Famed photographer thrives after strokes to enjoy holidays with 9-month-old grandson
LOS ANGELES (Dec. 4, 2012) – It should not be surprising if Len Steckler, one of America’s most celebrated artists and photographers, takes pictures of a squirmy, crawling baby – his grandson, 9-month-old Dylan – during this holiday season.
Except Steckler lost his left eye to skin cancer in 2005 and suffered a series of strokes in early 2011 that damaged both sides of his visual cortex, according to Patrick D. Lyden, MD, chair of the Department of Neurology at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, where Steckler was hospitalized for a month.
Steckler’s wife, Enid, marvels at his ability to bounce back and the brain’s capacity to rewire itself.
“The first week after the strokes, we didn’t know if he would live, but the fact that he is not just functioning but thriving is wonderful,” says Enid, who has countless photos of Dylan on her smartphone but no professional images taken by the artist who has painted and photographed the glamorous and celebrated, such as Marilyn Monroe and poet and author Carl Sandburg.
“Len has not done a real photographic study of Dylan but he recently said, ‘Next time, I’m going to pull out my camera and really do it well,’” relates Enid, who says she and Steckler, a member of the Director’s Guild, often attend movie screenings during the holiday season and visit with friends at annual parties. They also enjoy getting together with their two sons and their wives, with family time scheduled around vacations and travel.
Steckler, who is in his early 80s, says he only began to see – really see – after he lost his eye and suffered the strokes. The photographs he shoots today are sharp – he refuses to rely on autofocus – and his subjects are perfectly framed. Enid credits what she calls an artist’s sixth sense. But Steckler’s convinced it’s something more.
He wonders if his years of experience guide the vision he has left and his brain takes over from there to reveal details and subtleties that escape normal observation. This, he believes, is part of the magic of the brain and its circuits, an ability residing within each human – artist or not.
“What I’m seeing now I think is elevated in some way. I have a lot of questions about this. … I assume the mystery is the body itself, but I’ve never seen the way I’m seeing now. In my loss, I gained,” he says.
Lyden agrees that Steckler’s brain is compensating but believes that’s only part of the picture.
“There is quite a bit of science around the ability of the brain to perform in ways that surprise us, and there’s still a lot about the brain we don’t understand. An old adage says we only use 5 percent of our brain. That’s ridiculous. The truth is that most of the brain is doing things that we don’t yet comprehend. So there seems to be a very strange and unpredictable benefit to patients who have had brain injuries if they can tap into or harness those reserves,” explains Lyden, who directs Cedars-Sinai’s Stroke Program and is the Carmen and Louis Warschaw Chair in Neurology.
“In Len’s case, it’s a little bit more complicated,” he continues. “Although he will insist that anybody can do what he does, the fact is that before his strokes and before he lost his eye, he had a phenomenal genius for ‘seeing.’ If you see his art, you see that. He can walk past a junkyard or a trash heap that you and I would walk right past, and he snaps a photograph that becomes a masterpiece. When he accesses the same adaptation mechanism that all of us have, it’s building on top of the gift of genius that he was born with, and you get a very unusual result.”
Steckler, who lives in Los Angeles, began having headaches near the end of 2010 and eventually was referred by a physician friend to Lyden. Steckler suffered a small stroke in late January 2011; the strokes affecting his vision occurred in March. By then, the Stecklers had become friends with Lyden, who took a lead role in his care, which also involved neurosurgeon Ray M. Chu, MD.
After the strokes, when Steckler picked up his camera again, things looked different. Today, when he frames a subject, only part of the picture – maybe 50 percent – is clear in his field of vision. But as he shifts his attention through the frame, other objects pop. “As I move the camera or as I move my eye, I say, ‘What is that? That is so wild.’ And as I center in, the whole picture becomes more profound. It has more fluidity. It has more texture. It has more color. And this is in the 40 percent or 50 percent that I’m not supposed to be seeing,” he says.
Although Steckler’s professional work includes museum quality paintings, fashion photography for national magazines, photo shoots around the globe and images of the most sought-after stars and celebrities, it’s ordinary folks who captivate his attention now. His greatest satisfaction comes from slipping into “the Nickel,” downtown LA’s Skid row area, to document the plight of those he calls “the marginal people.”
He shoots the images as he sees them, with the environment’s textures, colors and shapes filling the frame. Nothing is more important than portraying and seeking truth, he believes, especially at a time when society is increasingly infatuated with artificiality and tricked by photographic and computer-generated manipulation.
“We all are capable of seeing more than we think we see. If we could learn to really ‘see’ in actuality what we’re being shown – to really see and understand it – I think this would be a better place to live,” Steckler says.