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Tactile Images – Art the blind can experience

Veteran photographer, John Olson, during his impressive photojournalistic career spanning 40 years, has captured countless moments in time, memorialized by expert photography. At just 21 years old, he joined the staff of LIFE magazine, the youngest they have ever hired and throughout his career at the magazine and later, his unique perspective and keen eye has allowed him to engage audiences with compelling storytelling imagery.

Photography and art take viewers on exciting journeys that were previously inaccessible to the blind without sighted assistance.  As a photographer, John knew the depth of feelings photography evoked and, although he did not know anyone who was blind, he thought of the many experiences they were missing by not being able to see these images. Making art accessible to the blind became his goal and in 2008 with his wife, Nancy, the company 3DPhotoWorks was founded where tactile printing enables the blind and partially sighted to enjoy art by touch and sensory stimulation. John and his wife are also the co-founders of Tactile Images, which was formed in January 2021 in partnership with Getty Images and the National Federation of the Blind. Through this partnership, tactile images can now be made available to the blind internationally.

Mask, Bill Scannell © Kurt Weston
Lou Ann Blake touches a tactile photograph in the exhibition

The liberating tactile image experience, further enhanced by audio and smell takes users on an adventure.  As their hand glides over the audio coordinate embedded in the tactile image, it describes what is being touched. Other sensors describe the entire piece. For example, for ‘The Battle of Hue, the audio includes recordings of the US marines featured in each photograph, talking about battle and their time in the Vietnam War. Audio describes what is occurring, but it also provides a unique narrative. All of the company’s tactile image displays have the option of emitting smells which helps to enhance the kinesthetic experience. With their large piece of ‘George Washington Crossing the Delaware‘ in addition to feeling the surface of the image and hearing the story of what occurred, you can also smell gunpowder, thereby deepening the sensory adventure.

Art is being brought to the blind by museums around the United States through Tactile Images’ Travelling Exhibitions which is also available to countries around the world. The pieces in the exhibition are either their own or formed in affiliation with Getty Images. They are available for use by museums, science centers, libraries, and government programs that serve the disabled, and also available for purchase.

 Tactile Images’ first major museum exhibition was entitled Sight Unseen at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg. This exhibition featured artwork by artists who were blind or low vision.

Many institutions use their own imagery and combine it with images from Getty. Over 45 million images are available to be translated into tactile prints.

The collection of images can be easily accessed through Tactile Images website at Any image can be turned into a tactile print. These include, but are not limited to:

  • Architectural Renderings
  • Diagrams
  • Drawings
  • Paintings
  • Collages
  • Photographs
  • Schematics
  • Maps
  • Scientific and Mathematical Formulae
  • Historical Documents and Manuscripts

With the goal of bringing tactile imagery to the blind and disabled on a global scale, Inclusion and accessibility are at the forefront of this initiative.

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