Interview with Susan Burnstine
#1 Please introduce yourself
I’m a fine art photographer originally from Chicago, currently living in Los Angeles.
#2 How did you get interested in photography?
My mom was a hobbyist photographer as sorts. She was always taking pictures of my brother and I with various vintage cameras such as; Polaroids, Brownies, 110’s, etc. She began encouraging me to shoot with her cameras when I was the age of eight. After seeing the results of the first roll I shot, she became convinced I had a natural eye and would become a photographer one day. With her encouragement, I continued to photograph throughout my teens. My father built me darkroom when I was eleven and I spent most of my free time in there until I graduated high school. At the age of fourteen, I landed an assistant job for a top commercial photographer in Chicago and I dedicated myself to learning everything I could from him. But photography soon became equated with making money, stress and deadlines, which made that early love diminish. So I ended up pursuing film and TV production in college only to end up back as a photographer in my early 30’s.
#3 Which artist/photographer inspired your art?
At the age of six, I visited the Chicago Art Institute with my mother, fell in love with the impressionists and wanted to become a painter. That early love was what most informed my later work. Additionally, Andrew Wyeth’s image Christina’s World made such a huge impression on me as a young child and it continues to inspire me to this day. Once I rediscovered photography in my thirties, I learned about the Pictorialists that directly informed my personal style. Steichen’s The Pond Moonlight and The Flatiron were revelations despite discovering them one hundred years after they were created.
#4 How much preparation do you put into taking a photograph? Are you planning every step or is it always spontaneous?
Despite taking great care with creating homemade lenses and cameras (which take an average of 60 hours to make)…Every single image I create is spontaneous and instinctual. Because my process is based in my own personal night terrors, I journal every dream and nightmare I have after I awake, then I go out and try and capture a metaphor, symbol or actual scene from the dream I experienced the night before. I never know the exact location I’m driving or walking to, I just follow my instinct.
#5 What fascinates you in places that you shoot?
It’s not about the places, it’s about what they represent to my unconscious and conscious world.
With my latest body of work, Absence of Being, the locations captured directly relate to what is happening in my dream world. Specifically, this body of work focuses on exploring how the past remains with us, if only in shadows. These images capture fleeting memories, spotted from the corner of an eye that vanish the moment we turn to really look. I tend to seek out locations that reflect the emotional tone that resonates within my dreams and nightmares that I’ve been plagued with since my father’s death. The perspective in this body of work has also changed in order to reflect the way I am seeing in my unconscious world. They are primarily shot from above and at a distance, the people are tiny (compared to the people in my first body of work Within Shadows) and the foreboding sky is a frequently an essential character. As previously mentioned, I never know where I’m going to find the specific locations. I just start walking or driving until the image I am trying to convey from my dream the night before presents itself.
#6 We can see your photographs only in black and white, why have you chosen to present them in this form?
Because these are representations of my dreams and nightmares and I dream in black and white.
#7 Could you please tell us something about your technique and creating process?
I make my own medium format handmade film cameras and lenses and they take an average of 60 hours to construct. All of the effects in my images are within the camera and on the negative, there is no post processing except some minor dodging, burning or cloning of dust. I am a darkroom purist who can no longer be in the darkroom due to health issues, so I use photoshop in the same manner as the darkroom. My prints are archival pigment, hand varnished and I use Museo watercolor paper exclusively.
#8 Could you tell our readers how to reach such excellent results in photography?
That’s a broad question that varies for every person. I would say that a great photograph is a search for meaning. Once you identify your personal meaning or theme that resonates in all your photographs a new world of imagery will open up to you. I teach weekend workshops about this subject, so it’s hard to summarize in a few sentences.
#9 What do you do in your life besides photography?
I write a monthly column for Black & White Photography Magazine (UK) entitled, American Connection. I also teach workshops, curate and frequently act as a juror for photography contests.
#10 What future plans do you have? What projects would you like to accomplish?
Currently, I am still working on Absence of Being. I have a number of other ideas percolating, but I never reveal plans too far in advance as I feel it’s important to let them brew without discussion so the vision and intent remains authentic.
Susan Burnstine Official Website: