Susan Burnstine: Between Worlds
Finding the right camera to express one’s vision is a challenge that every photographer must deal with at some point. When conventional cameras proved unsatisfactory for Susan Burnstine, however, she simply decided to build her own in order to channel the haunting, dreamlike imagery that has won her widespread critical acclaim over the past several years. The Los Angeles-based photographer utilizes an array of homemade plastic cameras in the creation of an ongoing, three-part body of work that fluctuates between various states of reality: “On Waking Dreams” (dreaming/subconscious), “Between” (sleeping/unconscious) and “Flight” (waking/conscious). Yet so confidently and elegantly is this vision realized that one is barley aware of the mediating presence of the camera. The images seem to spring straight from Burnstine’s psyche to the viewer’s.
Which artists—photographers or otherwise—have been most important to your creative development?
As a child, I was most influenced by the Impressionists. At the age of eight, I tore pages out from books on the great Impressionists and taped their images on my bedroom walls. Monet, Seurat, Cassatt, Renoir, Degas—my room was wallpapered with their greatest works. Once I started studying photography, the first photographers who made the deepest impressions were Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Helen Levitt. In time, the Pictorialists deeply influenced my work, but it was the Impressionists that first influenced the way that I see.
Did you teach yourself the technical aspects of the medium?
Mostly. I studied photography in high school for four years. During that time I assisted a commercial/wedding/portrait photographer in Chicago. But when it comes to all the technical aspects of making homemade cameras, I’m self-taught.
How important was this period of apprenticeship?
I learned a great deal about the business of making photography. So much so that it became a detriment to my creative process much too early, as the message became that it was all about making money rather than art.
Why didn’t you go straight into a photographic career after graduating from college?
I had to take a step away, since I only aspired to make art and did not see how I could achieve that goal at that stage of my life.
Bridge to Nowhere (On Waking Dreams)
So you went down other career paths—filmmaker, performer and writer. Did any of them influence your photographic aesthetic?
Absolutely. I tend to have a more cinematic approach and try and tell a story with each image. When working with my subjects during the series “Between,” I’d frequently walk them through basic acting exercises and mediations in attempt to put them in the moment and give them room to get in touch with where they really were, rather than trying to direct them in a way that I thought served the image.
What prompted your return to photography?
After a series of events, starting with my mother’s death and dealing with an illness of my own, the illusions of living and working in Hollywood lost their appeal. I was burned out and wanted to do something that really meant something to me. I hadn’t seriously photographed anything in years, but always held onto my first real camera, a Canon A-1 my parents gave me when I was eleven. I started photographing my best friend’s children all the time. My friend liked nearly everything I shot and told everyone she knew to hire me as a photographer. Within a year, I had a headshot, portrait and occasion photography business. It was satisfying for a short time, but once again, those old demons came crawling back and the business of photography soured me. It was then that I started getting an overwhelming itch to create art.
Are there any points of connection between your commercial and fine art work?
Not really. One pays the bills and the other feeds my soul.
Why did you start building homemade cameras?
I wanted to recreate how I see the world through my eyes in an authentic manner. Conventional, prefabricated cameras simply could not emulate my vision. Additionally, I wanted an original style or fingerprint that could not be found with standard cameras. For many months, I focused on toy camera photography due to its dreamy, Pictorialist style. But the look and style soon became repetitive, and I became bored by their limitations. I began tearing these cameras apart piece-by-piece, modifying them to photograph close-ups, telephoto, etc. Then I started rebuilding them from the inside out. This process taught me how to create a rudimentary camera, and I subsequently made my own box cameras and my own homemade lenses out of random household objects, molded plastic and rubber.
How have the imperfections of these cameras helped to define your style?
The cameras have only one or two shutter speeds and one aperture, and they frequently break, since they’re mostly held together by Duco cement, photo tape and glue. Having to work around these limitations has forced me to learn how to harness light in a way that I would not have learned with a conventional camera. It’s also taught me more about all aspects of photography than anything else.
Many photographers have jumped onto the plastic/toy camera bandwagon in recent years. How does your imagery differ?
My images are not from conventional, prefabricated toy cameras. I make my own cameras and lenses so that they have a one-of-a-kind look and style that toy cameras cannot achieve.
You’ve written that you suffered from childhood nightmares that led you to equate sleep with mortality. Can you expand on that as it relates to your artistic vision?
As a child, I suffered from severe nightmares that frequently stayed with me for days. Often I would see an image or symbol in my waking life but would not know if it was something real or from my dreams. Over the years, I’ve found that there can be a very thin line between dreams and reality, and so I made a deliberate choice to convey that line between black and white, yin and yang, and the conscious and unconscious worlds.
In Passage (On Waking Dreams)
The idea of photographing one's dreams is fascinating, and brings to mind the Surrealists, especially filmmakers like Luis Buñuel. However, the original Surrealist artists privileged the philosophical content of their work above its form. Your work seems more evenly balanced between the two. Any comment?
Besides the subject of dream content, I don’t see my work as having much to do with the Surrealist filmmaking movement. Buñuel’s take on surrealism was often based in the irrational. My images have a rational interpretation and are based more on Jungian dream interpretation than the Surrealist movement.
Surrealism was also above all else a revolutionary movement, though that aspect has been largely forgotten today. Do you see your work at all in this light? I ask because photography is rooted in the temporal, but your images superimpose a metaphysical layer onto that. Is part of your approach rooted in a concern or predilection for conceptual subversion?
There is a rich metaphysical layer to the work, although that’s a tough subject to discuss. But its inclusion is both conscious and unconscious. If you’re asking if I intentionally keep a distance from conceptual thought, the answer is essentially yes. It’s my hope that my work can be experienced in a primal, emotional manner prior to intellect and conceptual thought setting in.
Is your use of dreamlike imagery also a way of achieving a kind of spiritual or emotional liberation?
The mood in your images is always ambiguous; do you consciously try to keep the tone from becoming too dark?
Yes … and no. The content of the image always dictates the tone. I never outwardly or consciously direct what comes out from a subject or event. I can only react to what I see through my own eyes by clicking the shutter at a time that speaks to me. It’s my way in life and in art to always find the balance of positive and negative in everything. I suspect that’s why the images never become overly dark, when they very well could. The interpretation tends to be left open, because in essence that’s who I am and how I try and see the world around me.
The figures in your “On Waking Dreams” series are seen mainly in silhouette and at a distance, lending them more of a symbolic than individual presence.
Your interpretation is correct. The silhouette is about solitude, the struggle of being alone in the conscious and unconscious human condition and the inward and outward struggle of either going forward or back. Additionally, the figures represent the archetypal images I have been haunted by in my dreams for years—many of which are silhouette figures.
You often place these figures in corridor-like settings: staircases, bridges, roads and the like. This gives them a feeling of being in transit, whether physical or spiritual. Frequently, they’re moving towards or away from an area of light, which seems to imply transcendence or rebirth.
Absolutely. My work is often about the question, choice, and/or decision to move forward or back in the physical and spiritual realm.
You speak about your work in terms of metaphors, but your imagery isn’t didactic in the sense that you try to impose a particular interpretation. How important is it to accord viewers this kind of freedom, and are you surprised at some of the things people read into your photographs?
I find this essential to making an image. I don’t want to impose my personal interpretations on each picture to the point that it’s the only possible perspective, for fear that viewers cannot have their own experiences. I very much enjoy hearing people’s reactions, as they can be vastly different from my own. Many have jokingly said that my images are a type of Rorschach test, especially within the series “Between.”
There’s a more direct engagement with people as individuals in the “Between” series. Although our view of them is still obscured by blur, silhouetting, textures, etc., we are invited to identify with them on a more emotional level. What triggered this difference in approach?
“Between” is a very personal series for me. I photographed subjects, but in essence it is a self-portrait about a very difficult subject and time in my life. The work is all based in emotions that can be interpreted as positive or negative depending on individual perspectives. The previous series, “On Waking Dreams,” was based on my own conscious and unconscious world, but it frequently applied to mass consciousness of dreams and metaphors. In other words, one series is about looking at the world from the outside in, while the other is about looking at the world from the inside out. What triggered the difference? Dealing with the tragic loss of my mother, the overwhelming fallout of 9-11 and facing my own mortality due to a health concern. Additionally, I do not like repeating the same content from series to series. Each has to pose different psychological and/or technical challenges, or else there is no reason for shooting another.
You’ve described “Between” as evoking the space and time that exists between living and dying. What other themes or ideas are you trying to express through it?
I am one that never sees anything as simple as black and white. I believe that what is most important is what lies between the two. One might say the series is about living within shades of gray.
Do you worry about exhausting the creative possibilities of a soft-focus, blurry aesthetic? Can you foresee experimenting with sharper-edged imagery in future?
I think it’s natural for an artist not to want to become a parody of themselves. I will continue working with homemade cameras for as long as they continue to allow me to expand and grow as a person and artist. I know many viewers prefer to easily identify an artist by a certain style, and that has been a concern, but I don’t like to put limitations on the tools I use. What’s most important is the content and finding the correct tool to convey what I’m trying to say. My first love was documentary photography. Who knows, I might do a 180-degree turn to conventional lenses sometime.
Do you find much visual inspiration in Los Angeles, or is it hard to find the kind of images you want?
I prefer nondescript, vast, timeless locations, so Los Angeles proper poses a serious challenge. This last series was not dependent on visual surroundings—part of the reason for this shift was because I got to a point with the previous series that I had shot much of what I found evocative about the city. My feelings about visual inspiration in Los Angeles go in ebbs and flows. Currently, I am mildly uninspired by my surroundings, but I suspect that has to do with being in a transition from one series to another and trying to define exactly what I want to say more than the city and atmosphere that surrounds me.
Is the light in Los Angeles difficult to work with?
The light can be tricky since it’s so brilliant and harsh most days. I prefer to shoot in the shade or a cloudy atmosphere, but those days are few and far between in Los Angeles, even in winter. But there can be exceptions. The series “Between” was shot during May to November 2007, and part of my challenge was shooting during the harshest sunlight of the year.
Many of your photographs border on abstraction, but for the most part your subject matter is rooted in the representational.
I don’t like to put limits on directions and subject matter for future work. The emotional content determines the direction for each individual image. It’s hard to say where that will lead me with the next series, since I like to work without predetermined limitations or expectations.
(I wrote about Susan Burnstine for the September 2008 issue of B&W. To embark on further explorations of her otherworldly imagery, please visit www.susanburnstine.com.)