Noted photographer Chuck Close transcends his face blindness

A portrait of Chuck Close. He discovered at a young age he could not recognize faces.
A portrait of Chuck Close. He discovered at a young age he could not recognize faces.
Published Jan. 22, 2013


If you ever meet Chuck Close he won't recognize you if he sees you again. He has prosopagnosia, more commonly known as face blindness. He can see the parts of your face perfectly well — your nose, eyes, forehead and so on — but he cannot put the parts together into a pattern that leaves an impression on his memory. He once failed to recognize a woman he had lived with for a year.

If, however, Close takes a photograph of you and transforms it into one of his huge portraits, he may remember your face — at least when he's looking at you straight on. As he explained to neuroscientists at the Society for Neuroscience in New Orleans last fall, "Once I change the face into a two-dimensional object, I can commit it to memory. I have a photographic memory for things that are two-dimensional."

But Close was addressing the neuroscientists not just because he has this rare neurological condition. He titled his presentation, "My Life as a Rolling Neurological Clinic," and recounted an array of disabilities that have, paradoxically, helped him become one of the most successful artists of his generation. "Everything about my work is driven by my disabilities," he told the audience.

Born in 1940, Close discovered in kindergarten that he could not recognize faces. "Even by the end of the year I didn't recognize anyone in my class," he said.

On top of that he was afflicted with an undiagnosed condition that prevented him from holding his arms over his head, running, throwing or catching a ball, or participating in any type of physically demanding game. To keep friends around him he performed magic tricks and drew pictures. If someone asked him to draw a World War II airplane, he would, and during one class variety show he entertained the audience during intermission by drawing caricatures of the teachers.

Close cannot add or subtract without thinking of the dots on dominos. He also has profound dyslexia — a word he never even heard until he had children. Although he can read somewhat, he can't remember anything he reads. He has an excellent memory for anything he hears, however, so in school he studied for tests by entering what he called his "sensory deprivation tank."

"I would go into the bathroom, fill the bathtub, and put a board across it," he said. "I would turn off the lights, and with a single bright light shining on the book, and I would read every line five times out loud so I could hear it."

By hearing the words come from his own mouth he could retain them long enough to take the test the next day. "I don't learn from reading; I learn by ear," he said.

His teachers told him college was out of the question for him, but a junior college in his hometown of Monroe, Wash., had open enrollment, so he signed up for courses that required him to write papers rather than take tests. Then he hired a typist and dictated the papers, relying on his memory for what his teachers said in class. He did well enough to enroll at the University of Washington, where he studied art and graduated magna cum laude in 1962.

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That might have been the end of his formal education, but the Vietnam War was heating up and the draft board, needing more draftees, rescinded his deferment for poor eyesight and flat feet. To get a student deferment Close applied to the graduate art program at Yale, where his classmates included many of the luminaries of his generation, with several of them, such as sculptor Richard Serra and painter Janet Fish, ending up as subjects of portraits.

• • •

Close is best known for huge portraits created from a straight-on photograph he has taken of the subject's face. He divides the photograph and the canvas into a grid containing the same number of squares and fills the squares, which resemble computer pixels, with circles, ovals, and other shapes containing carefully layered colors. The process allows him to combine his early love of abstract art with the photorealism of his first portraits. With this technique he produces enormous faces that change in detail and complexity depending on the distance from which they are viewed.

But Close had to alter this signature style after 1988 when, at the age of 48, he became paralyzed from the chest down due to a collapsed or occluded artery supplying blood to his spinal cord. After several months of therapy he regained some use of his hands and arms, but he lost some of the fine motor control of his hands and had to resort to slightly larger "pixels" filled with slightly less detailed shapes. Still, a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art 10 years after his paralysis challenged viewers to identify paintings made before Close's stroke with those made after, and few could do so, the artist said. The stroke "didn't make me better," Close said, "but it didn't stop me."

Close traces his remarkable resilience back to age 11, when his father died. "When the worst thing that can happen to you happens, you realize you can get past it and be happy again," he said. "That's the gift of my father dying."

He brought that gift to his paralysis, which traumatized him, but also seemed to arouse a fierce determination to continue creating art.

Today Close wheels around his studio in lower Manhattan in an electric wheelchair, and works on giant canvases mounted on an electric easel that lifts and rotates with the push of a button. He wears a brace that supports his paintbrush and allows his weakened hands to make it do whatever he wants. Close is more prolific than ever and is believed to be one of the wealthiest artists alive.

But he gives no credit at all for his success to special talent or inspiration. "Inspiration is for amateurs," he told the gathered neurologists. "I just show up and get to work. You don't need to be more gifted than everybody else. You only have to work harder."

Tom Valeo, a freelance writer in St. Petersburg, is a regular contributor to the Tampa Bay Times.