Journalist and artist lost his sight but not his vision

Nov 10, 2023 | Article, Newsletter

Journalist and artist lost his sight but not his vision

Nov 10, 2023

Bob Weinberg has been a conscientious objector, a VISTA volunteer, a Boston cab driver, a musician, and a health care worker. And that does not even count the nearly two decades that he spent working at Buckley Air Force Base. But you will find his true passion hanging on the walls of his neat southeast Denver apartment.

Weinberg is a photographer. Even if you do not know his name, you may have seen his work, and you will certainly recognize some of the more famous people he has photographed: President Bill Clinton, Pope John Paul II, Elie Wiesel, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. The Colorado History Museum has an exhibit of his photos from the 1980s and 1990s, “The World in Denver: The Photography of Robert Weinberg.”

Itzhak Perlman by Bob Weinberg

Itzhak Perlman. Photo by Bob Weinberg.

For decades, Weinberg photographed news and events for what was then the Allied Jewish Federation of Colorado (now JEWISHcolorado) and the Intermountain Jewish News (IJN)—documenting everything from the violinist Itzhak Perlman at a fundraising event to the Jewish Federation of North America General Assembly meeting in Denver and years of Joyce Zeff Israel Study Tour students gathering at the airport to leave for Israel.

“Doing this work, I felt like I was part of history,” Weinberg says. “And I was also part of the community.”

Now in his mid-seventies, Weinberg is still taking photos, an accomplishment made even more remarkable by the fact that he has been legally blind for 25 years.

“In some ways, it has been incredibly difficult and life-changing,” he says. “But in other ways, it has opened doors into the blind world.”

‘I had to be serious about photography’

Weinberg is a true Denverite. His father grew up just off Larimer Street when it was still a dirt road. His mother Faye grew up in the Jewish community on the west side of the city.

“She was the religious one in the family,” Weinberg says. “She became a Bat Mitzvah at Temple Emanuel when she was 80 years old!”

Weinberg grew up in the Mayfair neighborhood and went to George Washington High School, graduating with a love for playing his trumpet and learning about helicopters. He decided that becoming a VISTA volunteer might lead to a career as a social worker. His first assignment took him to the Uintah and Ouray reservation in Utah.

Photographs by Bob Weinberg

“It was incredible—the landscape, the people, their stories,” he says. “I can still see in my mind an older American Indian woman slicing a piece of wood with this great expression on her face. That’s when I realized that I wanted to make photographs.”

Weinberg’s next assignment took him to a very different world—predominantly Black East St. Louis, Illinois—where he helped people find jobs and found joy in visiting great jazz clubs.

“That’s where I truly started my photo career,” he says. “I bought a camera, but one of the other VISTA volunteers had to co-sign because I could not afford to pay for it all at once and I wasn’t even 21 years old yet.”

When Weinberg left VISTA he faced the reality of the era—the Vietnam War. He decided to do alternative service as a conscientious objector and was sent to New England, where he worked in hospitals in Boston and Cambridge and drove a cab in Boston. And he took pictures—lots of pictures.

“It was then that I knew I had to be serious about photography,” he says. “I took pictures of everybody.”

Bob Weinberg

When he returned to Colorado, he enrolled in Colorado Mountain College where he was fortunate to have great photography teachers. He started photographing weddings and then took on some advertising shoots—and before long, Bob Weinberg had found his future.

‘Capturing time and history’

From the start of his career, Weinberg knew that pure photography would not always pay the bills, so he developed a career working—and learning—in Denver camera stores, never knowing how important this retail experience would become later in his life.

Weinberg could spend one day printing someone else’s work, and the next day building his own career. He took on freelance projects for periodicals all over the U.S., including a memorable day when he got a gig from Washington, D.C., photographing Arnold Schwarzenegger visiting elementary schools to promote a presidential physical fitness campaign.

“He was really sweet with these kids, showing them how to do push-ups,” Weinberg says. “He was bigger than life and had genuine charisma.”

Jack Goldman z”l, a well-known Denver Holocaust survivor, introduced Weinberg to IJN. With press credentials in his pocket, Weinberg photographed everything from a Super Sunday fundraiser to the 1993 World Youth Day, where he took the photo of Clinton and the Pope.

President Bill Clinton and Pope John Paul II. Photograph by Bob Weinberg

Bill Clinton and Pope John Paul II. Photo by Bob Weinberg.

“I had all sorts of assignments—food, architecture, people, business, everything you can imagine under the sun,” Weinberg says. “I loved the variety, but it never occurred to me that I was capturing time and history.”

When he writes about himself, Weinberg likes to say he was “a journalist who did abstract work.” He enjoys capturing human moments, but he also loves doing photography that looks like abstract paintings. His collection of Sand Dunes photos hanging in his living room illustrates a way of looking at the natural world that he connects to his love of jazz.

And then, on a rainy day in May 1995, Weinberg dropped prints off at what is now the JEWISHcolorado building, pulled out onto the street, and was in an accident that totaled the car. It was the strongest possible indication that the vision issues that had troubled him for years could no longer be ignored.

Sand Dunes. Photo by Bob Weinberg.

Sand Dunes. Photo by Bob Weinberg.

‘The greatest challenge of my life’

“Rod dystrophy”—a condition where the cones and rods in the eyes deteriorate over time. That was the diagnosis that would explain why Weinberg—whose passion depended on his vision—had lost about half his sight.

He recalls his reaction as “devastated.” But when a doctor handed him a letter where he saw the words “legally blind,” reality set in, and he knew his life would have to change. The days when he could work for IJN—now riding public transportation rather than driving—had come to an end.

Bob Weinberg with computer

“Learning about dealing with blindness is huge,” he says. “Really, it was the greatest challenge of my life.”

He threw himself into a program of re-education with the Colorado Division of Vocational Rehabilitation and the National Industries for the Blind. He learned JAWS (Job Access with Speech), software that enables him to compose emails and hear responses read to him. With new job skills, he was offered a job at the Buckley Air Force Base Supply Store. With all his retail experience in camera stores, he was a natural.

“Getting that job and working there for 18 years was huge for me emotionally,” he says. “It opened doors because I really liked working on the base.”

Blindness did not end his ability to work, and it also did not end his photography career. In fact, he says his photography has “exploded” in recent years after he donated his collection to the Beck Archives at the University of Denver Center for Judaic Studies and to the Colorado History Museum. The exhibit of his work, which runs until the end of the year, gave him a chance to select eight of his favorite pieces and have them displayed on a super large scale. His favorite? “I love them all,” he says with a laugh.

Evergreen Wedding Jump

Evergreen Wedding Jump. Photo by Bob Weinberg.

Weinberg lives independently, not far from the high school he attended so many years ago. And he is still taking pictures. His favorite project is an homage to Phillipe Halsman, a photographer with more than 100 covers of Life magazine to his credit. Halsman asked his celebrity subjects to jump for a photo because he believed when they jumped, they dropped any artifice and the true person was revealed.

Weinberg now holds a camera that has been preset for him and asks his subjects to “Jump!” because “It’s expressive and fun and it gets people off the land.” The results still delight his mind’s eye because losing his sight does not mean he has lost his vision.