Friday, August 31, 2012

Chatham Photographer Exhibits Unexpected Visions

Len Jacobs will display his life’s collection of nature and travel photographs at his home studio during the 20th Chatham Studio Tour the first two weekends in December, but these visions are serendipitous.

Chatham County photographer Len Jacobs
When Len Jacobs was a young child in the 1920s in the Harlem district of New York City, it was evident that he had some sort of vision problem. “My parents had a small shop there, which went belly up, and we had to move to Brownsville Brooklyn to my mom’s family home,” Jacobs remembers. “They had a two-family house, with a store underneath.” In the store, his grandfather  made ladies coats and gave Len’s dad a job. “His dad had to learn how to use a sewing machine, and to design clothing,” Jacobs' recalls. His vision problems increased, and when he was three years old, Len’s folks finally found an optometrist in Hackensack New Jersey, where they learned he had only 7% vision. The problem was spreading to the extent that "I might even go blind,” Jacobs stresses. “I probably couldn’t even go to school,”

Fortunately, there was a Sight Conservation Class available in the New York City Public Schools.  “It was K through 6th grade, and the teacher understood kids with visual problems as well as their needs” Jacobs says. “We had special pencils, large print books, matte paper while  physical activity was prohibited.” It was thought that Jacobs’ visual problems made him susceptible for a possible retinal detachment.

In Junior high school there was also a Sight Conservation Class an hour’s double trolley ride away. Despite the school’s prohibition against physical exertion, Len and his visually impaired classmates played punchball, a street game combining the elements of handball, stickball and baseball, at lunch hour. In high school, he became even more physically active. “I had no problems with my eyes, and even began thinking of becoming a Physical  Education teacher, he notes.

Jacobs pursued this goal at NYU School of Education, received a BS in Education in 1948, and an MA in Health Education and Administration a year later. However, when he started looking for a job in the New York City public school system, his old vision problems came to the fore again. “You had to have 20/30 eye sight to get a license to teach Phys Ed,” Jacobs laments, “therefore I failed the medical exam.”

The diagnosis was a type of astigmatism creating an elongation of the eyeball,  which might make him a candidate for a retinal detachment.  Jacobs filed a series of appeals with the school system and the New York State Commissioner of Education. He had examinations by prominent ophthalmologists, who documented that the previous diagnosis was in error. He waited for the authorities to respond. In the mean time he and his wife Doris relocated to Elmira, NY and Washington, DC, where he found various jobs. Finally, in 1951 Len Jacobs received licenses to teach high school biology, high school physical education and elementary school in New York City. Finding an actual job was still a challenge, but he landed a position as an Attendance Officer where enjoyed a 35 year career while he became a Certified Social Worker. After a competitive exam, he became licensed and was appointed as a District Supervisor of Attendance in the New York City School system Bureau of Attendance. Of course he had many educational and societal interesting experiences. “One day, I had to visit John Gotti’s home to find out why his kid was absent from school,” he quips.

Jasper National Park; Alberta, Canada
Photo by len Jacobs
Jacobs' family life, with four children, was the foundation for his avocation as a photographer. In the summer, we had more time than money,” he laughs. “We started taking little camping trips for family fun.” He, of course, took vacation photos. “I wasn’t a very good photographer,” he admits, “so I began to take courses and to study books on photography while riding the Long Island Railroad each day to work.” He joined local camera clubs to hone his skills. He began to share his photos, taken from larger and larger trips to state and national parks all across the country and in Canada, with audiences throughout the greater New York City area. He has won numerous awards and recognition. The one he is most proud of ,however, was his "Ice Pattern" at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art,  Photography as an Art Form.

Now in retirement here in North Carolina, Len Jacobs continues to share his life’s catalog of photographic experiences. He has served as President of the Nassau County Camera Club on Long Island as well as President of Chapel Hill Camera Club. In the past he was Director of the Southeastern Council of Camera Clubs Convention. He has presented multiple projector slide shows with music and poetry and special audio-visual techniques. He still judges photo competitions and lectures on "photo composition." He recently began to transfer the images captured in his myriad of slides to digital files, and printing them for people to enjoy in their own homes. “I really enjoy it when people share my precious visions,” Jacobs emotes.

On the inside jacket flap of his book "Birds I've Seen" the following is written, "There is something inherently special about Len's photography. These photos illustrate that photography performed with such care and precision, with such love and respect, with such skill in the use of camera tools, can be an art form for all to share and enjoy."

The irony of it all is, that a man who was told to avoid physical activity, and that at the age of three might soon be blind, has used his camera to record and share with others some of the visual music of our beautiful world. 

Len Jacobs is one of the many regionally and nationally recognized artists and fine crafts people who will open their studios the first two weekends in December at the 20th Annual Chatham Studio Tour ( ). Visitors from all around enjoy Chatham’s rural beauty and share with the members of the Chatham Artists Guild in the creative process. It is a holiday tradition, and an opportunity to purchase unique original art.



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