Disease can’t shake photographer’s tenacity

Photographer Alan Babbitt and his “un-still photography” creation, "Ferris Wheel — Marin County Fair."
Photographer Alan Babbitt and his “un-still photography” creation, "Ferris Wheel — Marin County Fair."

It’s a paradox.

Alan Babbitt doesn’t see well. But his vision is sharper than most.

The sixtysomething Fairfax resident is succinct: “I was born with a whole bunch of eye problems, so I was wearing thick glasses from the age of 2 or 3. There’s no question — without contacts, I’d be legally blind.”

But he refused to let the impairment get in his way.

It certainly didn’t block his becoming a successful film and video producer, webmaster or award-winning photographer.

Babbitt’s online site clearly shows his skill. One portfolio spotlights the Santa Cruz boardwalk on a winter’s day. Another contains dramatic, artsy New York City street scenes. A third focuses on lighthearted images.

Showcased are unusual angles and perspectives, brilliant colors and poignant black-and-white shots.

Babbitt’s originality makes the scenically difficult look easy to capture. And he loves peppering his explanatory text with dubious puns and any remnants of humor that happen to be lying around.

He confesses, for example, that he once “joined a therapy group for photo addicts based on the ‘12-Stop program.’”

Ten years ago, though, Parkinson’s Disease invaded his life “like a loud, uninvited house guest who won’t ever leave.”

The physical shaking made him totally reexamine his life — and shelf his camera for a while.

Not that long ago he and I sat in a quiet Thai restaurant in San Anselmo enjoying the sunshine streaming through the windows. He smiled, almost mischievously, like a kid about to let me in on a gigantic secret.

“Parkinson’s adds to my vision,” he said. “Recognizing I could use the tremor freed me up like nothing else.”

I need no follow-up question; he was on a roll.

“The disease is about losing control. Finding I could use it was empowering. 

When you first learn photography, they tell you over and over about crispness, about keeping the camera steady with a tripod. One evening in Las Vegas, where I was alone with a digital camera, I just started shooting. I was able to see right away what I got. Blurs. Streaks.

“And then people started reacting to it, liking it.”

So that became his style for some time — “tremor-enhanced photography.”

His Web site — www.abproductions.com — contains portfolios dedicated to that innovative technique, “Movement Disorder” and “Shake Me Out to the Ball Game," for example.

Babbitt grinned as he chatted about “crossing the border” and journeying to metaphoric “other lands” through his camera lens — speeding past his disability: “The tremor is only one kind of movement. I can shoot from a moving car, and move the camera around as well. It’s sort of what I call ‘un-still photography.’”

He, too, is very much un-still.

Babbitt’s taught at the de Young Museum Art School in San Francisco, exhibited at galleries and studios in the city and Marin, held shows at the Richmond Library, Half Moon Bay and Washington state.

His photos sold out at a December exhibit/silent auction/fundraiser in Santa Monica for the Greater Los Angeles chapter of the American Parkinson’s Disease Association.

In Marin, he’s part of a group show, “Artisans!” — that will continue, after a holiday break, from Jan. 2 through March 8 at the Falkirk Cultural Center, 1408 Mission Ave. (at E St.), San Rafael. Works from his new “Photo Blendo series” that fuses “symmetry, synthesis and serendipity” also can be viewed on the walls of San Rafael’s Miracle Mile Café, 2130 4th St., through the end of January.

A while ago Babbitt participated in an Art for Recovery program in San Francisco featuring readings from letters exchanged by patients and medical students.

“One of the gratifying things is that people have seen the work and been inspired by what I’m doing,” he told me. “It feels good getting those e-mails and letters.

“Some of them have been from photographers.

“And a 12-year-old girl wrote me and asked to use me as the basis of a school report. That’s the kind of thing that inspires me to do more.”

Still, it can feel pretty heavy — until you fully grasp the positive attitude that springs from the bearded, gray-haired guy with brown eyes that frequently display a twinkle:

There’s no doubt Babbitt cultivates his tendency to be upbeat, his affinity for the amusing.

“Soon after I got the diagnosis,” he recalled, “I thought of occupations that would be possible by using tremors: egg-scrambler, paint can-shaker, human vibrator. Sure, having Parkinson’s can be depressing, but humor can help fight that.”

His occasionally dark humor is quickly evident online, sprinkled between his straightforward photos and experimental tremor shots that highlight bright streaks and patches, rings and blotches of light, geometric shapes. 

Spoofing a Viagra ad, he warns that “if feelings of giddiness…persist for more than four hours, just turn on the news for a few minutes.”

Want to witness what he labels “titters, snickers and snorts”? Or, more to the point, want to be visually impressed? Check out his work and see for yourself.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Paul and Marilena Silbey December 28, 2013 at 03:41 AM
Kudos for positive attitude and artistic flair of unstill photography! Parkinson's Disease is often dramatically helped by ingesting cannabis. Check it out on Youtube, if you wish.
Donna Siegel January 28, 2014 at 07:00 PM
Alan, Just home from a long trip to Boulder. I should be paying bills, doing laundry, but, hey, I loved reading about your latest antics, especially selling out of your work, and I had to stop and say, way to go, Cuz! Love, Donna


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