It is a pleasure to share the work and words of Susan Burnstine.
Would you please tell us a little about yourself ?
I’m a fine art photographer originally from Chicago and currently living in Los Angeles.
How did you get started photography?
As a child, I suffered from severe night terrors so my mother taught me to draw and paint my dreams as a means to deal with the trauma. The process worked very well, so I continued to work through the trauma in this manner throughout my childhood and this is what led me to photography.
My mother inspired me to begin shooting with a collection of her vintage cameras when I was 8 years old. After the first roll I shot, I was hooked. My mother viewed those first images and instantly announced she knew I’d become a photographer one day. My father built me a darkroom in the basement soon after and I spent much of my time there during my teenage years. I began working for a professional photographer in Chicago by the age of 14 and continued throughout college. But after college, I moved to Los Angeles to pursue a life in entertainment for many years. In my mid-thirties photography found me again, so I left my life in entertainment to pursue my first love again.
Did your family and upbringing affect your decision to become an artist?
Absolutely. My mother was an extremely creative artist and musician and my father had many lives, but one as an inventor and engineer. My father was always building, fixing or creating something in our house. He was an extremely hard worker and always taught me that if something didn’t exist, just create it. That’s the key lesson that inspired me to create my own cameras and lenses. My father also encouraged me to always take a chance since we are only given one shot at life. I guess that guided me walk this crazy path as an artist.
Which photographers and other artist work do admire?
My biggest influences are painters. The Impressionists were the first to make the biggest “impression” in my life. But it was Andrew Wyeth’s painting Cristina’s World that spoke to me deeper than anything I could understand at the age of 6 when I first saw it. That single image made me want to become an artist… it still does to this day.
I am endlessly inspired by too many contemporary photographers to list. Many which I’m honored to call friends. But the initial inspiration for my art goes back to Steichen. I still look at his pictorialist work and am completely mesmerized.
I should add that the first photographers that made an impression on me were documentary photographers. As a child, I dreamed of becoming a FSA photographer. Of course, that was in the 1970’s, so I missed my calling by many years.
And what about their work inspires you?
Work that inspires speaks to me emotionally and visually simultaneously. I admire great technique and process, but when an artist digs into their soul and conveys something profound about themselves and the world, that inspires me.
How did you first decide to build your own cameras?
After my mother died suddenly and tragically, my night terrors returned. I needed a way to deal with the trauma, so I decided to start photographing my dreams and nightmares, rather than painting or drawing them as my mother taught me. I tried every conventional camera, but nothing emulated my unconscious world effectively. After I began playing with toy cameras, they struck a chord in me, but they weren’t quite right. I spent sometime modifying toy cameras to perform close-ups, telephotos, etc… but I still wasn’t satisfied. I talked to my late father about the predicament and he suggested I make my own cameras. So I taught myself how to create cameras by pulling apart and rebuilding toy cameras, then I created my first homemade lens prototype, followed by my own homemade camera soon after.
Would you share how you edit?
Do you mean how I edit my images to print? I don’t edit my images per se. I just look through my contact sheets and if one strikes a chord inside and communicates my intention, then I print it larger to see if it’s successful. Sometimes the image works, sometimes they don’t. My approach is a very time-consuming as concept, process, and content all need to be aligned perfectly or I pass on the negative–which happens more often than not.
When did you start to develop your own personal style?
I build my first homemade camera and lens in 2005. The first successful test shot was “Blue’s Nose “(March, 2005) and the first effective dream image was “In Passage”, which was shot in London in June 2005.
What challenges do you face as a photographer?
Where do I start? The challenges are endless. Perhaps the biggest is endlessly trying to top my last best image. I suspect that’s one of the hardest challenges we all face, but I’m extremely conscious of trying not to do the same thing twice yet communicate the core of my personal journey effectively and consistently in each successive image. There are many more challenges that all artists face in the business of being an artist, but I could go on forever there.
How do you over come a creative block?
I think the key is to do something or create something that inspires me in my personal life since my art comes from my inner world. You have to understand that each image I create emerges from a dream/night terror that I’ve had the night before. If I’m blocked, then that’s directly related to what’s happening in my life and it’s not necessarily a bad thing. It just means my life is shifting and so is the work. So I need to hang out, live my life and wait for the next chapter to emerge. Sometimes it happens smoothly, sometimes it doesn’t….
Would you tell us about your workspace?
Not much to tell…. I work out of my living space. I develop my film and my prints in my kitchen. I’m completely low-key and low fi in every way.
How important is it to your art form to have “creative community”?
I think it’s essential to have good friends you can trust to give an opinion. I have a small group of friends I trust greatly to view new work for me. My friends Brad Moore, Michael Crouser and Dave Anderson are usually the first to give me their trusted opinion and are a great source of support.
How does your art affect the way you see the world?
My art is the way I see the world via my unconscious. There’s no way to separate the two.
Is there another type of photography or subject matter you would like to tackle?
Of course. My first love was and still is documentary. I studied film documentary making in college and hope to do another documentary one day.
Susan, Thank you for sharing your time and your art.
Susan has a beautiful new book out. Absence of Being.
To learn more about Susan Burnstine please visit her page at Susan Burnstine.