Relaxing at his Santa Barbara home, blind photographer Bernward Thorsch sits contentedly on his favorite lounge chair, his tender hands resting on a wooden cane. Fipsy, a 12-year-old golden-haired Lhasa Apso, rests at his feet.
Within arm’s reach on a nearby table are a plate of freshly baked Christmas cookies, a worn black-leather camera bag and an audio book cassette player. His framed photos are arrayed around the room.
Thorsch, 92, has traveled the world taking photographs. For decades, his experiences have been portrayed through the lens of his Olympus OM-2 35-millimeter camera.
A portion of Thorsch’s remarkable work has been on display since last year at the Braille Institute’s Santa Barbara Center, 2031 De la Vina St. The exhibit — “Insight: The Blind Photographer” — runs through the end of January and features 17 exquisite photographs that depict Thorsch’s zest for life and his instinct for beauty captured in time. The various settings include natural landscapes in the Sierra Nevada, unique exterior furnishings at Alma Rose Winery in Buellton, an old barn in the Santa Ynez Valley and flowers in the garden of his home.
“I have viewed the world through my camera lens while traveling extensively photographing people and nature,” Thorsch told Noozhawk. “Photography is a tool that allows me to capture the beauty and uniqueness of the places I visit.”
His love for photography dates to his childhood when he worked as an apprentice for his Swiss father, Bernhard Benno Thorsch, who owned a camera factory in Dresden, Germany, called Kamera-Werkstätten Guthe & Thorsch. Established in 1919, the factory was a leading center in camera development and optics.
Thorsch recalls sweeping the floors at the age of 10, before working his way up to camera manufacturing.
“My job was to blacken the screws used to assemble cameras,” he said. “I’d put the brass fasteners in a metal bucket and saturated them in hot oil on a furnace, and I’d repeat the process several times until the blackness was burned into the brass.”
When he wasn’t working at the factory, Thorsch took photographs to hone his passion and craft.
“I’m a self-taught photographer and everything about photography came naturally to me,” he said. “I’m a curious photographer and take pictures of anything that interests me.”
But the emergence of Nazism in Germany changed the course of his future in 1938. Just before Thorsch turned 18, his father, who was Jewish, decided to sell the factory and emigrate to the United States. The family settled in Detroit.
“I had to repeat boot camp three times because I could barely speak English,” he said. “But I was able to take photographs of high-ranking officers and I ended up working in long-range Trimetrogon Aerial photography.
“I spent quite a bit of time taking photographs over Panama in B-17 bombers and took every opportunity to photograph the places and people where I was stationed.”
Thorsch also developed a special interior mount for cameras that he installed on the front of the B-17 and B-24 bombers that were used for aerial reconnaissance.
After his discharge from the military in 1947, Thorsch worked for a camera store before moving to Los Angeles with his wife and son, opening Studio City Camera Exchange on Ventura Boulevard.
For the next 62 years, Thorsch sold cameras, dark room equipment and telescopes, and also operated a workshop that specialized in camera refurbishments and optical repair.
Thorsch retains an extensive collection of more than 200 cameras. His favorites include a Kodak Vest Pocket Autographic series III folding camera dating from the early 1900s, and a Pilot Twin Lens camera made at his father’s factory.
“These cameras are priceless to me and not for sale,” he said.
And even though Thorsch has a vault of antique cameras that most collectors can only dream of, he’s haunted by one camera that he let slip away: a Leica 1B Dial-set Compur made in 1926.
Newly discharged from the military, Thorsch was in Denver when a young man approached him on a street corner and offered to sell him the camera for $15. He refused — a decision he regrets to this day.
“I knew what I was looking at and that it was a rare find, but I was so exhausted,” he said. “It was my first day out of the military and I wasn’t thinking straight. I’m still haunted by it. That particular camera is worth over a million dollars now.”
When Thorsch was 80, he began to notice his vision was deteriorating. Over time the infirmity began to affect his work.
In 2000, he was diagnosed with macular degeneration, a chronic eye disease that causes visual impairment due to loss of vision in the center of the visual field of the retina. The condition resulted in the loss of 90 percent of his eyesight.
Within two years, he had lost the ability to drive so he hired a chauffeur to get him to and from the store. Disheartened, Thorsch packed away his cameras, with no thought of taking photographs in the future.
“A large part of me was lost, but not forever,” he proclaimed.
He closed the shop in 2006, and moved to Santa Barbara two years later after his wife died. He wanted to be closer to his daughter, Jennifer Thorsch, director of UCSB’s Cheadle Center for Biodiversity and Ecological Restoration.
After a few months in Santa Barbara, Thorsch felt the familiar urge to pick up his camera. With the help of his nurses, he went outside to explore and began to take photographs again.
Relying on his years of experience and the presence of natural light, shapes, angles, forms and shadows, Thorsch realized he could see more clearly through his camera lens than the naked eye.
“For instance, the photograph that I’d taken of a church in Bishop, the light was so perfect,” he said. “The church was illuminated from the back and the light illuminated through to the front of the church, so I asked my assistant to stop and go back and I took a picture of it.
“I don’t use digital, only manual cameras with film, and I never use auto-focus.”
Thorsch is scheduled to undergo intraocular lens implant surgery on one of his eyes in February. During the procedure, doctors replace the crystalline lens that has been clouded over by cataracts or myopia. Once in place, the specialized lens magnifies images up to three times their normal size.
“I’ll be able to see part of a dollar bill again,” he grinned broadly.
Thorsch insists his blindness doesn’t distract him from creating art or indulging in another of his favorites hobbies: flying. Once a month, accompanied by another pilot, he takes the controls of a glider while flying over the Mojave Desert. He’s also flown over the Gulf of Mexico and the Florida Everglades in the past two years.
The loss of his eyesight has pushed him to reach beyond his handicap to overcome fear and embark on a personal pilgrimage for self-exploration. The result is his Braille Institute exhibit.
“My hope is that what I’ve accomplished will inspire other people with handicaps to reach beyond their disabilities and realize that anything is possible,” he said.
Prints from the Bernward Thorsch exhibition, “Insight: The Blind Photographer,” are available from Color Services Photo Lab, 230 E. Cota St. The prints start at $30, with all proceeds benefiting the Braille Institute’s Santa Barbara Center.