Digital Photography: Accessible Art

Carl Yeager: Artist with SMA evolves from film-based photography to electronic imaging

by Richard Senti on July 1, 2008 - 2:44pm

QUEST Vol. 15, No. 4

Life was good for Carl Yeager back in the 1970s. By day, he was a master mechanic at a large Philadelphia hospital. By night and on weekends, his talented hands played a different tune … literally. As a pianist, he played professionally in bands opening for big-name rock groups like Chicago, Iron Butterfly, and Blood Sweat and Tears.

Vase, kitchen window

It was during these heady times that Yeager’s visual side also got a creative boost through his new-found appreciation of photography. His boss at his day job was an avid amateur photographer whose enthusiasm for the medium inspired Yeager to buy a camera and eventually outfit his own darkroom.

“My job at the hospital funded my passion for art and music,” he says. Carl Yeager was living large.

Over the next decade, he continued to pursue his various creative outlets, including his love of photography. He considered himself a “purist” photographer, shooting 35mm film with a pair of classic Canon F1 single lens reflex cameras with a full array of lenses from wide-angle to telephoto. (He later traded up to a Canon A1 35mm SLR and even purchased a medium-format Bronica camera.) Yeager would regularly disappear into the amber glow of his darkroom — complete with jugs, tanks and trays containing all the requisite chemicals — to process his film, then to print his images using his trusty Bogen enlarger. Photography by definition required lots of tools and many supplies.

The Wizard (self-portrait)

Just ‘depressed’

Yeager’s very active lifestyle at first masked the symptoms of looming disease. He assumed he was just tired: “It was insidious. I had a very physical job and felt at times that I just didn’t have the strength for doing even simple tasks. At the same time, I developed a raspy voice; people would ask me if I was coming down with a cold, even though I was not. I was tired a good deal of the time and, after seeing a doctor, was told I was ‘depressed.’ So for a while I was actually treated for depression. It wasn’t until further testing many frustrating months later that it was determined I actually had SMA.”


There are a number of different types of spinal muscular atrophy, with the more common affecting children at a very early age. Yeager learned in 1984 that he has a rare genetic form of the disease called adult-onset SMA (sometimes called type 4 SMA). His mother, grandmother and great aunt also had the disease.

Though SMA makes his hands shake and causes him to tire easily, he was (and still is) able to walk on a limited basis. But the diagnosis was a bombshell to his creativity: “After I was diagnosed, I became dormant for years, thinking I was less of a man.”

After a long period of artistic inactivity, Yeager had a life-altering experience. In September 1999 he became seriously ill and went into respiratory arrest.

“I suddenly woke up in an ICU on life support and the next 17 days were spent realizing what life is really all about. The love from my family, doctors and nurses let me live again.”

A tracheostomy tube was now a part of Yeager’s life, but he wasn’t complaining. In fact, he considered the experience “a rebirth” of himself. He felt lucky to be alive and he felt those creative juices beginning to flow again.

A new photographic world

With Yeager’s renewed interest in photography, he also discovered the medium of photography was changing drastically. The introduction of digital technology made

Reflections on a Classic

photographic image-making a physically easier task, especially in the darkroom.

With image-manipulation computer software becoming more and more sophisticated, Yeager’s conventional darkroom became unnecessary. No longer did he have to deal with lifting, measuring, pouring and breathing noxious chemical solutions. No longer did he need to stand in dim amber light and crank an enlarger up and down, or bend over to focus the projected film image on the baseboard.

“I wouldn’t be able to go into a darkroom anymore if I had to breathe in the fumes of the chemical darkroom,” says Yeager. “My world of photography stayed open to me with Photoshop.” Adobe Photoshop is far and away the most popular among photographers of the different “electronic darkroom” programs on the market.

Now Yeager simply sits in front of his computer screen in normal room light and does virtually everything he used to do in his chemical darkroom. “As far as tools or techniques are concerned,” he says, “I think of Photoshop as my external darkroom which allows me to crop the image and control the contrast, tonal range, color levels and many other aspects of the photograph.”

As Time Goes By

The software also allows Yeager to try out many different versions of the image before finally clicking the “print” command. Moments later, a high-quality photographic print emerges from a printer right next to his computer, without the hassle of maintaining trays or tubes full of chemicals.

Until two years ago, Yeager continued to use his trusty old Canon A1 camera, shooting conventional 35mm film, then scanning the negatives or slides into his computer for digital printmaking. Then on Christmas 2005, his family gave him a new Canon EOS Digital XT, with a 17-85mm zoom lens, “which makes capturing photographs much easier than with film cameras.”

Instead of having to unload and reload unwieldy film cassettes every 24 or 36 exposures, Yeager simply slides a postagestamp-sized media card into the camera and, depending on the card capacity, takes hundreds of shots before downloading the images, in the form of digital files, directly into the computer, ready to sort, manipulate, archive and print out. Not only has the digital camera removed film from the equation, it has made film processing (whether in the home darkroom or trundling off to the drug store) a thing of the past.

Photography with a disability

As the digitization of photography has removed many physical steps and many of the tools from the process of making photographic images, photography has become a readily feasible creative outlet for people with neuromuscular diseases.

Yeager, shooting from car window

Yeager has several strategies for dealing with his disability during the image-taking process: “The weather can be a factor with my tracheostomy; I avoid going out on humid days, as it’s harder to breathe. Because of my hand tremors, I need either a monopod or tripod to take any kind of picture. I have some difficulty walking and use a wheelchair intermittently. When I’m ready to take the photograph, I’ll get up, take the shot, then sit down again. Many times, my wife will drive me around and I’ll shoot right from the car’s passenger window without getting out.”

Carl, 59, and his wife, Kathy, who live in Lansdale, Pa., have been married 31 years and are pleased that both of their sons, Matthew, 20, and Christopher, 22, also are multitalented in the arts.

Though SMA raised considerable barriers in Carl Yeager’s path, they only served to slow him down and never completely stilled his creative spirit.

“It’s now unacceptable for me to let time go by and not produce something from within. I couldn’t do it any other way,” he says.

“I always find a way to work around my disability. When one door closes another will open.”

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