In Conversation: Susan Burnstine (Part I)

Cynthia Haynes

Susan Burnstine believes that photographs are the only avenues to view how another person truly sees the world, and while they are representations of our vision, they are almost always self-portraits. To give a visual voice to the nightmares that began in her childhood, she turned to photography to recreate those dreams. And to better tell those stories, she makes her own cameras and lenses, ensuring that, like dreams, no two are ever the same. The photographs in this article are from her latest book, Absence of Being. And from January 30 – February 3, she's at the helm of our Instagram feed.

When did you first pick up a camera? What is it about photography that draws you the way it does?

When I was eight years old, my mom encouraged me to begin shooting with some of her vintage cameras. My mother was a talented artist, musician and—I suspect—also a frustrated photographer. She documented most of my early childhood with 126 Instamatics, an intermittently working vintage Polaroid, and an optically unappealing Pentax 110 that was always buried at the bottom of her purse. She never thought or cared to protect the optics for her cameras, so the lenses were typically dirty or scratched, which resulted in grainy, blurry, imperfect photographs. Perhaps that’s how I developed a respect for bad optics.

From the very first roll of film we developed, she insisted I had a talent for making pictures and continued to encourage me to take photographs. I became obsessed with making pictures, so when I was eleven, my dad built me a darkroom in the basement next to his beloved tool closet. I spent most of my high school years inhaling photo chemicals in that darkroom.

What draws me in? Photographs are the only avenues to view how another person truly sees the world. While they are representations of our vision, they are almost always self-portraits as such. That alone intrigues me endlessly from a psychological and creative perspective.

Who were your early influences? Outside of photography, what are your creative influences?

My biggest influences were painters. My mother started taking me to The Art Institute of Chicago when I was six and I was immediately drawn to the impressionists. Seurat, Monet, Pissarro, Cassatt, and Renoir were my first loves. I dreamed of becoming an impressionist painter until I learned that I was a hundred years too late. After I started creating my work, I found out about the pictorialists and Steichen rocked my world.

I understand that you personally modify all of your cameras: please share the why and the how of that process.

That is a very long discussion since my psychological and technical motivations are intertwined. When I was four years old I suffered a trauma that resulted in extreme night terrors. Frequently, I could not wake from these traumatic terrors and often I was not aware if I was sleeping or awake. Because my mother was an artist and musician, she believed that creating something from within would help cope with personal demons. So she taught me to draw and paint my dreams and nightmares to deal with the ramifications of the night terrors. I can remember endless hours at the kitchen table working on some piece of art or a hobby project with my mom; I just never knew or understood why—beyond that—I enjoyed creating. My mother’s approach to re-interpret the dreams through art helped immensely throughout my childhood, so the process stuck.

But when I was 33, my mother died unnecessarily and tragically at the age of 56. The night terrors came flooding back and I needed a way to cope. Since photography had become my chosen art form, I decided to try and interpret my night terrors. I attempted to use every conventional camera I could find, but nothing emulated my unconscious world. After stumbling onto toy cameras, I was intrigued, but they have a regimented style that didn’t quite communicate what I was trying to achieve. I expressed my frustrations to both my father and brother and they both inspired me to make my own cameras. My father was successful in many careers in his life, including an engineer and inventor, so he taught us early on that if it didn’t exist, just create it.

I spent the next year tearing apart various toy cameras and rebuilding them to teach myself how to create a camera. Then I created my first prototype homemade lens, followed by my first homemade camera and lens. To date, I have made 23 homemade cameras and lenses.

Your handcrafted cameras give you a connection to your gear that most of us don’t have, but assuming that you have at least tried a digital camera, how did your work differ? What is it about film that speaks to you the way it does?

I view film as a physical entity rather than a bunch of ones and zeroes. One never knows what to expect with film: you can be a master and still be surprised by the results. And it’s the surprise—the unknown aspect—that inspires me the most. I also love working with something physical and tactile versus sitting in front of the computer. That said, I do have a DSLR and enjoy working with it on the rare occasions that I use it. To me, it’s a totally different creative muscle than working with my homemade cameras and lenses since it’s not communicated from a deep psychological place for me personally, but perhaps I will somehow find a way to harness that same creative inspiration into the digital realm at some point. My first love was documentary, so one never knows.

Your photography has a dreamlike, surreal feeling to it: a definite feeling of light and dark. Was this an intentional vision from the beginning, or did it organically appear?

I don’t believe anything happens by chance when making art. Somehow your inner voice and all that you are trying to say finds its way into your art if you work hard to communicate your personal meaning. I actually teach an amazing workshop for photographers called “Visual Narratives” that tackles the issue of shooting from your personal meaning in an organic manner, but I digress . . .

Yes, light and dark is a key aspect of my work. The questions of “are you going to go forward or back in your life,” “will you reach into the dark or light” are essential elements within my work since they are elemental to my personal struggle within my dreams.

Tell us a bit about your creative process: do you set out to create a body of work, or do you feel that it finds you?

My images and my series find me in my dreams. I can’t force an image. They are all essentially self-portraits—snippets of my conscious struggles represented within my unconscious world. My process is always the same. I have a night terror, I journal it, then I go out and shoot it. I never know where I’m going as my approach is all based on instinct. When I create an image that represents the dream I had the night before, I always look for a symbol, metaphor or actual element such as a location from my dream.

The work in this portfolio is from your Absence of Being collection, which clearly has elements of solitude and feelings of being on the outside looking in; what instigated this series?

When it comes to creating a series, the work always represents a chapter in my personal life. For example, the Within Shadows series was representative of my struggle to cope with the traumatic loss of my mother and was shot between 2005 and 2009. Once I came to a place where I had nothing else to say with that work, it was because I had dealt with the loss and had to move on. Sadly in 2009, the next chapter of my dreams happened when my father suffered a massive stroke, became paralyzed on one side and struggled for his life for six months. Sadly, he passed and the loss sent me into another chapter of my life. The perspective and content within my night terrors and dreams changed dramatically, thus the perspective and content in my images for my Absence of Being series changed dramatically. Additionally, my dog of 21 years passed on July 19, 2012. That escalated the terrors to an all time high as I still was dealing with the loss of my father and the reconciliation that I no longer had parents or a family unit. Thus, my images became about searching for roots and finding shadows of the past within the present.

Read Part I of our interview with Susan here, or order your copy of Absence of Being 

Susan Burnstine is an award-winning fine a,rt and commercial photographer originally from Chicago and now based in Los Angeles. She 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). For more information about Susan, her art, and her workshops, visit her website


Creativity Interview Susan Burnstine

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  • Yeah, nobody can escape his reality and art reflects this reality.
    Better to listen to one’s own voice than a “mentor’s” voice.
    There are no rules in photography and art.

    Daido Moriyama on

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