Shadows and Light
Photographer Lance Varnell lost his sight but not his artistic vision.
By Louie Bond
Once he got the idea in his head to fill a giant Texas map with 254 beautiful landscape images, one depicting each county, freelance photographer Lance Varnell worked obsessively to complete the project. He spent all his free time crisscrossing the state to catch the best light at the perfect spot that says, “This is Brazoria County.” Or Fort Bend County. Or Nueces County.
It was almost as if Lance knew his deadline was momentous this time around. Maybe somehow he subconsciously sensed that the shutter of his own visual lens would soon close, leaving him in darkness.
But not in the dark.
Lance completed the “Texas 254” mural project in 2011 — “after 15 years of work, it’s a big source of pride” — but soon after went blind due to the sudden onset of a rare, incurable disease, Leber’s hereditary optic neuropathy, or LHON.
Only three in 100,000 people contract the genetic disorder, which damages the optic nerve. Over the course of mere months, Lance went from noticing an unusual blur in one eye to not being able to see his hand in front of his face.
“If something happens, you have to deal with it,” Lance says.
You get the feeling that Lance swings his long, lanky frame out of bed every morning, runs a comb through that shaggy black mane now starting to thread with silver, and faces whatever the day has to offer with calm resolve.
While Lance’s story is undeniably tragic — the worst kind of irony, a visual artist who loses his vision — he’s hardly a pitiable figure. While bitterness over this fate could have beaten down Lance’s spirit, he has found new strength, new purpose and even new love in this latest part of his journey. His path is just illuminated in a different way than before. Now the light comes from within.
Days of Brilliance
In his professional heyday, Lance’s images made their way to the covers and pages of this and other Texas magazines, beginning in the 1990s.
We collaborated on a photo essay of waterfalls in the eighth installment of a decade-long Texas Parks & Wildlife “State of Water” series of magazine issues. I referenced Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Minehaha in July 2009’s “Laughing Water” collection of dreamy jewels. Lance’s idyllic watery captures graced the covers of several issues in the series.
Another photo essay in 2011 reflected his new life on the water, “From Sea to Shore,” replete with the shapes and textures and moody hues of the state’s coastal edge that kept one of his feet on the water and the other on Texas soil.
“What defines Lance’s work is his strong sense of place,” says Texas Parks & Wildlife magazine photo editor Sonja Sommerfeld. “He uses light to create drama in the landscape, showcasing his visual identity.”
During that time, Lance saw a map in the back of his copy of the oversized Roads of Texas atlas with all 254 counties outlined sharply in black.
“I suddenly envisioned each of those county shapes with a landscape photo inside, creating a big mural,” he says. “I wanted people to look at this big mural and realize that it doesn’t really matter where you go, there’s beauty out there everywhere — but even more, there’s something worth protecting anywhere you go.”
He already had some images that would work, but many more were needed, so Lance started going on road trips. He decided that he’d focus on natural landscapes only — no manmade items allowed.
“It would have been fairly easy to just take a picture in each county,” Lance says. “The problem was to get something that I believed was good enough to make a print of, that I’d deem good enough to shoot. It wasn’t always easy to find. I’d put my radar on high alert when I’d enter a new county, looking for a scene or a park.”
The map can be studied in close detail, or taken in as a whole, a richly hued quilt of trees and mountains, bedazzled by the glow of sunsets and sunrises, cooled by ribbons of blue sky and water and sprinkled with rainbows of wildflowers.
“It was such a great vehicle for getting me to these areas of Texas I never would have gone to,” he says. “Really out-of-the way places would often provide some surprises. It forced me to be a better photographer.”
The journey also taught him to be a better Texan, with a head stuffed full of the state’s bragging rights.
“Did you know that if you’re in Texarkana, you’re closer to Chicago than El Paso?” he offers. “Did you know that Brewster County, the largest county in Texas, is more than twice the size of the state of Delaware?”
There are plenty more where that came from, but along the way, Lance’s photographic experiences began to weave into more heartfelt stories about the people he met.
“I’m standing with my camera at a fence in the Panhandle, and I hear a shout: ‘Hey! You can cross that fence if you want to. Oh, come on, I’ll give you a tour,’” he recalls. “Pretty soon I’m jumping out and opening and closing all these gates as he shows me around.”
Sometimes, a simple hello turned into a friendship with memories that still feel tangible today.
“I met a guy who does chainsaw art out atthe very end of an FM road, where it turns to rock,” Lance says. “I was camping in his yard and hanging out for a few days. His wife came out and yelled, ‘Dinner’s ready!’ and she’s got chicken- fried venison and homemade gravy and biscuits. Mmmm. I can still smell that meal.”
Fade to Shadows
That way of life changed about a decade ago, before Lance lost his sight. Turning 40 can do that to you, make you think about your choices. When a tugboat captain offered him steady work in 2007, he considered a new pathway.
“I was doing freelance photography, and I really just wanted to camp and hike all the time,” he says. “I started to feel like I should get a ‘job,’ though.”
Lance got his merchant mariner’s document and worked offshore for eight years, out at sea for a total of 1,900 days. By the summer of 2015, he had worked his way up to senior man on a 90,000-barrel barge.
“I was reading a book in my office one day, and noticed that something didn’t seem right with my vision,” Lance says. “When I closed my left eye, I could see something like a smudge on my right eye, like Vaseline on it, a small spot in the middle.”
It kept getting worse. Doctors and tests gave no answers. His condition didn’t seem related to a bicycle crash the year before. Lance returned to work, still worried about his failing sight. One December evening, his boat anchored in the Mississippi River, everything fell apart.
“I’m out on deck at dusk, and there’s a ship 500 yards ahead, but I can’t focus on the ship’s lights,” Lance recalls. “Looking up at the crescent moon, I can’t focus on it. That’s when I get really worried. At the airport, I can’t read signs, I can barely see people’s faces. It was so scary.”
His long medical saga — not to mention a 90-degree turn in his personal journey — began that winter night. By the following summer, Lance couldn’t count his fingers 8 inches from his face, which disqualified him from a gene therapy study.
“I don’t have much usable vision,” Lance says. “Most people with my condition can see a good bit more than I was left with. They can use magnification to see computer screens and read things, even ride a bike. I would love to have that, but you deal with what you’ve got. I’ve got light and shadow perception.”
There’s no cure at this time for LHON, but Lance’s spirit remains undimmed.
“Blind people do a lot of things,” he says with no hint of remorse. “I remain hopeful that still in my lifetime there’s a chance something can happen to change this.”
But for a guy like Lance Varnell, this doesn’t translate to sitting around waiting.
Light on his Feet
Lance wasn’t going to let losing his vision force him to lose his dreams. He plotted out a new career path and made his first steps toward a degree to pursue fundraising for land conservation. He also made his first steps toward being a blind hiker and backpacker.
Learning Braille and the associated Nemeth code for algebra to prepare for college kept his brain busy. He set out across town, learning how to navigate city streets and transportation, but that didn’t satisfy his longtime wanderlust. An old friend, Seamus, volunteered to be his hiking buddy, helping him figure out how to overcome the obstacles in his path.
Seamus helped Lance master a few short, assisted hikes here and there, but Lance longed to enjoy that total wilderness experience again, hiking for multiple days in the backcountry and sleeping in a tent.
He also wanted to try to hike independently. Lance had Seamus drop him off at the beginning of a well-beaten path and told him to wait at the end, about 3 miles away. Lance had a GPS device and a phone, and tried to use his cane to keep on the path.
It didn’t take long for it all to go wrong, and Lance found himself wandering along a fence through the brush in what he hoped was the right direction. He was determined not to call for help.
Lance laughs now when he recounts hearing children’s voices off in the distance and walking toward them for assistance, only to have them flee in horror at the sight of a disheveled, staggering man approaching.
“It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done,” Lance says. “I finally just crawled under the fence. I’m walking and there’s a big dropoff, so I just got down on my butt and slid down there. I stepped in deep mud a few times. Once it [the GPS device] started counting down to 1,000 yards [from the end], it was a great feeling.”
Even though that hike wasn’t entirely successful, Lance remained confident about his ability to remain an outdoorsman.
“Overall, I haven’t been fearful in the whole process,” he says. “The last few years have made me realize what is practical and what is not practical. I did some things on that hike that probably weren’t too smart, but I made it to where I was going.”
Future Looks Bright
Wherever Lance goes next, the journey will always involve Texas. While a new girlfriend and his schooling keep him temporarily out of the state and away from the property he owns here, Lance is still committed to promoting his map project for the good of Texas and Texans.
“I do have a tie to these places; this is where I came of age as a photographer and, in a lot of ways, a human being,” Lance says. “That is still happening. Texas is my partner in the journey.”
Lance hopes to one day see high-quality, illuminated copies of his 8-by-8-foot mural in public places like Texas highway rest stops. He thinks the map could help others connect to the beauty he’s found here and inspire them to help preserve it.
His dad has created a coffee-table book of the project, and they’re looking for a publisher.
“If you conserve these places, then you conserve the quality of life for every single person who lives in this state and every single person who comes to visit this state,” Lance says.