When Susan Burnstine was 4 years old, she began experiencing night terrors. To deal with these overwhelming nocturnal visions, Burnstine would, with her mother's prompting, re-create her dreams through drawing, painting, and sculpting. At age 33, when her mother, Natalie, suddenly died and the night terrors returned, Burnstine began documenting her dreams again — this time through photography. Initially a private way for Burnstine to cope, these dreamscapes turned into a full-time profession after the art world began gushing at her otherworldly images.
Burnstine uses special homemade cameras, with odd lenses and other makeshift parts, to distort her photos at the point of conception. Her images almost seem like mirages. Edges are blurred or out of focus, and the photos' central subjects — whether buildings, vistas, corridors or people — are also bathed in translucence. Few if any other fine-art or commercial photographers do work like Burnstine's. If there's a parallel, it's to history's first photography, from the early 19th century, when Nicéphore Niépce and Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre produced images that — because of long exposure times and a fragile technical process — were practically ethereal.
The undeniable beauty of Burnstine's black-and-white photos, and their connection to dreams brought on by family tragedy, give them an intensity that is both intellectual and visceral. The acclaimed Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado can have the same effect on people, though his work captures outward scenes while Burnstine's also conjures an internal world.
"I need the pictures to emulate what I'm seeing in my subconscious," she tells me. "I have a dream or a nightmare; I journal them; then I go out and photograph them. Some of are actual elements [from the dreams]. Some of them are symbols. Some of them are metaphors."
At Corden/Potts Gallery, Burnstine's latest work reflects a second, sudden heartbreak in her life: the loss of her father, Philip, who died from a stroke in 2009, exactly 10 years after her mother passed away. These newer photos, put under the heading "Absence of Being," are hovering overviews of New York, Los Angeles (where she lives), and Chicago (where she grew up). Like her earlier work, the images are fuzzy interpretations of dreams, but her subjects are viewed from a distance — a nod to what Philip Burnstine might see if the afterlife were real and heaven existed. "It's almost my father's perspective of looking down from the world," Burnstine says. "It's also about being alone and without family. That's how I'm dreaming. I'm dreaming from far away. Nothing is close. I can't really touch anything because I can't get close to anything in my dreams because of not having family, because of not having that connection. My dreams changed and my perspective of photographing changed."
The exhibit's marquee photo, The Last Goodbye, is an aerial of Manhattan's Washington Square Park and the surrounding neighborhood. With her improvised camera, Burnstine introduced swirls that revolve around the photo's upper reaches, turning the scene of park, buildings and sky into a moody kaleidoscope. The Corden/Potts exhibit also features her works from after her mother's death, such as Bridge to Nowhere, which shows a shadowy figure exiting a walkway that seems shrouded by a mystical fog.
Burnstine, who's 46, first took photos as a child, after her mom gave her a camera. At the time her mother died, Burnstine was doing traditional portraiture and other more mainstream photography. Her father, who was an engineer and inventor during an early juncture of his career, was the one who encouraged her to invent her own cameras. "They're primarily made out of plastic, rubber and garbage bags in terms of the lens," she says. "I mold the plastic out of hobby plastic for the elements. I make the shutters; I make everything."
In the last six years, Burnstine has won a slew of awards, her latest a coveted one for photographers: a gold medal in the 2011 Prix de la Photographie Paris competition, judged by photo professionals from the New York Times, National Geographic, the Library of Congress and other organizations. She won for her book, Within Shadows, a collection of her work made in the wake of her mom's death.
Oliver Sacks, the British-American neurologist and best-selling author (The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat), has written widely about people whose artistry actually improves in the aftermath of a traumatic medical condition. Burnstine's ability to convey her dreams and night terrors so eloquently is a gift to herself and to her growing fan base. It's art therapy, she says, that "is helping me. I love what I'm doing. And people enjoy the work. It's helping them, too."