1996.
Covington, George. Photo Hero: A Satire of Photography. 1st Books Library, 2001.
The Kodak site has a biography and a virtual gallery of George Covington's photographs.
Vince's Parallax: A Guide to Blind Photography on the Web
"The pages referred to here are about blind photographers and their work, techniques that anyone could use to take photos, and ways of representing the finished images."