No Wonder You Were Afraid to Ask #12: Chris Whitney- An Optometrist with a Photographic Memory

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Chris Whitney was born in Philadelphia and grew up in a family of five children. He said, “Growing up in an Italian family we would all get together on Sundays at my grandparents’ house. My aunt, uncle, cousins, parents, brother, and sisters and I would all be together. There were many “firsts” in that house, like riding a bike (after first crashing into the bushes), running between the row houses at dusk chasing fireflies, being able to hear the sound of the ice cream truck from about 4 blocks away(just enough time to run into the house to beg some change for a Strawberry Shortcake). It was there where I first started watching how light illuminated character. I was drawn to how the parlor chandelier split light into prismatic colors on the wall. At night, streetlights would crawl across the ceiling of the bedroom. The woods next to the Catholic Church always seemed mysteriously quiet. The 1960’s storefront windows down the street always had a glow. I never outgrew wanting to spend time with my grandparents. “

Chris ended up in San Diego via the Navy. He said, “I was transferred to New Orleans for four years before coming back to San Diego to work at Kaiser Permanente. While in New Orleans, I yearned to return to California. I still reflect on how Kaiser helped me to return to my favorite spot. After returning to California, I was privileged to be part of a volunteer group that returned to help the rebuilding efforts in New Orleans. I reconnected to New Orleans in a new way.

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Plain and simple, Chris’ passion is photography. He said, “The act of chasing light down the hallway, out the door, and down the street fuels my imagination. Lifting the camera to my eye, lets me see life’s possibilities. It lets me reflect on the challenges too. But the photography is a medium of expression. Although I say it is a passion, it actually is the way I can capture the passions in my life: the feeling of being free while paddle boarding with my wife on an early Saturday morning, the feeling of calling my Dad and discussing photography for the 1001th time, the feeling of seeing a friend’s piece of art and realizing I’m in it.”

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Though he’s an optometrist, won an award for his photography and traveled around the world, he said the one thing he is most proud of is, “Watching my wife strive for her college degree.”

Be on the lookout very soon for Chris’ work. He said, “I’m slowly working on a book of poetry and photos of New Orleans.”

You can also catch Chris on Social Media here:
Web site: http://christopherandlindawhitney.sites.livebooks.com
Instagram: @Whitneychris71 on Instagram

Until then, enjoy some of his beautiful photography and the answers to his questions.

If you could cure one disease in the world what it be? Why?

My most feared disease is ALS. If I was trapped inside myself, silenced, I can’t imagine how I could cope. We have to find a cure.

What advice would you give the teenage you?

As a teenager, I would not have the life experiences to fully understand the advice. Instead, I would tell the younger me, “Thanks for trying to find the positive each day. Keep doing it.”

One person living or dead you would love to hang out with for a day? What would you do?

My uncle died suddenly in his 40’s. When I was young, he helped introduced me to the outdoors. Local lakes for fishing were like the wild Sierras, and now are the foundation of my enjoyment of wild places. I would show him Rock Creek Lake by Bishop in the Sierras. We could sit in those float tubes and crisscross the lake making endless casts into secret fishing holes. Then, I show him what it looks like from up top on Morgan Pass, looking down on more lakes. When we get back to the cabin with no TC or Wi-Fi, we would fry up the trout and talk the way we did on our last trip together, just after college when the two of us went fishing in Canada.

What is your favorite novel and what does it say about your mind?

The Boys in the Boat by Daniel Brown is a true story about a team of rowers, a crew who went to the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Rowing led the main character from being an abandoned youth to being an Olympian. Rowing is full of metaphors. I was introduced to rowing in college and later met my wife Linda through rowing.

Who is your favorite artist and what does their work say about the way you think?

Galen Rowell’s photography is inspirational. Dramatic landscapes painted with pristine light and dotted with human adventurers are stunning. But Galen always had a message to offer. He spoke of revealing his inner vision and prompted others to do the same, to show the story behind the image.

If you could be any profession at all, what would it be?

Sometimes work days are challenging, but I would not choose another profession (not even landscape photographer for National Geographic). My training as an optometrist has helped me to better appreciate the visual world that I enjoy so much. I’ve been encouraged by patients who have minimal vision or who are totally blind. Often, they are the teacher and I am just a facilitator to guide them. I most enjoy when people are not defined by their diagnosis and find freedom to do things in new ways, like creating palpable photographic images even though they might see very little detail of their subject. My friend Pete Eckert is totally blind. He mastered the technical part of taking photographs that might look like others’ work. Instead, he prefers to bring a person into a dark room, where he is no longer blind. He uses colored lights to paint flowing auras across his model and creates stories on film that he will never see. My friend Bruce Hall is legally blind and scuba dives off Catalina Island, capturing details in the kelp and sea life. Digital photography lets him enlarge his images on the computer as an extension of being in the deep. My friend Kurt Weston sees shadows and creates stunning portraits full of moody light. He can use his conventional camera but is flexible and converts a flatbed scanner into a portrait studio, directing his model to move in certain ways as the scanner captures glimpses of their personality. Often, my patients with low vision are guided into my office by protective family members. They are not sure what can be done for them or they may be hoping for lenses to make the world “clear”. I share the stories of Bruce, Pete, and Kurt so they know where horizons lie, where there are opportunities for independence in whatever they want to do.

Is there a non-profit you would like everyone to know about?

Hands on New Orleans is a great organization. They form partnerships between volunteers and local organizations such as the Success Academy charter school. Even this long after Katrina, there is still work to be done.

How do you think we can fix the racial divide in the United States?

People have to see how there is part of them in others, to find some connection. That connection is the foundation for any hope.

What is your favorite Inspirational quote?

Burt Lancaster’s line as he portrayed the Birdman of Alcatraz, “The first duty of life is to live.” Not just to go through the motions but to engage life, fall down and keep going.

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What do you think is the most important invention ever?

There are so many great inventions that have saved lives, lifted us off our own planet, and let us see deep inside the human body. Every day I turn a dial and say, “Which is better one or two?” Eyeglasses help people to see the things that are important to them.

What is one attribute you got from your Mom? How has it been a benefit to your life?

My Mom enjoyed creating things. She made crafts but it was the act of crafting and sharing that she seemed to enjoy best. She was also diligent, timely, and focused and emphasized the importance of keeping my commitments.

What is one attribute you got from your Dad? How has it been a benefit to your life?

My Dad enjoys photography. He was a photographer in college and stayed connected to photography to this day. When I was eight, I received a “special” Christmas present of a Brownie camera. I enjoyed inserting the roll film and clicking its shutter. I especially enjoyed the flashbulbs I used for indoor portraits. I set photography aside until it recaptured my attention just after college. That’s when my Dad and I spent the weekends exploring our town, Wilmington, Delaware. We photographed the shoreline, firework celebrations, old mills, and whatever sparked our attention on a Saturday.

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What is the most adventurous thing you ever did?

Hiked up Mt Whitney in the winter. Each time I did it, I said it would be the last. Linda and I did it “one last time” in 2014.

What was your favorite meal growing up?

Lasagna. My grandparents were Italian and my grandmother made the best pasta (and meatballs).

What is the coolest thing you ever won?

First place in a photography contest for a black and white image of a simple branch protruding from the snow. Some people had argued that it was not first place material. I was happy for the significance of the award, not that I received an award, but that some had recognized how a common element in nature may speak loudly and reflect a personal message.

Which teacher had the biggest impact on you? Why?

Dr. Munson, my college biology professor. He had a way of connecting to students, giving us a sense that he understood what we were going through. The best teachers are facilitators and his passion for environmental biology pulled us all out into the field together on the Eastern shore of Maryland. In his lab, I saw new things through the microscope. His family had introduced him to Bermuda and he shared his passion for that place, bringing students and alumni there on biology trips. I remember riding on a moped next to him driving “down the wrong way of the street” through Bermuda seeing places for the first time and being happy to share his passion with him.

What is your favorite scent?

I can’t smell.

What three things, would you have on a desert island? Anything!

Water and my paddleboard to escape after I explored the island thoroughly. Thirdly, Linda would have to be there since she does not like missing an adventure.

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What was the first concert you attended?

The Police in DC.

Do you have a video you would like to show?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aUeYnUZMDvY

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