Can you see what Walter Wick sees?

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."

Thus began an eight-year collaboration with Marzollo that produced eight "I Spy" books. The premise was simple: Wick would construct an intricately detailed scenario, using trinkets and other props he had gathered over the years (he estimates he has more than 10,000 items stored in his studio, many obtained from flea market jaunts and other casual ventures), then photograph it. Marzollo's rhyming texts would list selected items within the picture — "I spy a heart, a starfish, a frog/A towel, a trowel, a taxi, a dog." And young eyes would spend hours combing the pictures, staring intently at every square millimeter.

But Wick's photos weren't just photos; they were mini-narratives themselves, telling stories of knights on horseback storming a castle, of alien landscapes (constructed of kitchen utensils) and small-town thoroughfares. Wick created little worlds in his photographs.

"The 'I Spy' game was a very effective way to draw people into the worlds and into the imagery," he says. "It gave me a lot of freedom as to what subjects I could do and what types of concepts I could add into them."

Working on his own, Wick produced his first "Can You See What I See?" book in 2002. The photographs have become increasingly sophisticated, as Wick uses both straight photography and digital manipulation to capture his imagination on film. "I've gotten away from the toy-based worlds, because I wanted to explore other types of illustrative modes," he says. "And I've begun to develop the narrative more, the storytelling aspect more."


No book demonstrates that idea better than his most recent, 2010's "Can You See What I See? Treasure Ship," several images from which are on display at the Walters. The book opens with a close-up of a gold coin; the next shows the coin spilling out of a gold chalice, as the camera pulls back to reveal more of the scene. In the next photo, a goblet is shown atop a chest brimming with gold and other treasures, while the next photo shows that treasure chest inside the hull of a sunken ship. Each successive photo illustration pulls the camera back farther, until the whole scene is shown to be part of a picture postcard lying on a sun-drenched beach where a mysterious gold coin has just washed ashore.

"I was looking at this button, I was just staring at it," Wick says of 'Treasure Ship' and the thought that gave birth to it. "It was one of these Gothic-themed buttons; it had so much detail to it. And I thought, 'I wonder if I could make a search-and-find game, have 24 objects hidden in a button, and photograph it so close that you would be able to find the hidden objects? And then I thought about zooming back, and that button would be on the chest of a prince or something.

"And then I just said, 'What if I did it with a coin instead of a button?' "

Wick says he loves the possibilities offered by digital photo manipulation, and how it offers the opportunity for even more elaborate photo illustrations. But it doesn't make his job any easier, he says. A single photograph can still take weeks to assemble and shoot.

"I can wear two different hats now," he says. "I can photograph in a purist way, I can photograph a snowflake or I can photograph these 117 objects balanced on a Lego block. But I can also wear this other hat, which is that of a photo-illustrator who uses the digital tools to serve the needs of the story.

"What I want to do," he explains, "is to create a sense of wonder, to engage the mind, to get people deeply involved in whatever the subject is that I'm tackling. … What I really want to do is get kids to think about what they're seeing."


If you go

"Walter Wick: Games, Gizmos & Toys in the Attic" will be at the Walters Art Museum, 600 N. Charles St., through Jan. 2. Admission to the show is $6-$10; free for kids 17 and under. Information: 410-547-9000 or