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Persistence of Vision; Partially Blind Photographer Stays Focused

Editor's Note: Editor's Note: The following article is re-printed from the Rocky Mountain News (Denver, CO), January 28, 2002.

Bob Weinberg was accustomed to seeing the world in crisp, distinct images, especially when he focused through the lens of his camera.

Now what was crisp is soft, what was distinct is blurred.

"It's like looking through milky, filmy gauze," Weinberg explains. "It's like seeing the world as an impressionistic painting by Monet. I see mass but no detail." Weinberg has been a photographer for more than 30 years. His work has appeared frequently in the Intermountain Jewish News newspaper as well as in magazines.

In 1996 he noticed a drastic change in his vision.

"I didn't realize I'd been losing it for a long time. In 1996 I had a virus and couldn't get well, and then my vision just dropped," he said. He was diagnosed with retinal pigment epithelial dystrophy, a degenerative retinal disease. He has decent peripheral vision but can see only blurred images in the middle of his field of vision.

"I have holes in my retina. It's like moths ate through my retina," he said. "They don't know what causes it. It's not going to get any better, but the doctors just hope it progresses slower."

For a man who made his living by turning his vision into photographs, the diagnosis was numbing. "I had depression, couldn't sleep. I wanted to jump in a hole and cover it up," Weinberg said.

But he didn't. Technology and perseverance have allowed him to continue as a working photographer.

"The World of Denver," a collection of his portraits, is on exhibit at the Lakewood Cultural Center, 470 S. Alison Parkway. Several of the photographs in the exhibit were made after he suffered his vision loss.

Weinberg uses a professional auto-focus device and a large viewfinder on his camera as well as a brighter-than-normal safelight for printing. He examines negatives and reads printed material by sliding them under a closed-circuit TV camera that magnifies and projects the images onto a screen mounted over a movable base.

"I can still focus with my left eye, but it's easier to use the auto-focus," he said.

"I move around a lot when I shoot, so I have to go over a room and realize what's there. If there's a step, I could kill myself," said Weinberg, who often uses a cane when he's on assignment.

"When I'm posing people, it's simple. I don't want a lot of busy-ness, because I can't see it. In moderately lit to well-lit areas, I can compose pretty easily. I'm working the percentages."

Weinberg, 54, is a Denver native who graduated from George Washington High School and earned an associate's degree in photography from Colorado Mountain College. He shot a photo documentary of the East St. Louis neighborhood where he lived while he was a VISTA volunteer in the late 1960s, worked for several photo-supply businesses and opened Weinberg Photographics, specializing in weddings and portraits, in 1989.

After his vision began to fail in 1996, he was determined to continue working as a photographer.

Transportation became a significant issue. Driving became increasingly difficult, and Weinberg sold his car three years ago. He relies on buses, cabs and private drivers for getting around and hires assistants for some assignments.

Sharon, his wife of 13 years, has a background in vocational-rehabilitation counseling.

"The reason he's able to (continue photography) is, he has a sense about it," she said. "He says, 'I feel when it's the right moment.' "

Around the house, Weinberg relies on his memory about where things are to keep from tripping. Sharon, an artist whose pastels and oils decorate their house, has to remember to close drawers. They've learned to laugh about everyday things, like when Weinberg put the soap in the refrigerator.

"I'm in limbo land," Weinberg said. "I have one foot in the blind world, one in the sighted world. When you see me on the street, say 'Hello' because I don't know who you are."

His home office has a computer equipped with optical character-reading software that turns his keystrokes into sounds. He subscribes to Newsline, which delivers spoken-word versions of The New York Times, USA Today and The Wall Street Journal over the phone, and he listens to the Radio Reading Service's broadcasts of Denver and Boulder newspaper stories as well as audio books. And he watches TV - with binoculars.

"He's very independent," Sharon said. "If I have to go out of town on business, he can take care of himself."

The exhibit at the Lakewood Cultural Center, in the works since last February, consists of black-and-white portraits Weinberg took, mainly on assignment for Intermountain Jewish News. All of them were taken in Denver.

"I'm a Denver native, I know the city as good as anybody, and I like this kind of (human-interest) work," he said.

The portraits cut a wide swath, from celebrities (Bill Clinton and Pope John Paul II, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Liv Ullmann, Elie Wiesel, Dan Rather and Itzhak Perlman) to familiar Denver faces (Cleo Parker Robinson, the Rev. Leon Kelly, Denver librarian Rick Ashton), a homeless man (Leander Taylor) and an Indian dancer (Thomas Yellowhorse), in a photo taken during a powwow four days after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Each picture is captioned in Braille, and Weinberg has recorded descriptions of each picture and comments about when and how they were taken. His narration can be heard on CD players, which can be checked out at the gallery.

"I want to travel the show," he said. "It has a real message: You keep going as much as you can.

"The issue for me is, 'Is the cup half-empty or half-full?' For me it's still half-full, and that's what I think of my life."

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