What’s In a Name? or Why I’m a Cyclops

Discovery and Acceptance

Yes.  Polyphemus has a blog.

As I peered through the eyepiece the nurse tapped her foot impatiently. “I asked you to read the left side.”

“I know, but there’s nothing there. It’s all white!”

And so I discovered that I was a cyclops. I was in second grade.

It’s not as bad as it sounds. My condition is called amblyopia, and is probably familiar to most as a “lazy eye.” While my right eye has perfect vision, my left eye. . .doesn’t. It’s a bit complicated. While there’s nothing physically wrong with the eye itself, the nerve pathway between my eye and brain is essentially miswired. My brain has learned to largely ignore the questionable input from its connections to my left eye, rendering me legally blind. Since the eye itself is perfectly capable of normal vision, my eyesight can’t be improved by the use of corrective lenses or by surgery – my brain is at fault, and there is no clever trick or miracle drug to fix this particular deficiency.

If you don’t know me or pay very close attention to my behavior, it’s virtually impossible to notice that something is wrong with my vision. I walk, drive, draw, and even play sports, just like everyone else.  Despite this, there are occasional hiccoughs and slight hints that something is “off.” I have to turn my head a bit too far to see things to my left. Not much, but just enough to make a keen observer a bit uncomfortable. While driving, I tend to do my best impression of an owl; mirrors only help so much, as my blind spot is a bit larger than most. To best understand how my limited field of view impacts how I interact with my surroundings, imagine trying to walk down a crowded street while wearing a huge hood. As you weave down the sidewalk and try to make your way home, it suddenly becomes much easier to  jostle and elbow other pedestrians, or to slam your shin into a sneaky bike rack hiding outside of your limited peripheral vision. You could become accustomed to these conditions, and of course I have but, in my case,  the disadvantage will always be present since my metaphorical hood can’t be lowered. Fortunately, since its presence is so familiar, I have generally paid little attention to it.

Cyclopses have another significant problem. I remember my frustration that I could never see the fantastical images emerge from the pages of my Magic Eye books, and my utter confusion when friends and family would gush about the fun intensity of 3D movies – all they did for me was provoke migraines. My habit of constantly misjudging the height of curbs and promptly spraining my ankles earned me a reputation as a klutz, even though I could be as graceful as a swan and still suffer the same indignity. It wasn’t a lack of skill, or understanding, or grace that caused these problems; it was all because of my blind eye. The human ability to see depth is dependent on having two functional eyes. Still, it was easy for me to adjust. I never had the ability to see depth, so I adapted and found other ways to accurately perceive the world around me and judge distance. For years, I thought nothing of it. It was just the way I was.

Understanding and Connection to Art

Cyclopses and art go way back, as illustrated by this 16th Century woodcut.
Cyclopses and art go way back, as illustrated by this 16th Century woodcut.

I’ve never mourned my left eye. I am perfectly used to the way I see the world. Even when I was younger, my vision problems never prevented me from doing anything that I wanted to do, and certainly didn’t deter me from pursuing my earliest passion: art. Oddly enough for somebody with imperfect vision, I preferred to create true-to-life renderings and extremely detailed work. At first glance, it would appear as if I were working against my condition rather than with it. However, as I grew older it dawned on me: it is entirely possible that my cyclops-vision affords me a unique artistic advantage. Instead of struggling to translate a three-dimensional world to a two dimensional one I can simply render the world exactly as I see it. Additionally, the very things that I use to understand depth in my flat world – converging diagonals, overlapping shapes, scale, shadow, etc. – are extremely important in art, and are things that I understand on a much more primal level than those with binocular vision.

As I conducted some light research for this post, I was delighted to discover that there is academic support for my theory, or at least others who have reached a similar conclusion. This article details the work of Harvard professor Margaret Livingstone, who noticed the high incidence of vision problems, and stereoblindness (lack of depth perception) in particular, amongst artists. The researchers conclude that unusually high number of stereoblind artists suggests that a lack of depth perception can be and artistic advantage rather than a disadvantage. The New York Times discusses Livingstone’s methodology, which includes an inventory of self-portraits by famous artists, as well as a small-scale study of art students whose programs emphasize “representational rendering” – the style which I coincidentally favor. However, most of this research has been on painters and artists who practice other traditional media, not photographers. Although I’ve always loved other media, particularly colored pencils (yes, they can be a serious medium!) and pen and ink, nothing, pardon the pun, really clicked until I became serious about photography.

Finally, Photography

Pale girl with red hair holding lens to eye

I took up photography while I studied abroad. Procuring artistic materials and transporting pieces back home would have been difficult and cost prohibitive, but I desperately needed an artistic outlet. At the time, photography seemed like an acceptable compromise. Since this is a photography blog, it should be obvious that it quickly became more than that. My camera is a fellow cyclops, and sees the world in a way that I can understand. I’m already used to a relatively limited field of view, so the challenge of narrowing that field further isn’t terribly daunting. The lines and shadows that I use to understand the world around me are equally important when viewed through a lens, and create much more powerful images when captured properly. Unlike most photographers, I have the advantage of seeing the world in a way that mirrors they way my camera sees, and I believe it creates a rapport of sorts.

All things considered  my disability is at least somewhat responsible for my skill and passion as a photographer. Being blind is generally negative, but in my case my blind eye has allowed me to see the world from a beneficial perspective, and photography has allowed me to connect with – and share – my world in a more meaningful way. I won’t lapse into conjecture, but I can confidently say that if I possessed average eyesight, my relationship with photography would, at the very least, be drastically different.   However, ignoring what-ifs, I have discovered that cyclopses do quite well when they stick together.

Sources and Further Reading

Concerning Amblyopia

The American Association for Pediatric Ophthalmology and Strabismus 

The U.S. National Library of Medicine 

Concerning the Connection Between Vision Problems and Art

The Harvard Gazette archives

The New York TImes

Scientific American

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