We’ve featured the otherworldly work of fine art photographer Susan Burnstine in the magazine a while back and we’re happy to return with more. We’re lucky enough to have the photographer herself talking about her creative process, following your own decisions when shooting, and every little frame in between.
If you still haven’t seen Susan Burnstine’s work, then we highly suggest you click here. Her photographs evoke different feelings, ranging from amazement to downright surreal. We recently got in touch with the amazingly talented photographer and camera tinkerer to hear more what she has to say.
You may get this question in a lot of interviews but still we’d like to ask: how and when did you start shooting on film?
I started shooting with film at the age of eight. My mother was a talented artist and muscian and she dabbled in photography. She photographed most of my childhood with 126 instamatics, Polaroids and her beloved Pentax 110 that was always buried at the bottom of her purse. She encouraged me to start shooting with her cameras and from the first roll of film developed she insisted I had talent and would become a professional photographer one day.
What makes analogue photography special for you? Is there anything specific about shooting on film that makes it particularly stand out?
Film is a physical, tactile entity rather than a bunch of ones and zeros. I love the unexpected quality to working with film as one never knows what will be on the negative until developed. That unknown aspect is what inspires me the most. I have a DSLR and enjoy shooting portraits and very much such with it, but it doesn’t inspire me like working with my homemade film cameras and lenses.
What makes your approach to shooting with film different from shooting with digital?
It’s vastly different when referring to working with my homemade cameras and lenses. Since my homemade cameras and lenses are rudimentary objects, they are constantly falling apart and needing repair. Some may become unnerved by their unique charm, but I view it is an enjoyable challenge that is just part of my creative process. Digital is instantaneous, and for me, far more easy to create an effective image. There is a constant push me-pull me struggle with my homemade creations that inspires me since much like life, one never knows what to expect.
What is the first thing that pops into your head when you’re looking into your viewfinder? Is it a vision that is turned into a final picture or an image that is dissected into steps and procedures?
When creating an image, I don’t think in a linear manner like you described. Nothing pops into my head as such… My process is more complex than that. The reason why I create these images is as a means to deal with the psychological ramifications of night terrors. When I was four, I suffered a trauma that left me with extreme night terrors throughout my childhood. Being an artist, my mother came up with a means to help me cope with the psychological effects – she taught me to draw and paint my dreams and night terrors. The process helped immensely. When I was thirty-three my mother died tragically and my night terrors returned with a vengeance.
I decided to start photographing my night terrors as a means to cope and also as a way to honor my mother’s memory. So when I awake from a nigh terror, I journal it, then go out and try and shoot a metaphor, symbol or actual aspect of that dream. The process is 100% instinctual so little conscious thought comes into play as it’s about stepping into my unconscious to recreate that world. So when I look into a viewfinder, I don’t look at my surroundings logically. I feel them, then I shoot.
Let us just say that your experimental photographs are out-of-this-world. Really, like otherworldly. How does your creative process work? Please talk us through the phases of your work.
Thank you! (see above) I’d like to add that I when I first started this creative process, I tried this with every camera out there, but nothing emulated my unconscious world effectively. My father was an engineer and inventor at one point in his life, so when I spoke to him and my brother about this dilemma, they both suggested that I create my own camera. It was hard work, but I was able to create my first prototype within one year.
Speaking of work phases, what can you say is your favorite part? The “before,” “during,” or “after?” Why do you say so?
To me there is no before, during or after in my process. It’s all just one process so it’s impossible to select any of these stages logically.
Your experimental photographs all have that certain blurred look but still have enough details that tells a certain story. Can you say that this is the “Susan Burnstine” signature when it comes to photographs?
I guess so. Thank you.
Let us veer into photographic gear, what kinds of cameras have you come up with to take these surreal masterpieces?
I exclusively use homemade cameras and homemade lenses of which I’ve created 23 since 2005.
What do you want your audience to take with them when they look at your work?
That’s up to each individual viewer. I didn’t start this work for anyone else. I create these images for myself and to cope with my own traumas. But what ended up happening is that I was “discovered” as such by my dear friend Dave Anderson who subsequently introduced me to my first gallery and several others to follow. I didn’t intend to become a fine art photographer and had no idea what it was when first I was first starting out, to be honest. But since the images have gone public, I am extremely grateful to have them embraced by so many and I’m honored that my supporters and collectors want to share this slice of my world with so many. And I only hope that the images make people feel deeply about whatever it is that speaks to them personally in the image.
Do you have personal rules that you apply to your own work? Please share them with our readers.
No rules… I hate rules and anything that confines me or my work. My only rule is to be true to myself and my instinct.
What is your take on photography as a form of art?
Do you mean how do I feel about photography being accepted in galleries and museums? I think that’s an age-old discussion that holds little water in present time as photography is a now a vital and accepted form of expression.
Which artists inspire you in your work? Any artists that we should follow?
My biggest inspirations and influences were actually impressionist painters such as Seurat, Monet and Cassatt. I never studied art photography formally, it just happened. But once I was working on the dream imagery and searching for a camera that would express my vision, I came across Steichen’s work and it rocked my world. The pictorialists became a bit of an inspiration and so did contemporary photographers who break all the rules such as James Fee.
Given the chance to collaborate with any artist or photographer, living or dead, who would it be? Why?
Photographer… Steichen hands down. Because his work appears simple on the surface, but was so rich and complex. His work moves me beyond words.
Artists… Wyeth, Vermeer, Monet, Seurat… I’d love to grab a beer with all of them. I can’t even begin to write all the questions I have for that group. But since Christina’s World is the single most inspiring image I’ve ever seen, I’d love to find out more about his state of mind when he was creating that painting. I have read so much about Christina, but to me the mystery lies within Wyeth.
Have you ever tried Lomo cameras? Any favorite Lomo camera worth mentioning? What do you like about it?
I have tried many Lomos. Respectfully, I have also torn apart and rebuilt many—that’s how I taught myself to build my own camera – by deconstructing and reconstructing various toy cameras including Dianas, Lomos, but mostly Holgas since they were cheap and readily available. Shooting with Lomos—-I would have to say the Lubitel was amongst my favorites that I worked with before making my own cameras.
What’s next for Susan Burnstine?
Good question. I guess I can’t answer that until I get there… But I guess I have to finish my current series Absence of Being. But I can’t finish until the night terrors resolve themselves and I can move onto the next chapter of work. Once that happens, I suspect I’ll publish another book that features this series.
Thank you very much for this opportunity to talk with you!
Related feature: Otherworldy Experimental Monochrome Photographs by Susan Burnstine
You can see more of Susan Burnstine’s work in her website here. All of the images used in this article are copyright of Susan Burnstine and were provided by the artist.
If you liked this article, then you might want to check out other interviews with fellow amazing artists:
A Quick Chat With Lindsey Lee
An Interview with Film Photographer Julia Tröndle
Lomography Chats with Illustrator-Lomographer Irina Shepel
A Quick Chat With Washi Film Creator Lomig Perrotin
A Quick Chat With Travel Emulsion Lifts Creator Tanja Deuss
A film photographer in a digital world: Alex Luyckx
An Interview with Analogue Photographer Eugene Levinta