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For blind photographer Brittany Severance, everything is ‘Illuminated’

“For so long, I was striving to make everything look perfect in focus,” says Severance, who has turned to making art about the way she sees. Her images are now on view at Worcester State University.

Brittany Severance is a legally blind photographer who makes art about vision, some of which is on view in the faculty show now up at the Mary Cosgrove Dolphin Gallery, located in the Ghosh Science and Technology Center at Worcester State University.
Brittany Severance is a legally blind photographer who makes art about vision, some of which is on view in the faculty show now up at the Mary Cosgrove Dolphin Gallery, located in the Ghosh Science and Technology Center at Worcester State University.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

WORCESTER — Life is a blur for Brittany Severance. The photographer and video artist is legally blind. She doesn’t use a cane, and she wears contact lenses, but the invisible disability has held her back in some ways.

“When I was a teenager, I was told I would never be able to drive,” she said. “I just sobbed.”

Severance is now making art about the way she sees. It’s on view in the faculty show at Mary Cosgrove Dolphin Gallery at Worcester State University, where the artist is a visiting assistant professor of communication.

If you have corrected vision, you may recognize the gauzy baubles of cascading light in “Illuminated,” her 11-minute video, which features images of fireworks, carnival rides, and holiday lights. For this nearsighted viewer, the film first prompted the anxious feeling of “something’s wrong, where are my glasses?” — and then a surrender into its serene, luminous beauty.

"Illuminated"
"Illuminated"Brittany Severance

“I had a few friends tell me when I was working on this project, ‘This is how I experience things when my glasses are off,’” said Severance, 36, during a conversation at the gallery. “I was like, ‘Wow, OK, so it’s not just me.’”

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Severance has optic atrophy, a genetic condition that causes her vision to erode over time. She can see pretty well right in front of her, and her contacts correct her eyesight to 20/200.

Photographer Stephen DiRado, Severance’s friend and occasional colleague, has gone for walks with the artist and her husband, Eric Nichols, also a photographer.

“Eric warns her five steps ahead of a rock or a tree stump,” DiRado said.

The work in this exhibition is the first Severance has made about her disability, coming out as a visually impaired photographer and video artist. She has kept her condition under wraps for professional reasons, first as a freelance videographer and then in academia.

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“I didn’t want it to affect my ability to get a full-time position,” she said. “I don’t see it as a weakness, but others might see it that way.”

“Brittany has been a deeply entrenched member of art communities in our city for years,” said Juliet Feibel, executive director of ArtsWorcester, a nonprofit showcasing local artists. “And no one has known this.”

“It’s scary,” Severance said. “I didn’t know how this was going to be received.”

So far, so good. “Illuminated” has received honors at several film festivals here and abroad, including the Screener Short Films Festival in London and the Vastlab Experimental Festival in Los Angeles. Severance’s photo-sculpture series, “Blind/Blend,” on view here, was featured earlier this fall in “Material Needs 2021″ at ArtsWorcester.

Severance has shown at ArtsWorcester in the past.

"Favorite Meal of the Day"
"Favorite Meal of the Day"Brittany Severance

“She has made beautiful photographs, with an exquisitely strong sense of color, but they were remote. The image was tightly controlled and presented to the viewer,” Feibel said. “In this work, she has not let go of control, but she has allowed the things she was controlling to become the image in their own right.”

“Blind/Blend” features layered portraits on three scrims of translucent silk suspended from the ceiling. “Janet,” on view at Worcester State, depicts the artist’s mother, who also has optic atrophy, which is hereditary.

Brittany Severance is a legally blind photographer who makes art about vision. Shown here with "Janet."
Brittany Severance is a legally blind photographer who makes art about vision. Shown here with "Janet." Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

The front layer is fuzzy; in the second, Janet pops against a blurred background. In the third, she loses focus, and the background sharpens. Seeing all three layers at once, the effect is first disorienting and then almost holographic, as the eye finds focus and delineates the figure.

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Severance said the physicality of the installation re-creates her own experience of seeing with a very shallow depth of field.

“I have to really travel through the space in order to get closer and be able to focus on each thing individually,” she said.

"Daydreams In Daytime Traffic"
"Daydreams In Daytime Traffic"Brittany Severance

How does someone whose vision is so compromised become a photographer and video artist?

Severance fell in love with the camera in college at University of Massachusetts Amherst. She’d always found movies easier to watch than TV; she’d sit in the front row and enjoy the big screen. During her junior year, her parents gave her an 8-millimeter video camera.

“Then by my senior year, I was like, ‘I really want to take a video production class. I’m really interested in doing this. I’m a little scared, but this camera has auto-focus, so we’ll go with this,’” Severance said. “And I fell in love.”

She went on to get a master’s degree and a master of fine arts at Emerson College, and over the years she has got the hang of manual focusing, thanks to close looking and constantly improving technology.

Severance is not sure what the future holds when it comes to her eyesight. “When I’m much older, it may be worse,” she said. “But then again, at that point, there might be a genetic solution like gene therapy.”

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For the moment, though, the artist is seeing the gifts of her impairment, and turning straw into gold.

“For so long, I was striving to make everything look perfect in focus, to have everything look exactly like what everyone else sees,” she said. “Then I realized I see differently, but what is really wrong with that? It’s just a different way of experiencing the world.”

FACULTY EXHIBITION 2021

At Mary Cosgrove Dolphin Gallery, Ghosh Science and Technology Center, Worcester State University, 486 Chandler St., Worcester, through Dec. 9. https://wsuvpagallery.weebly.com/faculty-exhibition-2021.html


Cate McQuaid can be reached at catemcquaid@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.