As he traced his fingers across a copy of the painting, “George Washington Crossing the Delaware,” at a convention for the blind last year, Luc Gandarias was astonished to feel a sword hanging at Washington’s side and a river swimming with chunks of ice. He could even tell that the soldiers in the boat were determined to reach shore by the intense expression in their eyes.
“It was the most vivid thing I’ve felt since I lost my sight,” says Luc, 12, of Whidbey Island, Washington, who went blind at age 7 due to a sudden case of hydrocephalus. “It had texture and such incredible detail that I almost felt like I was there.”
“I thought I would go the rest of my life without seeing something beautiful like this,” he tells PEOPLE. “But now, I don’t have to.”
Thanks to a former award-winning photographer for LIFE magazine, Luc and other visually-impaired people will now be able to experience artwork and photography in a way they never imagined. John Olson, who began his career covering the Vietnam War, started his company, 3D Photoworks, in 2008 and has spent the past seven years perfecting a patented fine art printing process that is about to make its worldwide debut.
The Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg will be showing an exhibit of 3D photos taken by blind photographers in early 2016. Olson, 68, who lives in Chatham, New York, says he also plans to approach several American museums later this year about opening 3D exhibits.
“With 285 million blind people worldwide, we’re going to change the way they ‘see’ art and photography,” he says. “For the first time, they’ll have tactile, quality information that will be on a level playing field with the sighted.”
Advocates for the blind are lauding Olson’s invention as the greatest thing since the arrival of braille, nearly 200 years ago.
“As a blind father with both blind and sighted children, it thrills me that my family will be able to explore and appreciate great works of art, photographs and other images together,” Mark A. Riccobono, president of the National Federation of the Blind, tells PEOPLE. “Although most barriers that blind people face are created by misunderstanding and low expectations, the process (Olson) developed is an innovative, thoughtful approach toward meeting this challenge.”
Olson’s fascination with the visual world started at age 12 when his grandfather gave him his first camera, an Ansco Flash, to take pictures on the family farm in Morris, Illinois. At age 21, he became the youngest photographer ever hired at LIFE magazine, shooting everything from rock stars posing with their parents to President Richard Nixon’s White House years.
“Photography took me all over the world,” he tells PEOPLE, “and later in life I began to realize how important those images had been to me. I couldn’t imagine my life without them. And then, I started to wonder, ‘What is life like for the blind, without experiencing photography or art?’ I didn’t know a single blind person, but I knew that I wanted to do something to help them experience the images that I’d enjoyed all my life.”
Olson put together a team of 3D technicians and engineers and came up with a way to convert any painting, photo or drawing to a three-dimensional tactile art print, complete with touch-activated sensors that provide audio information about the artwork.
To demonstrate the technology at the National Federation of the Blind convention last year, he took along a 3D copy of the “Mona Lisa,” in addition to “George Washington Crossing the Delaware.”
“Being able to feel the artwork brought it to life,” Lynn Jackson, 59, a visually impaired, retired human resources worker from Memphis, tells PEOPLE. “With this, reading won’t be the only way to get information. Those of us who are blind are often overlooked as a group when it comes to access, but 3D Photoworks is changing the paradigm. They’re making it possible (for us) to enjoy art without having someone explain what is going on in the picture.”
With more than 35,000 museums in North America, “my goal is take this everywhere,” says Olson, who compares his 3D paintings to the “difference between reading about a rose and smelling one.”
“In the United States, one person goes blind every 11 minutes,” he tells PEOPLE. “In doing this project, I’ve met hundreds and hundreds of blind people and I’ve learned this is about much more than a desire to experience things visually. It’s really about freedom. It’s about basic civil rights. They have an incredible thirst for all things visual and want to experience these images just as the rest of us do.”
Luc Gandarias is certainly excited about the idea of going to a museum one day and finding paintings that he can immediately understand and visualize.
“This is going to change my world,” he tells PEOPLE. “I touched the 3D ‘Mona Lisa’ and I could feel her dress perfectly. And her face was so distinguished.” The seventh-grader pauses and laughs. “When I felt her mouth, I could even tell that the Mona Lisa has a secret. She’s not letting us onto it. I know that I’m blind, but even I could tell that.”