A Walter Wick retrospective at the Bruce Museum in Greenwich

When something new feels like it's always existed, that's a pretty good sign it's a work of genius.

Take Walter Wick's I Spy and Can You See What I See? series. The Hartford photographer took a simple game invented to distract young children during long car rides and turned into a bestselling series of children's books. Exhausted parents around the world breathe a sigh of relief when they can for the love of sweet Jesus finally plop their kid down in front of Wick's colorful multilayer photographs (often in 3D) and at least have a coffee break.

It's like a children's activity that has always been there. See what I mean? Pure genius!

"I had no idea that it would be such a success," Wick said in an interview. "Where's Waldo? was very popular at the time. If anything, it was intimidating to enter a genre that was quite saturated."

Wick has been doing this for years, and now we finally have a retrospective of his work at The Bruce Museum in Greenwich. Consisting of 40 large-scale photographs as well as selected props used to make the pictures, the exhibit, which runs through April, touches on every phase of the artist's career, starting in the 1970s and including hard-to-find picture puzzles once featured in Games magazine. The exhibit also features videos of the making of these images.

"I have always had a sense of play in my work," Wick said. "It's in my DNA. It started in as soon as I became a commercial photographer, not in the work I'd sell but in the experiments with optical illusions. When I first had my own studio in 1979, I continue to do static photography, but it wasn't getting me work, so I turned to this playful approach to making objects look like they are floating through the air."

Wick grew up in rural Connecticut and now lives in Hartford. He went to school at the Paier College of Art in Hamden. After graduating, he worked as a commercial photographer in New York City until one day he was arranging some odds and ends — screws and paper clips and other things — on a light box when he realized that he had stumbled on a fantastic idea. That's when he started contributing picture puzzles to Games and to dozens of magazine covers, like Discover and Psychology Today, in which he delved into one of his favorite things — optical illusions. And eventually this culminated into the universally acclaimed children's book series, I Spy.

"I went to Games magazine to present the idea of furthering this notion of play creating puzzles with photographs, Wick said.. "By the time the opportunity for I Spy came along, I was pretty much primed. It was like a slow pitch over home plate.

For every snap of the camera shutter there are hours and hours of preparation. Wick now has a team of artists making models and dioramas for each theme. Wick and his wife are also inveterate collectors. And given the range of subjects in his photographs — beaches, to castles, to fairy tales — you can see how collecting stuff has paid off.

"I can take two or three days by myself or work with four freelancers and couple of full-time employees to create each shot for weeks," Wick said. "I don't have the hours, but it's a lot. It's sobering to think you put that much into one shot."

The exhibit was originally curated in 2006 by the New Britain Museum of American Art. Wick's latest Can You See What I See? book came out last year and is called Toyland Express.

Gallery hours for the Bruce Museum: Tuesday to Saturday, 10 a.m.- 5 p.m.; Sunday 1-5 p.m. Last admission 4:30 p.m. Adults $7, students (5-22 with valid identification) $6, seniors (65 and older) $6; members, children under 5, free on Tuesdays. 203-869-0376, brucemuseum.org.

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