Becoming Visible: My Story of Learning to See

When I was in the eighth grade and his eyesight nearly gone, my dad shared pointers on the basic concepts of photography such as depth of field, focal length, and choosing a shutter speed. When he could see no more, he bestowed his boxy Argus C-3 35mm camera on me.

After I graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) with a BFA in painting in 1982, I put my ambitions to paint on hold. Back then, I believed what my father had told me over and over: I could never expect to make a living by making art.

Oddly, it was my father who got me started taking pictures in the first place. When he was younger, my dad’s hobby was photography. But in an unfortunate twist of genetics, he was also gradually going blind. By age 18, Dad was losing his sight to an inherited disease known as retinitis pigmentosa, a slow and irreversible degeneration of rods and cones, the delicate light sensors inside the back of the human eye. 

I began learning to see by becoming ultra-aware of silhouetted shapes and shadow patterns.

When I was in the eighth grade, his eyesight nearly gone, my dad shared pointers on the basic concepts of photography such as depth of field, focal length, and choosing a shutter speed. When he could see no more, he bestowed his boxy Argus C-3 35mm camera on me. He also showed me how to process black & white roll film and develop contact prints. I spent many hours practicing those techniques in our makeshift basement darkroom. By the time I was in high school, he’d lost all of his eyesight, just as my desire to become an artist/photographer was growing stronger than ever. 

Whenever I made a new drawing, painting, or photo, I’d proudly show it to my family, reserving extra time to describe it to my dad verbally, in great detail. He claimed he could imagine “seeing” it from my description. At the start of my second year at RISD, I had to choose a major. I agreed to study Illustration to satisfy my father’s insistence that I get a marketable skill–as long as he was footing the tuition bill. But I was miserable in Illustration and nearly failed. 

In my photos, I’m always trying to capture a personal point of view.

I dropped out at the end of my second year. Hoping for a fresh start, I moved to Burlington, VT where I found work as a community art instructor, house painter, waiter, and laborer. Over the next four years, I saved enough to return to RISD to complete my degree. I switched my major to Painting. I loved every minute of those final two years, but, couldn’t escape the deeply ingrained belief that making art just wasn’t a viable career. 

Later, I worked at the Philadelphia Museum of Art where I refined my graphic design skills, and eventually, worked my way into book design and art direction in the New York publishing industry. In the few hours each week that I wasn’t working or sleeping, I was occupied by my growing family. Thirty-four years later, my children are starting their own careers and I’ve finally returned to my original passion, photography, painting, and other visual image-making methods. 

Fortunately, my favorite photographic subject is just about everywhere.

Today, my studio is in Port Chester, NY. I am a mixed-media artist meaning that I use cameras, paper, canvas, paint, digital transfers, and silkscreen printing to make images that celebrate sunlight, color, and evoke powerful memories. As a graphic designer, I was concerned with precision and the tools of visual communicators: grid systems, typography, and the intricacies of design software. My job was to make beautiful books designed with eye-catching clarity. 

However, as a studio artist, now I prefer ambiguity, imperfections, irregularities, subtlety and other visually poetic symbols. I’m consciously still pushing away from the rules and systems of graphic design. In the process, I’m reconnecting with photography, drawing from direct observation, and re-engaging with paint. For me, all of my art is rooted in the one gift I will never take for granted: my ability to truly see.

Mark Laurence LaRivière

Mark Laurence LaRivière

I'm a fine art painter and photographer who is always seeking to turn the ordinary into something extraordinary.

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