Susan Burnstine in the spotlight

Susan Burnstine is an award winning fine art and commercial photographer originally from Chicago now based in Los Angeles. Susan is represented in galleries across the world, widely published throughout the globe and has also written for several photography magazines, including a monthly column for Black & White Photography (UK). Nominated for the 2009 Santa Fe Prize for Photography and winner of B&W Magazine’s 2008 Portfolio Spotlight Award.

Susan’s first monograph, Within Shadows, has been published by CHARTA EDITIONS was recently released in Europe at the The Venice Biennale in June 2011 and will be released the U.S. in September 2011. Books are now available for sale in the books section at her site. Additionally, Within Shadows earned the Gold award for PX3 Prix De La Photographie Paris in the Professional Fine Art Books category and a Bronze overall.

Please visit Susan Burnstine on www.susanburnstine.com to see her wonderful work yourself.

Interview with Susan Burnstine

JT: Your first book, a monograph, ‘Within Shadows’ has just been released. The book has received many great reviews and was also awarded the prestigious 2011 PX3 Gold Award in the professional fine art books category. Can you tell us more about your monograph? Why the title and what is it about?
SB: Within Shadows is a body of work that explores the fleeting moments between dreaming and waking—the blurred seconds in which imagination and reality collide. Since the age of five, I’ve suffered from debilitating night terrors. Often, I’d walk around not knowing if I was dreaming of awake. My mother taught me to deal with the traumatic effects by drawing and painting elements of my nightmares and the practice helped me cope in my conscious world. But in my thirties, my mother died tragically and the night terrors returned. I sought a way to deal with my nightmares and loss by photographing my dreams. For sometime, I tried to photograph the dreams with every conventional camera I could get my hands on, but nothing communicated how I see my unconscious world. This led me to creating my own handmade cameras and lenses in 2005. These rudimentary cameras are frequently unpredictable and technically challenging. Thus, they required me to rely on instinct and intuition—the same toold that are key when attempting to interpret dreams.This body of work was conceived as a trilogy and is presented in three successive chapters, On Waking Dreams, Between and Flight, which explore three states of mind: dreaming (subconscious), sleeping (unconscious) and waking (conscious).The title Within Shadows has a dual meaning. One meaning refers to Carl Jung’s shadow world aspect, which may appear in dreams and can define elements within an individual’s state of mind. The title also refers to my own personal state of mind when photographing these images and also refers to use of shadow in the creation of these images.
JT: Are there specific reasons why a fine-art photographer shouldn’t only try to get representation by art-galleries and get published in magazines, but also try to publish their work in a book? Any tips on getting a book published?
SB: That’s a very broad question and there’s a multitude of ways to answer that for various individuals. What is right for one photographer is probably not right for another photographer. I can say that the progression into emerging and subsequently established status is a cumulative effect. But what is most important is making great work first and then worrying about marketing second. I think too many photographers worry about the end result before creating a fully realized body of work. Afterwards, the magazines, galleries and books fall into place regardless of the order.
JT: Within Shadows is covering the three series On Waking Dreams, Between and Flight. You also have the State of Mind and Instinct series and I find especially Instinct is very different from your other work. Are these also about dreams or do they cover an entirely different matter?
SB: Instinct is not based on dreams per se, but represented animals in dreams and the Native American belief of animal guides in the spirit world.
JT: When I first stumbled upon your work a few years ago I was struck by the dreamy and surreal look and feel of your images and when I read about it learned that these were a result of artistically coping with your dreams and nightmares you’ve been having ever since you were a child. Now I’ve been having nightmares all my life as well, sometimes even on a daily basis and ever since I started picking up photography as a more serious pastime several years ago I’ve started to notice that the frequency of my nightmares has decreased significantly for the first time in my life. It is as if it worked therapeutically for me and I’m glad I don’t have those frightening nightmares anymore but at the same time I have to admit I’m missing my dreams, even the bad ones – I miss my daily escape to the subconscious world. I wonder if this also has been the case for you and if so did it change your approach to your themes in photography?
SB: No, I’m afraid that’s not the case for me. My dreams are consistent and I tend to retain them on a regular basis. But my night terrors occur mostly after times of tragedy and loss.
JT: One of the first things that came to mind when looking at your work was that your images must have been heavily edited in Photoshop to produce the dreamlike and surreal effect. Then, to my amazement I learned that these photos were all shot in-camera with home made analog cameras and lenses that were partially made from vintage camera parts or random household objects. Why do you prefer to do that instead of buying ready for use quality cameras and lenses? And wouldn’t it be easier and less time expensive using Photoshop or other digital tools to get the dreamlike effects?
SB: An artist’s process is never about what’s easiest, but what communicates the message best. As mentioned above, I tried conventional cameras, but none of them communicated how I see my unconscious world. My father was quite the inventive spirit and he is the one that suggested I make my own cameras and lenses after I told him I was frustrated by not being able to create images that specified how my inner world appeared. I spent a good year teaching myself how to make cameras and lenses. Why do it? For a few reasons. First, I grew up in the darkroom and am a purist at heart. Also, authenticity of the image is important to me. Photoshop is a great tool and I am not judging it. I actually use it for my commercial work and for scanning my negatives… but I never use anything beyond curves, cloning dust and a bit of dodging and burning in photoshop, since those are tools I’d use in the darkroom anyway. This is just my personal process. Additionally, a significant element in my work involves being forthcoming about my conscious and unconscious world and essentially every image is a self-portrait of my inner world. It’s incredibly personal and honest work and using a post process technique that manipulates does not speak to me for this work.
JT: You also print your work yourself. Printing high quality prints is a specific skill, an art that many great photographers don’t master or simply don’t have the time for. Can you tell us something about the printing process and why you choose to do it yourself?
SB: It wouldn’t make sense for someone else to print my work if I am going so far to make my own cameras. The print is one of the most important aspects of the image for many artists, myself included. My process of hand varnishing prints is meticulous and time consuming. A large portion of my prints tend to become flawed in the process and only the perfect ones are sold in the galleries. So it’s also a very expensive process. The bottom line is that I think my prints are the best representation of my images and that’s why I put so much extra effort into the process.
JT: Your work has been included in George Barr’s book ‘Why photographs work’. What defines a good fine art photograph in your view and why do you think your photograph ‘works’?
SB: That is an incredibly broad question, which would be different for every image viewed. The only way I can summarize what I feel defines a good photograph for me… is how it speaks to me personally and if there is high level of thought and artistry involved in the work. Why do my photographs work? I can only answer that in a personal manner, rather than a critical one. For me, my images are honest, personal representations of my inner life, my feelings and the biggest questions that haunt me. And when others view the work and experience personal emotions, I feel as if I’ve achieved what I’ve set out to accomplish.
JT: And what defines a good fine art photographer in your view? Does he/she need particular skills to succeed as a fine art photographer?
SB: “Good” is a relative term. Again, I’ll go back to my previous statement. The work of an artist has to speak to me personally. Whether that is in the emotional content or technical achievements, there has to be a memorable element that communicates to me on some level.Skills that it takes.? Mostly, personal vision and persistence trump all other skills.
JT: With the arrival of digital tools, the Internet, photo-sharing sites and social media like Twitter and Facebook, photography has changed in many ways: not only in the way we shoot, and post-process them but also in the way we share them with the outside world and in the way we try to get exposure as an artist and try to promote ourselves. In what way are you using these opportunities as an artist and in what way did it influence your way of working?
SB: I have a facebook fan page, a newsletter that people can sign up for on my website and I recently launched a blog, http://blog.susanburnstine.com. I think social media has really changed the landscape of marketing in the business of photography and it makes it easier to communicate with others who like the work. It also has opened a number of doors for me in terms of exhibitions and important friendships.
JT: And do you think that publishing work on the likes of Facebook can harm an artist since anyone can leave any comment on it?
SB: That depends on the photographer and what they are looking for in comments. As an artist it’s your responsibility to learn how to filter criticism and what people’s intentions are. Essentially, only you can harm yourself. Everyone has an opinion and the more people you ask the more opinions you will get. This can be good and bad so you need to know how to filter these comments. Having a few trusted friends you can ask honestly is essential. But when it comes down to it, you have to trust your own instinct and intention. No one can tell you what you are trying to say, do or what you should have said or done. It’s up to you to attempt to convey your vision and message as effective as possible.
JT: Who are your most important artistic influences and do you have any favorite work of (photographic) art?
SB: My favorite work of art is Christina’s World by Andrew Wyeth and it’s been my favorite since I’ve been six years old. My first influences were the impressionists, then the pictorialists once I began immersing myself in photography.
JT: What can we expect from you in the future, any new projects you’re working on?
SB: I am currently working on my series, Absence of Being. What can you expect in the future? Stay tuned to find out. I never plan anything in advance including images I create that same day, so your guess is as good as mine.
JT: Finally, do you have any tips for the aspiring fine art photographer?
SB: Every image we create is essentially a self-portrait. What makes one photographer stand out? It is my belief that they have worked extensively on a vision or style that matches their own personal message or life theme. And that vision carries through in every image they make regardless of the type of camera or print.

 

4 replies
  1. Dominic Martello
    Dominic Martello says:

    I’ve enjoyed Ms. Burnstine’s work for the past year or so since recently discovering it. Wonderfully evocative and inspiring. Since brain surgery several years ago I’ve discovered a new passion for photography but now seem to bypass my dreams. No terrors, no joys in my night world. I admire her journey into the night and I’m deeply affected by her rich production. I agree that our works are self portraits but perhaps this can reawaken that inner world inspection some of us long for. Thanks to Ms. B for her candid observations and to Joel for this valuable interview.

    Reply
  2. lieve.db
    lieve.db says:

    Good interview giving a lot of space to the concept and the meaning of the process of creation of these brilliant works of art.

    Reply

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