Can you see what Walter Wick sees?

The creative mind behind the popular 'I Spy' and 'Can You See What I See?' puzzle books brings his wondrous photographs to the Walters

  • Walter Wick's photographs are the subject of an exhibit opening Sept. 19 at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore.
Walter Wick's photographs are the subject of an exhibit… (Handout )
September 19, 2010|By Chris Kaltenbach, Baltimore Sun

Can you see what I see?

A man's camera, a vision shared,

Photographs taken, secrets bared.

Walter Wick, whose wondrously detailed photographs are featured in an exhibit opening Sunday at the Walters Art Museum, loves what he can do with a camera. He loves all the attention his young audience pays to those pictures, scrutinizing them as though they contain the secrets of life itself, looking for all the tiny details hidden in plain view.

"The things I can do, it's very exciting to me," says Wick, the photographer behind the immensely popular "I Spy" kids' picture-riddle books and the writer-illustrator of his own "Can You See What I See?" series. "I work with themes and logic kids can understand. There's so much to talk about, so many concepts involved in my work. There's just so many different entry points. Optical illusions are popular with all ages. I can talk about science. ... I can talk about narratives, stories. I can talk about illustration techniques. There's just such a range."

Indeed, Wick's photographs are veritable treasure chests yearning to be unlocked, crammed with carefully arranged toys and other objects that reveal more to the viewer with each look. Some are optical illusions, created using tricks almost as old as vision itself. Some are straight, undoctored photographs, capturing a reality molded by Wick's own puckish imagination. And some are breathtaking hybrids, part photograph, part computer-assisted illustration, all stunning.

"Everything that you see in these started out as a drawing, an idea in Walter Wick's imagination," says exhibition curator Jacqueline Copeland. "He's always thinking of very innovative ways of creating his illustrations."

Challenged by carefully crafted rhymes that tell the kids what to look for (written by Jean Marzollo for the "I Spy" books, by Wick himself for the "Can You See What I See?" series), Wick's photographs refuse to be taken at face value — much to the delight of young readers who have made them some of Scholastic Inc.'s most popular titles.

"Walter's ingenious photography paired with a picture-puzzle narrative is brilliant because readers of all ages can find something to appreciate in the pages," says his editor at Scholastic, Ken Geist. "Children can grow with the books — very young children search for objects, and as their reading skills develop, they can solve the riddles and discover the photographic narrative running through the books."

The Walters exhibit, "Walter Wick: Games, Gizmos & Toys in the Attic," documents the full range of Wick's inventiveness. In addition to the photos used in his books, there's an amazingly detailed photograph of a snowflake, blown up to gigantic proportions, as well as one showing 117 objects balanced on a single Lego building block. There are scenes from "Alice in Wonderland" and "Puss in Boots," plus seemingly impossible photographs of a pin floating in water and marbles floating in air. Other parts of the show offer a look at how some of the photographs were created.

The 55 large-size photographs on display date to a mid-1970s picture of a rain-soaked soccer field. The mirror image of a goalpost reflected in a pool of water, creating the illusion of a square white box nestled amidst the moist grass, helped suggest to the struggling product photographer where his talents could best be used.

"Yes, you can say that I'm a failed product photographer," Wick, 57, says with a laugh over the phone from his studio in Hartford, Conn. "I had succeeded in learning how to do product photography, and then I moved to New York City… and got cut down to nothing. So I had to figure something else out."

Tapping into a longstanding fascination with science and illusion, Wick began taking photographs that turned into covers for Games magazine, Psychology Today and other publications. "I was making these photographic illustrations for book covers, magazine covers," he says, "often involving technology or psychology or science — my work had that conceptual twist to it. And I started developing these original puzzle ideas, these photographic puzzles."

When Scholastic contacted him in the early 1990s, asking if he was interested in working with children's author Marzollo, Wick didn't have to think twice. "They didn't know the extent of the experience I had with puzzles, albeit with adult puzzle books. They asked me if I wanted to do a puzzle book, and I said yes right away."

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