Artist Nancy Burson On the Convergence of Art, Politics, and Tech

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Renowned for her pioneering work in morphing technologies, legendary visual artist and New York Film Academy (NYFA) faculty member Nancy Burson has just shown how powerfully the arts can intersect with world affairs with her image on the cover of Time magazine: an arresting portrait that combines the faces of U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Burson’s work was also recently singled out by Time magazine in its list of 100 Photographs: The Most Influential Images of All Time. Together with MIT scientists, she patented the morphing technology that the FBI drew upon in the ‘80s to track missing children. She has been featured on Oprah, Good Morning America, CNN, National Public Radio, PBS, and Fuji TV News, as well as countless local TV segments in the USA, Canada, and Europe; and discussed in The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Houston Chronicle, and Scientific American Magazine, to name a few. There are four monographs of her work and reproductions of it appear in hundreds of art catalogs and textbooks on the history of photography, published in all languages. Burson’s fine art photography is available through ClampArt Gallery in NYC. Her website can be viewed here.

At first glance, the man on our July 30, 2018, cover might seem familiar: it was created by morphing images of two of the world’s most recognizable men, President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. The composite image, by visual artist @nancyburson, is meant to represent this particular moment in U.S. foreign policy, following the pair’s recent meeting in Helsinki. As our senior White House correspondent Brian Bennett writes in this week’s cover story: “A year and a half into his presidency, Trump’s puzzling affinity for #Putin has yet to be explained. #Trump is bruised by the idea that Russian election meddling taints his victory, those close to him say, and can’t concede the fact that Russia did try to interfere in the election, regardless of whether it impacted the outcome. He views this problem entirely through a political lens, these people say, unable or unwilling to differentiate between the question of whether his campaign colluded with #Russia—which he denies—and the question of whether Russia attempted to influence the election.” Burson, who became well known for developing a technique to age faces, which is used by the FBI to find missing children, says the goal of her latest composite is to help readers “stop and think” when it comes to similarities between the two leaders. “What my work has always been about is allowing people to see differently,” she tells TIME. “The combining of faces is a different way for people to see what they couldn’t see before.” Read this week's full cover story on TIME.com. Photo illustration by @nancyburson for TIME (Digital imaging by @johndepew. Source photographs: Trump: @gettyimages; Putin: Kremlin handout)

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Ms. Burson took time out of her busy schedule to sit down with the NYFA Blog and share her thoughts on the meaning of visual art, why she’s still learning, and what it’s like to see her TIME magazine cover image joining a vital international conversation about democracy, freedom, and the future.

NYFA: Tell us, what does photography and visual art mean to you?

NB: The best way of answering is just to say that I think art is destiny-driven, and then there’s the added element of determination that seems to be behind it. That’s what visual art means to me. There’s no choice; you just do it. You do it because it’s your destiny to do it, and you’re driven to do it through determination.

NYFA: What inspired your morphing technology projects, and your recurring theme of composite images?

NB: When I first came to New York, I had this idea to create a machine that would age you by computer. That was driven by a show that I saw at MOMA. It was the first time I had walked into MOMA, and there was a show called The Machine as Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age. I went there not knowing what to expect, but what I found was a very participatory show in which people that I began to know later on had pieces that were not only three-dimensional, but moving images, video images, and things that were more or less participatory in nature. I thought it was a lot of fun to participate in the art, and it was after that, shortly after that, that I conceived this idea of the aging machine where viewers could see themselves older.

I took the idea to EAT (Experiments in Art and Technology), Robert Rauschenberg’s organization that was pairing artists and scientists together. So I went to them and said, “I have this idea to age people with a computer.”

Androgyny (6 Men + 6 Women) 1982

They paired me with someone who did very early computer graphics — it was pen and styles and a pad — and I was like, this is just drawing! And he said, yes, you have to wait for the technology to catch up.

I kept in touch with him and eventually he told me to call Nicholas Negroponte, the head of MIT’s now Media Lab, and he thought it was a great idea. They had something called a digitizer (now called a scanner), and it was one of the first times that a computer could interact with a live version of a face.

So I was kind of in the right place at the right time. I had the idea in ’68, and I went to work with MIT in ’76. I’m not that patient, but I was doing other things and kept connecting back to this person, and along the way got to know a lot of other people developing programs that were similar. One friend of mine became the Oscar winner for the morphing technology to make images move. Originally I had the patent on the still images, and he had the technical Oscar.

NYFA: What inspired your latest project, the image of Trump and Putin on the cover of Time magazine?

NB: I’ve been politically active over the years, and I felt I needed to say something.

This last couple of years has not been an exception, and since Trump was elected I have done what I could on Instagram. That’s pretty much what I think an artist can do, unless it was about showing work that had to do with Trump. A few years ago before he was even elected or running, I did a piece called What if He Were showing Trump as 5 different races. I showed it as art in LA. It was a commission by a very prominent magazine that never ran it — they decided at the last minute it was too controversial, so I went elsewhere and finally placed it with Huffington Post.

Then the last couple of years, I did a very early version of Trump and Putin, because the Russia thing has been going on for awhile. Time magazine photography director Paul Moakley is familiar with my work, it was three years ago they put me into their 100 Photographs: The Most Influential Images of All Time. Since then I’ve been sending him creepy images of Trump, one with Kim Jong-un, and one with the three together, and there’s been this dialogue back and forth, and he mentioned last year he was considering them for the cover. I was like, oh, I didn’t know that! I didn’t find out until the last minute this was going to the cover, and I didn’t know if they would run it because it’s so controversial.

So in the end I had a couple hours to finish it and send it in. It was really fast. I had to run down to do the video interview. It was really truly a wacky day, one of the wackiest ever.

What was really meaningful was to be able to have this input in this dialogue that’s ongoing about this investigation, and I think that week was a turning point.

NYFA: What is it like to see your image having such an impact, especially with the wildfire spread of the internet?

NB: Yeah, I mean, amazing. I’m very grateful.

NYFA: What did it feel like to see your artistic techniques used to help the public through searches for missing children?

NB: What happened with missing kids was really amazing. The first case we did was the Etan Patz case for the FBI, and at that point we had done some other images of kids that had been not parental abductions but stranger abductions, and usually those kids don’t turn up. We had done a number of those, and it’s so hard to do. Then Cosgrove/Meurer Productions in LA — these are the people who became the producers/directors of Unsolved Mysteries — did a couple of hour-long TV specials about missing children.

They pulled some of the parents of parental abductions in here and we did updates of the kids. The parents were pulled in to see the update on the screen, and then these images were aired on TV, kids were found literally within a half an hour of the show’s airing.

So we began to find kids — this was around the mid ’80s — and we found at least several in that one year.

I remember this one kid getting on the phone with me because the father had gotten him back from the mother after that show was aired. This was a kid who had just been an image, and then I was talking to him — and his picture looked really very similar to the update we had done. It was a Frankenstein moment. I really was. Just wow.

At that point in the mid-80s the FBI purchased a copy of our software and then they started finding missing adults as well, which is a kind of a different process.

Etan Patz Combo final

Etan Patz Update (Age 6 to Age 13), 1984

NYFA: What’s the most rewarding thing about teaching photography? What would be your one piece of advice for students interested in the visual arts?

NB: Probably the most rewarding thing about teaching is that it gives back, in a way, to the photography community. I think that when you teach you also get something back from the fact that you’re always learning. There’s always something to learn from students. I think teachers understand that it’s a give-and-take.

I find student are always wanting to find out what’s out there, what’s new, wants happening. I keep up with the community, not only for my sake, but for their sake. Sometimes there are important things to learn and it’s important to know the state of the art of the tech.

What I say to my students is that if you really want to be a visual artist, or in the case of NYFA, if you really want to be filmmaker, if you really feel this is what your role should be and it feels like destiny to you, then it will become what you do in a certain way that overrides a lot of other stuff. So if your priority is your art, you’re not going spend a lot of time messing around with doing things that you shouldn’t be doing — you have to stay focused.

I think the people that really understand that their destiny is artmaking in a certain way are more solidly based and determined. The kids who I know are going to make it are the kids who are hanging out at NYFA and shooting their projects at night and shooting on the weekends, and they’re just making it — every day they’re making it.

That’s the basis of a career that’s going to be ongoing. That’s going to be a sure thing; you have to have the determination and you have to be unwilling to give up. You have to see that as you goal.

NYFA: Which of your projects have surprised or shaped you the most?

NB: Certainly missing kids was one.

The human race machine, when that came out in 2000, came out as a collaboration with Zaha Hadid at the Millennium Dome in London. I thought it was very cool that people were standing in line for a couple of hours to see what they would look like as a different race. Now it’s not something that I would want to bring out in the world. Now I see that as more about separation than togetherness. But at the time it was an interesting way for people to raise awareness that elicited an empathetic response. My whole concept for right now is called TogetherAllOne, which addresses what astronauts see in space; they see the bigger picture, they see the blue marble. They understand that we are TogetherAllOne.

So there’s the missing kids, the human race machine, and the craniofacial kids. I spent seven years photographing deformity and I got to know kids with progeria, the aging disease as well as adults

Recently it’s really nice, as I’ve heard from some people form those years who saw the new Time cover. One of them in Europe reached out. I had photographed her son, and now she’s developed an organization since them to keep the progeria kids’ families together. I think it’s really great. And I remember her son. It’s been powerful hearing from people whose kids I photographed when they were young. There was even one incident that I heard about where one of the craniofacial kids used the machine with his family to see what he would look like with more of a “normal” face, so that was also a really powerful moment.

During those years I also spent time with adults with prosthetics on their faces from cancer. These are people who had survived cancer and had pretty big holes in their heads if you took their prosthetic device out. I knew the head surgeon at Kettering, and he introduced me to his clients and I photographed them. It was great. It was a real educational experience for people to see these people, and I would have shows of these images and the subjects would come. It was in its own way very experiential.

NYFA: How gratifying is it to see a process you created and revolutionized decades ago still have such an impact on photography, media, and culture?

NB: It’s interesting, I was thinking that the technology was too rudimentary and not specific enough to address politics in a way that would have an impact. But here it is. That was great.

I’m very thankful to Time magazine, who allowed this cover to be. It was a chance and they knew it, and they took it. They had just done something controversial a few weeks before, with Trump looking down at the little kid who is crying, and that had two million hits. The Trump/Putin cover is there, and has I think a two million hits at this point. That was a big cover for them and it was controversial, and they chose to do it again.

The New York Film Academy would like to thank Nancy Burson for so generously giving her time and her story to our student community. Ms. Burson has a show currently in Brescia, Italy, with a solo show upcoming at Art Basel Miami in December. Read our headline piece on Nancy here. Watch Nancy’s interview with TIME below:

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Published on: August 8, 2018

Filled Under: #WomenOfNYFA, Photography

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