Gary Albertson relies on limited peripheral vision to continre his photogtaphic career. photo by Jay Mather
Gary Albertson relies on limited peripheral vision to continre his photogtaphic career. photo by Jay Mather

Photography is, obviously, a visual medium. So what does a photographer do when he loses his sight? If it's Gary Albertson, he finds a way to continue to create his art - and in his own estimation, some of the finest images of his long career.

Gary Albertson, the proprietor of Sisters Gallery & Frame Shop, has had more than his share of medical challenges. His first major health crisis came in 1995, when his kidneys stopped functioning during a photo-essay project in Rarotonga. By the time he returned to Portland, his condition was critical. Only a kidney donated by his sister saved his life. He received transplant surgery at OHSU and, as with all transplant patients, he was screened for other possible medical issues or complications. During that time, he was diagnosed at the Casey Eye Institute with a rare hereditary eye disease, Pigment Dispersion Glaucoma.

At first, the diagnosis had little impact; vision loss was very gradual.

"My vision didn't really start falling apart until about three years ago," he told The Nugget.

But the descent into blindness was rapid. Now legally blind, the photographer has only limited peripheral vision.

Using a large-format 4x5 view camera, Albertson is still out on his beloved Metolius River, working. It's challenging. He must use very powerful magnifiers to see the settings on his camera, and he cocks his head to see the image in his viewfinder. He admits that he falls sometimes, but that doesn't bother him much. His other senses, especially hearing, have grown more acute, and he feels more intensely tuned in to his environment than ever before.

"What I see now is all of the scene at the same time," Albertson said. "It's like seeing ambiently."

Albertson's story intrigued Pulitzer Prize-winning Sisters photographer Jay Mather. Mather has accompanied Albertson on a dozen or so photographic expeditions along the Metolius and McKenzie Rivers and documented the journey in photographs of his own.

Mather recalled meeting Albertson at Albertson's gallery during an art stroll. He'd been aware of Albertson, but did not know of his medical condition. Mather's training and temperament kicked in.

"You can take the boy out of the newspaper..." he said with a chuckle. "I saw a good story. I thought 'I want to shoot this.'"

Albertson's circumstances gave Mather pause.

"At first I was a little hesitant," he said. "I didn't want to jump in and say, 'I want to do a story because you're going blind!'"

The two photographers became friends, and Albertson agreed to share his time on the river. That was a change for him.

"Normally, I've always preferred aloneness when I'm shooting," he said. "It's a state of mind I need to be in sometimes."

But he was comfortable with Mather documenting his work. There was one hitch that they had to discipline themselves to work around, he recalls.

"It's hard to stop talking," he said. "It's hard to stop talking about photography."

The unique photographic collaboration reflects a larger change in Albertson's life.

"I've always been kind of an aloof guy," he said.

With vision loss, he's had to accept help and the outreach of others - and he has found unaccustomed joy in that.

"What this has done is force me to embrace friendship and enjoy it," he said.

He's certainly found a friend in Mather.

"We'll be friends forever," Mather said. "We've talked about going bowling. Gary thought that would be funny. We'll do that someday."

Mather never intervened to help Albertson as he set up along the rushing waters of Central Oregon rivers.

"I wanted to many times," he acknowledged.

Albertson really didn't need help, especially on the banks of his home river.

"He knows the Metolius so well," Mather said. "He almost knows every rock and stick in the place."

Mather said he got a lot out of his association with Albertson.

"I appreciated his philosophy of life," Mather said. "That's what he gave to me. That was more important than the photography."

Mather grew in his art from the experience.

"I think it's made me a little better photographer, too," he said.

Albertson's way inspired Mather to use senses other than sight to immerse himself in a scene. Now, he will close his eyes and listen. He recalls the creation of a shot he calls "The Laughing River": "I remember the sound more than anything else," he said.

Albertson believes that his limitations have helped him achieve artistry that he has been pursuing his whole life, and he is very proud of the work that will be featured in a special exhibit at the Casey Eye Institute in Portland from April 25, through the end of May. Mather noted that contacts through local artist Kathy Deggendorfer made the exhibit possible. The exhibit features Albertson's work, along with photographs by Mather documenting his journey.

"Those six or seven images are the finest work I've done in my life," Albertson said.

The exhibit will hang in the Casey Eye Institute Lobby, 3375 Terwilliger Blvd. in Portland. There will be an exhibit opening reception on Thursday, April 25, 4:30 to 6:30 p.m., where Albertson and Mather will share their stories.

View Jay Mather's work at

View Albertson's photography at