In pictures: Norman Taylor - Shedding some light
Norman Taylor thought his days as a keen wildlife photographer were over when he started to lose his sight. How wrong he was. Now the 66-year-old is taking better pictures than ever thanks to a digital camera and his garden shed. As an exhibition of his extraordinary work gets under way today, he tells Claire Smith how he does it
• Norman Taylor's work, taken with a basic digital camera costing just 79, goes on display at RNIB Scotland in Edinburgh from today. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
WHEN Norman Taylor's sight deteriorated five years ago his life changed completely. A retired landscape gardener and forestry expert, and a keen amateur photographer since he was given his first Box Brownie at the age of 14, Taylor's professional life and his hobbies were entirely intertwined with his ability to see. From lying flat on his belly in the middle of a forest trying to capture shots of squirrels and other wildlife, to measuring and cataloguing the trees around where he lives in Dumfries and Galloway, Taylor was, as most of us are, utterly dependent on his sight. Losing it turned his world upside down.
"My eyes just took a dive," says the 66-year-old, in a gentle Northern Irish accent (he was born in Belfast and lived there until retiring to Scotland in 2001). "I'd had trouble with them for ages but I was still able to cope – I could drive and take photographs.
"But then it just seemed to happen so quickly. I was walking around the woods near my house and suddenly I panicked because I realised I could hardly see the path I was walking on. It was panic, because I knew two or three months before I had been walking on the same path in the dark listening to the owls."
Taylor had to stop driving immediately. He went to his GP who sent him to the see a consultant. Two cataract operations were carried out, but they made only the slightest difference. The way Taylor describes it is that the nerve endings at the back of his eyes are withering and, as they do, his sight is deteriorating. There is no cure.
"When it happened I was sitting in the chair, depressed, wondering what the future was going to be. I was to undertake a major project of tree identification and measuring at home in the Fleet Valley. But I couldn't do it. I couldn't drive and I was afraid to walk across fields in case I fell into a hole. It was a very low time."
Taylor was depressed, but he also felt angry, frustrated by his sudden loss of independence and struggling to cope. It was a visit from an old friend, Patrick McLaughlin, that changed things for Taylor.
While strolling around Taylor's garden, McLaughlin showed his friend his digital camera. Taylor had long since put away his own film cameras because he could no longer see the settings on the dials, and he was unconvinced by digital. "I thought digital was like cheating," he laughs.
Scepticism aside, standing there in the garden, Taylor realised he could see a little of the camera screen, not a sharp image, but shapes and light. It meant that Taylor might once again be able to take photographs. Looking for a subject, the men settled on what was closest to them: the garden shed.
McLaughlin tasked Taylor with taking 150 photographs of the wooden shed. At the time, Taylor says he thought he'd be lucky if he could take ten. But he couldn't have been more wrong. Henri Cartier-Bresson, the father of modern photography, said that "the smallest thing can become a big subject". For Taylor that proved to be prophetic.
Over the past two years, Taylor's digital camera, a basic model bought for just 79, has, he says, become his eyes and a way of reconnecting to the world. His target figure of 150 photographs was quickly surpassed. Since he began in 2007, Taylor has taken more than 1,300 shots – beautiful, detailed, abstract, oddly moving – of his beloved garden shed. An exhibition of 40 of the photographs opens today.
"People are curious as to how someone like myself, someone who is partially-sighted, can do this," he says. "When I set the camera to autofocus I can see what I want to photograph in the monitor on the back of the camera even though it's blurred or fuzzy. If I can see the shape and I press the shutter – the camera is the 20/20 vision that my eyes should be. This is the wonderful thing."
Since his original "wee camera," Taylor's upgraded. But although the camera has now changed, the way that Taylor captures his images hasn't. Using the screen on the back of the camera to guide him in terms of outline and composition, he takes the shot. His visual impairment – optic atrophy – doesn't allow him to see the detail of the image, but he has a sense of light, and sometimes atmosphere, which he wants to capture. It's not until Taylor transfers the images to his 20in computer monitor that he gets to see a clearer version of what he has photographed. And sometimes, he is surprised.
"When I get them on to the monitor I often realise that there's something there that I hadn't seen," he says. "A few times I've taken shots of the light, but when I've got it on the monitor, I realise that there's a lot more in addition to that. When I then get the image printed, I can look at it closely with a magnifying glass to see the exact details."
Taylor describes the process of taking photographs as an "exercise in seeing". The photographs he's taken, of plastic baskets and frosted windows, rusted hinges and flies trapped in cobwebs, are strikingly beautiful. Out of all of them, only one was set up.
"Some of the pictures, like the frosted windows, they're a moment in time. If I hadn't have taken the photographs then, five minutes later the frost was gone. Some of the pictures are of the same thing, but taken in different lights or in different seasons. There's a hinge, slightly rusted, in sunlight and one that's covered in a light dusting of frost.
"That's why with the shed it's been an exciting journey of seeing. I've been able to get right up close to hinges and bits of wood, moss and reflections on windows."
The irony that, as his sight has deteriorated, in another sense he's been able to see much more doesn't escape Taylor. "Normal- sighted people just don't see it," he says. "When I was taking photographs when my sight was reasonably good I just didn't think of things like that. If I'd come across someone taking photographs of a shed I'd have thought, not right in the head.
"When I look back, when I think of lying on my belly all day trying to take photographs of wildlife, what I realise is that I think now I'm actually taking better photographs than I ever did."
Taylor has already shown some of his photographs in a gallery close to where he lives in the Fleet Valley. From the visitors' book, he knows that even if people used to look at him blankly when he'd explain that he was doing a project that involved taking more than a thousand images of his shed, his photographs move people. For some, they are reminders of their grandfather's sheds, or places that they've been. For others they're simply beautiful images.
"I expected people to say: 'it's a hammer, so what?'" Taylor says. "But there's more than that – colours and textures, light and shade. And in the shed it's the feelings and the moods, the atmosphere that counts. There are still new things that I see. The shed is about ten metres from a window in my house, and, although I'm partially sighted, I can still see it and I can still see an extraordinary light. Sometimes I just grab my camera and get out there."
Taylor is only too aware of the practical difficulties of sight loss: putting toothpaste on a toothbrush, being unable to read the label on a tin or a packet, the fact that he can't just pick up a newspaper or a book. As well as his photographs, Taylor plays the guitar and uses a scanner to help him read, but he knows that for people who have a visual impairment, the impact is huge.
Digital photography is, he hopes, something that might help people to cope. "They only have to give it a try," he says. "There are a lot of people whose eyesight isn't as good as mine. If they can only see colours and they take an image of the beautiful red petals of a poppy, they'll capture the different hues of the colours. The image doesn't need to be sharp. As you progress, your mind becomes more into the abstract and you begin to see different things. It's about just opening your mind to seeing these things."
Taylor's digital camera has changed his life. It has restored a feeling of independence he thought he'd lost. Now that his exhibition is open, his next ambition is to write a book in order to share his experience with others. "You don't have to jump in a car and go off and do landscapes or sit all day waiting to try and capture a picture of an animal that moves. There are absolutely loads of things in people's own backyards that they can photograph.
"The main thing is that people have got to do it for themselves. It's not about doing it to show off to anybody, just do it for yourself. If that fateful day hadn't happened, I'd still be sitting in that chair getting fat. This has lifted me out of the depths of despair. And what I've done, there are so many other people out there who could benefit from it. They don't have to take fantastic photographs, they just have to be able to say: 'I did that.'"
• Norman Taylor's photographs are on display at RNIB Scotland, 12-14 Hillside Crescent, Edinburgh, EH7 5EA from today, 4 December, until mid-January, from 9:30am to 4:30pm Monday to Friday. Taylor's website can be found at normantaylorphotography.co.uk
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