Jonathan Blaustein: You used to be a stand up comedian?
Susan Burnstine: I worked in the entertainment business for many years, in many aspects. I started playing with stand-up comedy after. I was out there 8 years or so. Can’t say I was that great.
JB: (laughing) You weren’t funny?
SB: I was funny. I just wasn’t funny enough.
JB: (laughing) OK. I like that.
SB: Because you have to be contained in this 30 minute slot. I’m not very contained. I did stand-up comedy in college, and then I started working for Castle Rock, and a lot of different entertainment companies.
I happened to fall on to these sitcoms with a lot of famous comics, and one of them put me up on stage at the Comedy Store, and it went that way for a little while.
JB: So in what capacity were you working for the studios?
SB: Everything. Mostly development. I was behind the scenes, and didn’t do much that was exciting. I did write for years, but I never had any notable successes. So it’s nothing to talk about. I honestly hate talking about my entertainment past, so apologies.
JB: Why do you hate talking about it?
SB: It’s a past that I buried, and I truly don’t relate to it anymore.
JB: I feel that way. Don’t you think a lot of creative-types have phases in their lives? Or snake-skin-shedding periods where we were different people and then we change? I think that’s very common, and not embarrassing.
SB: Certainly. It also brought me to where I am now, because the cinematography and my writing are both a big part of how I create my images. I see very cinematically.
Learning to write screenplays, and having that background, really did give me the fundamentals.
JB: Let’s back up just a hair. You’ve been making and exhibiting your photography for quite some time. Can we put a rough figure on that? How long have you been engaging in the world of galleries, exhibitions, and publications?
SB: I’ve been making my own cameras since 2005, and by 2007 I ended up in my first gallery, thanks to Dave Anderson.
JB: Shout out.
SB: Shout out. Absolutely. He’s the best. I was in Photo LA just walking around. I was a nobody, enamored by everything that was on the walls.
I had been communicating with Dave via email, because I was such a fan of “Rough Beauty.” He’s such a nice guy. I saw him walk by with Alec Soth. Now, I live in Hollywood, and am around famous people all the time. It doesn’t affect me whatsoever.
But I saw Dave Anderson walk by, and I said, “OH MY GOD.” I was totally star-struck, and started screaming, “You’re my favorite photographer.” I made a total ass of myself.
JB: In front of Alec Soth.
SB: Yes, this is the funny part. I’m sorry to Alec Soth, because I have a great respect for him, but I was screaming, “Oh my God, Dave Anderson.” He was so excited that someone recognized him, much less next to Alec Soth he said, “Wait, I want to look at your work.”
So I brought him back to my car, he looked at my portfolio…
JB: In your car?
SB: In the trunk of my car.
JB: You had a portfolio review, impromptu, in the trunk of your car? That is the origin story to your art career?
SB: It is.
JB: Oh my God. I’m not even saying OMG. That’s a straight up Oh my God.
Listen up people. There’s the lesson right there. You gotta hustle. We don’t say this stuff for our own edification. You gotta shake and bake.
SB: It’s true. But I wasn’t planning it. I’m not a hustler. Something told me, “Put your portfolio in the car today.” So I did. And Dave went crazy, and snuck it back into Photo LA, which you’re not supposed to do. He brought it to one of his galleries, she looked at it, and in 2 seconds, I was signed.
End of story.
JB: OK, I’m really glad we’re having this conversation. Because I’ve never heard that before. There are a lot of people out there waiting for something like that to happen to them, and I tend to think those things don’t happen, ever. And that pinning one’s hopes on random discovery is not a particularly viable strategy.
You’re now telling us, “You never know.”
SB: You never know. You never know. That’s how I got discovered. That gallery sold me like crazy for a few years, and more galleries came, and that was it.
JB: Let’s talk about the work itself. You made mention that you build your own cameras. But the cameras you build are not super-hi-tech machines. They’re made out of plastic and tape?
SB: Yes. They’re total pieces of crap. They fall apart. I have to carry tape and Ducco cement with me whenever I go out.
JB: What is the allure of such a process?
SB: The allure is tied to the conceptual reason of why I began this. I didn’t just say, “Oh, I want to make my own camera.” That would have been insane. There had to be a fundamental reason why.
The why is because I was looking for a way to re-create my unconscious world. I suffer from night terrors. Do you know what that is?
JB: Not really.
SB: Mine started at 4 years old, after a severe trauma. What they are, basically, are severe nightmares that you cannot wake up from. You just can’t. And they’re detrimental to your waking and unconscious life.
My Mom was very smart. She was artistic, and a musician, and she decided to help me try to work out these night terrors by drawing and painting the dreams I had from the night before.
The process really worked, so she used that through-out my childhood. They came back in my 30’s, when she was tragically killed.
JB: I’m sorry to hear that.
SB: I decided to work out the effects of the night terrors by photographing my dreams and nightmares, because photography was my main source of creativity at that point. I tried every single camera known to man-kind. You name it, I tried it.
Nothing looked like what I was trying to communicate. My Dad was an engineer and inventor early in his lifetime. He would always build things in the house that were absolutely crazy. When I took my problem to him, he said, “Why don’t you just make your own cameras?”
I’d been working with toy cameras, and realized how they were fundamentally made. Very simplistic creations. So I decided, why don’t I take some time to take them apart and rebuild them. Teach myself how to create a camera.
That’s what I did. Then, I created my own lens, and it all came together in 2005. I did this one test shot of my dog’s nose entitled “Blue’s Nose”, and realized, “That’s what I’m going for. That really looks like my unconscious world.”
That’s how it all began.
JB: That’s amazing. I don’t profess to have begun this process of becoming a journalist with any intent, or any skill. I still bristle at using the word to describe myself. But if I were any good at the job, I would not have missed the two opportunities you brought up to discuss some heavy stuff.
You just told me you had a major tragedy at 4, and then your Mother was tragically killed. There’s a part of me that likes to pretend I don’t hear these things, but then I feel like I’m not really doing my job if I ignore openings for serious discussion.
Let me put that to you in the form of a question. Are you interested or comfortable discussing either of those things
that you mentioned? Or would you rather we just keep going?
SB: (long pause.) I can kind of talk about it. (pause.) I don’t like to talk publicly about what began these dreams. Because it’s pretty shocking. It’s probably not for public consumption.
JB: Like I said, we can move on.
SB: But my Mom… it happens whenever anyone dies. That’s when my night terrors are created again. There’s no telling when they’ll stop. I’m in a real bad phase right now, where they’re coming almost every night. It’s crazy.
JB: I’m very sorry to hear that. On behalf of the readers, we offer you our empathy. Given that I already busted your chops before I turned on the recorder about the very dark and serious look on your face when we began…I think I have my answer about where that was coming from.
My apologies for any insensitivity to your plight. With my obnoxious jokery.
SB: Don’t be silly.
JB: I’ll consider that apology accepted. Listen, the pictures are dreamy. I can’t imagine looking at them, and not using that word. They’re blurry and soft-focus. But they’re also very, very beautiful. Skylines, skyscrapers, the Santa Monica pier. Dynamic and epic subject matter, rendered beautifully. Exquisitely attractive.
SB: Thank you.
JB: But we’re talking about a root cause that is the opposite of beautiful.
SB: You’re touching on an interesting subject that I had a conversation about last week. How come they end up beautiful, and not ugly?
JB: Maybe not ugly. But they don’t feel conflicted. I teach at-risk youth, and I always talk about the idea of using the artistic process to take negative psychic energy and channel it into something positive.
The channeling itself is positive, but oftentimes, the end product might not be. How does that work for you? Is it intentional, to have the pictures be lovely? I’m not saying you need to be Joel-Peter Witkin, but to me as a viewer, they’re 180 degrees from dark and scary.
SB: There’s a reason for that. When my Mom started this process, when I was 4 years old, she actually told me to re-interpret them in a positive way, so that I’m actually re-writing my unconscious existence. And it worked.
It somehow patterns my brain to think more positive than negative. Ultimately, this kind of process helps me stop the night terrors. I’m re-creating my world in a more positive way.
JB: Is it important to you that the viewer of your photographs is privy to your process? If so, how do you go about communicating that additional information?
SB: It does not matter to me, because I honestly didn’t get into this for any other reason. I started creating these images for myself. It’s my own psychological process to purge what’s going on inside of me and create art.
I didn’t plan to be in the fine art world. I didn’t even know what fine art was, until it sort of fell in my lap. So it’s not that important until people start asking me questions, and that always happens.
“Why do you create cameras? Why are you creating this image?” You have to be honest with your viewers. It comes from a serious spot. I could say, “Oh, I like to make blurry pictures.” But then I’m not honoring what I’m really doing.
Once the conversation starts, I have to be frank about where it’s coming from. But it doesn’t matter to me if you just buy it because you think it’s pretty. I don’t care.
If it means something to you, and you want to put it on the wall, if it brings something to your life, that’s great.
JB: Understood. Wow. I rarely get uncomfortable in these interviews. I like making people uncomfortable.
SB: I’m honored. I made you uncomfortable.
JB: I get the video experience via Skype, but the readers don’t. Your turmoil is flashing across your eyes on a semi-regular basis. I’m responding to what I’m seeing, as well as what I’m hearing. And other people don’t have that luxury.
Thank you for sharing this with our audience. I’m always on a soap box. My readers know this. I practically live on my high horse, telling everybody else what to do.
The reason why I do this is because I was a very unlikely candidate to become an artist myself. This process, over the last 17 years, has enriched my life in every way I can think of. And helped me grapple with my own demons, such as they are. Thankfully, and admittedly, they don’t derive from any hard-core trauma.
Even though I try to enliven the writing with humor, I’m very serious about why art helps a lot of people. We build a super-structure over the process: buying and selling, talking and promoting.
Oftentimes, we confuse the value of the super-structure with the value of the process. I feel like you have very cleanly explained to people the way it’s supposed to work. And then dangled this carrot out there, that even random people can be discovered. Which is a myth I try to quash, but there you go.
We’re telling it like it is today. Are we not?
SB: We’re trying.
JB: Fast-forward again, and you’re doing very well. You’re represented in a slew of galleries, show a lot, and just took home an award last week from the Palm Springs Photo Festival. Best in the reviews, is that right?
SB: Yup. That was a shocker.
JB: Well, you also had that happen once at PhotoNOLA, so I’m not sure if it was an actual shocker.
SB: Wow. You do your research.
JB: No, I just have a really good memory. Where are we headed here? We’re headed to teaching.
We’ve talked about why and how you do what you do. And what the pictures look like. But teaching is an entirely different beast. One need not be a great artist to be a great teacher, because the skill sets don’t always overlap.
You’re going to be teaching a workshop this summer at the Santa Fe Workshops, and they’re sponsoring this interview series. Your workshop is called “Visual Narratives.” What does that mean, in your words?
SB: “Visual Narratives” is about communicating your own personal narrative, visually. Digging deep inside of yourself, and being able to identify a consistent thread that is within all your images. And be able to create a body of work.
I have a unique way of teaching that’s very psychological. Most of my students think they went to the shrink’s. They call me “The Psychiatrist.”
It’s a very interesting class. I love it. It digs deep into each person’s personal world, and teaches them how to bring back their unique qualities: what they’ve experienced, what they’re passionate about, and put it into a visual element.
JB: Does that presuppose that everyone is interesting?
SB: I think everyone IS interesting. I suppose there’s someone really boring out there, but I haven’t met them yet.
JB: You’re talking about a framework through which you approach strangers, basically. And a set of assumptions you bring to the table to then teach those strangers. What types of questions do you ask people to get them to share private, secret, interior information?
SB: I have a way of working where I ask stream-of-consciousness questions, and you have just a few seconds to write down the answers. By looking at all the answers together, in a group context, we’re able to put a map together of what makes that person tick. And what they’re really trying to say, whether they know it or not.
Questions that seem vague and unimportant, but they’re very specific, once you put the map together.
JB: What happens if someone comes to your workshop with perfectly anodyne and average pictures of flowers and birds? The most typical and uninteresting set of pictures you might imagine.
SB: (pause) You have to ask them about what is really inspiring them, and why is it flowers, or bees, or whatever it is they’re taking pictures of. And what is it that they want to do with that? I always look at the person’s aspirations for the image, and where they want to get to, compared to where they are with their image making today. Because if I succeed, tomorrow they will start the process of making images they aspire to create. And as a teacher, there’s nothing more rewarding to witness than growth in your students.
For instance, I was always inspired by Impressionists, my entire childhood. Somehow, that informed where I went. My work is Pictorialist based, but I didn’t know what a “Pictorialist” photograph was until maybe 10-15 years ago. But I did know what Impressionism was, and was inspired by the images.
The Impressionists informed my work, and what I was trying to say, so I ask people, “What type of art form are you inspired by, and what really gets you going?” To me, that’s a vital clue about where a photographer aspires to achieve with their work. Does that make sense?
JB: Of course. It was a slightly rude question, but you answered it positively. It’s not easy to get people to open up, and then you have to build trust within the group. Group dynamics, and making sure your pupils respect and trust each other, is important as well. The environment they’re in, and whether they feel secure or insecure in the group, will also determine how far people get in a short span of time. Would you agree?
SB: Yes. I think this is where the stand-up comedy comes into play. (laughing.) I just love people, and I love making them laugh. I love having a true conversation with someone, and digging in to what’s important.
That’s what my classes are about. I don’t accept a vague answer. I really keep digging at people.
I’m from the Mid-West. I talk to everybody.
JB: Well, according to that philosophy, I let you off the hook earlier in the interview. I didn’t keep digging until you broke.
SB: That’s different. I’m not paying $1200 to get to the next level.
JB: (laughing) Touché. We’re talking about inspiration. Outside of the New Yorkers, you Angelenos probably have access to the best art in the US. Or maybe the Chicago girl in you would quibble? (pause) Oh my goodness. I read it in your eyes. Honestly, people, she did not say anything. I did not edit this part at all. I read it in her eyes. She may live in LA, but she was like, “Aw, hell no.”
JB: There it is. Chicago. Hot dogs, and the Art Institute of Chicago. Never leaves your blood.
JB: Pizza. Let’s not go there. You guys use more cheese, the New Yorkers have crispier crust. Truce.
Where I was headed was, where do you like to go look at work in LA? How do you keep yourself juiced up, with all that great art at your fingertips?
SB: It’s funny, but it’s mostly when I’m traveling. I hate to say it. That’s when I have time to go to the museums. I always hit up MoMA and the Met and everything, when I’m in New York.
Who has time when you’re actually here? It’s sad to say, but I’ll go to the Getty and LACMA, when I can. I get a lot of juice going to gallery shows. Artists that I wouldn’t have a chance to see.
I recently saw a great show over at Kopeikin Gallery that was really inspiring. Kevin Cooley. Do you know him?
JB: I saw his videos at MOPA in San Diego. Dynamite.
SB: Unbelievably inspiring show. There’s always a great show going on in the galleries here in LA.
JB: You use the galleries more than the museums?
SB: I think so. When I go to a museum, I get lost. It’s a commitment. I only allow myself that time when I’m out of town, not when I’m here.
[…] Susan Burnstine Interview […]
Great article and beautiful, moody photographs!
Excellent interview. I felt like I was in the room as you two talked. I have personally experienced one of Susan’s workshops. She definitely helps you cut through your own smoke screen. The exercises we experienced resonant for quite some time afterwards as one delves into their creative expression. And yes, her photographs are quite wonderful up close and in person – they certainly draw you in and make you feel and wonder…..
Great interview, JB – very enlightening!