White people see with their eyes.
While shamans (medicine men)
see with their minds.
THE EYES OF THE MIND
Héctor Méndez Caratini in Conversation with Ricardo Viera
(The following interview took place over the internet from February to May 2015.)
Without the eye and the mind, there is no art—there is no photography. The reciprocal and collaborative phenomena that a visual image is able to inspire and challenge us to interpret and describe images as words and words as images, is a creative humanistic journey. Photography is at the same time an ever-growing scientific discovery and bonafide universal art medium within the living theater of the mind and the eye. In the 80’s I established a photography exhibition series at Lehigh University Art Galleries from our Teaching Collection, called “Intentions and Techniques” as an advanced exercise of looking versus seeing and photography as contemporary art: techniques could be appropriate to direct intention, as well intentions may inform techniques or a function of technique may inform what the photographer’s intention is not about. Endless possibilities are attached to the sense of unity in a medium constantly and rapidly changing since its invention in 1839.
The Eye as Art.
Ricardo Viera: In the 1930s, when the visionary engineer and inventor of the stroboscope, MIT professor Harold “Doc” Edgerton (1903–1990) [Fig. 1], was involved in experiments that led to what is known today as electronic flash photography, the term “art” was not part of the scientific vocabulary. However, in 1934 Edgerton was awarded a medal by the Royal Photographic Society. Do you think the ophthalmic community today considers what you are doing, in addition to its important scientific underpinning, an art form? Explain to us, if so, how, keeping in mind that fine art expressions, particularly abstract images, continue to be not well received and only accepted and collected by a minority.
Héctor Méndez Caratini: In his day, Doc Edgerton was a well-known scientific revolutionary who used new technology to create artistic images. Today, in the Ophthalmic Photographers Society, artistic scientific images are considered to be part of the vocabulary. This organization has created several categories in their annual Scientific Exhibit Best of Show Awards, held in conjunction with the American Academy of Ophthalmology Convention. Excellent—or we might say “beautiful”—eye photographs are publicly recognized.
On the other hand, I have tried without much success to introduce my deliberately artistic—that is, non-ophthalmic—work into the educational programs of the OPS, at its annual conventions. I’ve been told that my artistic work—the work not related to ophthalmology per se—is of no educational value to the participants in the convention, because their members will not receive OPS or JCAHPO credits if they come and listen to my talk. Even so, through perseverance, during my last PowerPoint presentation to the OPS members I managed to let them know the influence that ophthalmic collages have had on my artistic work. I showed them how images from my Fiebre series (2004–2008) [Fig. 2] use retinal collages as their source of inspiration.
I, and another artistically inclined friend, have managed to organize get-togethers after the official meetings are over, at which we show our artistic work to the public. The editor of the Journal of Ophthalmic Photography has been very receptive to this, and has invited me to publish two different photo-essays [Fig. 3] of my artistic photographs in that journal.
RV: Looking at the images of the retinopathy series you are currently creating, I have to admit that the fear of a decorative result may or may not affect the aesthetic integrity of such science-specific and health-related subject matter. But that turns out not to be a problem at all. The images transcend the ordinary. There is not really a concern in your technological analysis about including D-Stretch software. Interestingly enough, the technological balance of the work speaks for itself.
HMC: In 2014 I began experimenting, on my own, with a computer software program called D-Stretch. It is one of the technologies used by NASA on the Mars Exploration Rover Mission [Fig. 4] to analyze images sent by the orbiter and robot back to Earth. This scientific technology has never been applied to ophthalmology. I believe, though, that it’s a useful tool that can be incorporated into the study of retinal images—specifically the program’s filters that highlight the red channel, which can be used for viewing the choroidal and retinal vasculature, as well as pigmented lesions.
The variations that can be obtained from a single image when several D-Stretch filters are applied to it are endless. Chance plays an important role in the result. When seen together, these images, from an artistic point of view, are reminiscent of Pop Art and Andy Warhol’s avant-garde photographs [Fig. 5]. I have played with the element of chance in previous bodies of work, such as Xibalba (1987) [Fig. 6] and The Buddha Series (2010) [Fig. 7]. In the former series, the color was added via an electronic signal to the original black-and-white images.
Also, one of the private medical practices I work with has acquired a brand new ultra-wide-field camera that uses a laser as its main light source. With this equipment I have been able to create new scientific images with considerable, I think, artistic value. This revolutionary instrument takes images at varying wavelengths that can help in diagnosing many illnesses and conditions. They are used in such tests as indocyanine green angiography, fluorescein angiography, autofluorescence, infrared, blue, and green peak filters, etc.
Furthermore, the use of optical coherence tomography enables you to view cross-sections of the retina, in situ and in real-time, allowing the ophthalmologist to map and measure the thickness of the various layers of tissue. These measurements can help in the early detection, diagnosis, and treatment of many retinal diseases.
So you see, there is an intimate relationship between art and science, whether people perceive the image as decorative or not. Some photographs are a feast for the eyes, as well as for the mind. Ophthalmic imaging is a very advanced field. The future of diagnostic imaging depends on emerging scientific medical technologies, such as three-dimensional OCT and fluorescein angiography OCT. The techniques related to this profession have unquestionably influenced my personal artistic work.
RV: Creatively documenting the struggle for identity and loss of culture, assimilation, and nationality, syncretism and popular religious beliefs in Latin America, the rest of the Caribbean, and particularly on your own native island has earned you a well-deserved place in the history of Puerto Rican photography. Interestingly enough, in the last few years, you have also been creatively documenting other faraway cultures very different from your own. What motivates you to do that and what are you looking for photographically?
HMC: My visual research projects take several years to complete. For example, I worked on Loiza (1975–1996) [Fig. 8] and the Petroglyphs series (1975–1995) [Fig. 9], in parallel, at the same time, for over two decades! I also finish some series while working on others simultaneously.
My photography, as you noted, has several common threads. Even today, there are topics that recur in my current Asian Period (2010-2014), which I’ve been documenting for the past four years.
But change is also an integral part of the scenario. My profession as an ophthalmic photographer has taught me to have patience while studying the pathological changes that occur in a patient’s eye. In the several major medical clinical trials, I have participated in (principally the Diabetic Retinopathy Study [1973–1979] and the Early Treatment Diabetic Retinopathy Study [1979–1989]), I have photographed the same patients’ eyes over a period of ten years! The subject of death is also present in my work—the death of a culture, as in Dreams of the Patriot (1977–1979) and Vieques: Chronicles from Hell (2000) [Fig. 10], and death itself, as in my current photo-essay on cockfights, titled Invictus (2014–2015) [Fig. 11].
Since early in my career, I have traveled all over the world trying to figure out why people think the way they do. It’s fantastic! The quest has taken me to many countries (Haiti, Venezuela, Brazil, Peru [Fig. 12], the Amazon [Fig. 13], Borneo, Tibet [Fig. 14], Nepal [Fig. 15], Bhutan [Fig. 16], Cambodia [Fig. 17], Thailand, Japan, China, and others), where I document the many manifestations of religious beliefs.
White people see with their eyes. While shamans (medicine men) see with their minds (thus the reference to the title of this conversation). I record the ancient wisdom of the world’s indigenous peoples from an anthropologist’s ethnologist’s perspective. It is my own eternal search for the universal within the particular. So it really doesn’t matter where, in what country, I am documenting. It is mankind’s spiritual search, and the conservation of nature as a whole, that interests me.
RV: Within photography, there is a long-running debate over whether photography tells the truth or lies. In other words, is photography another way to perceive reality or just a change in the manner we are conceiving its reality—as well as conceiving ourselves? From that perspective, we tend to push the artistic discourse in diverse platforms that do not totally satisfy the sensibility of a contemporary artist when the subject is being introduced as a “weak thought” (pensiero debole). In the semiotic terms of postmodernist philosopher Gianni Vattimo, is the duality of your photographic indicators and the iconographic effect of your retinopathy imagery the essence of your artistic discourse?
HMC: Gianni Vattimo’s model of the pensiero debole (weak thought) is found above all in the arts, where a model of verità (truth) is presented that is adaptable and susceptible to an infinite number of interpretations. In his book La fine della modernità (The End of Modernity, 1985), Vattimo says that “the postmodern experience of the truth is an esthetic experience.” According to him, the claim that “there are no facts, only interpretations, and this too is an interpretation” amounts to saying that hermeneutics cannot be seen as the most accurate description of the permanent structures of the reality of human existence.
Therefore, we can conclude that what constitutes the truth is debatable. It all depends on the creator of that particular truth. Truth, like beauty, has many manifestations, and many meanings, depending on who interprets those manifestations. Also, this esoteric philosophical concept is very similar to the layman’s proverb “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” and to English poet John Keats’ oft-quoted lines from “Ode on a Grecian Urn”: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty. That is all/ Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” This implies that the perception of beauty, and of truth, is subjective. Different people, according to their cultural values, have different ideas as to what is beautiful or what is the truth.
In this particular case, I am documenting images of eye diseases. Whether the spectator finds beauty in them or not, truth or lies is not really important. What matters most is that I have selected them because they are images that say a lot about the interpretation of specific eye diseases. My other artistic images, such as the ones manipulated with D-Stretch filters to accentuate colors, do not imply truth or lie either. The beauty of the retinal images in this series is just a means to an end, which is to produce images with artificially saturated colors that might be of help in accentuating choroidal lesions and by doing so, help in the diagnosis of certain eye diseases. That is the essence of my artistic discourse here. As you can see, I am a compulsive image gatherer. I create atlases of different bodies of work and I leave to others the interpretation of my legacy.