What inspired you to start taking photographs, and what is the primary inspiration for you to keep working in this field?
My mother documented most of my early childhood with 126 instamatics, a vintage Polaroid that worked intermittently, and an optically unappealing Pentax110 that was always buried at the bottom of her purse. She never thought or cared to protect the optics for her cameras, so the lenses were typically dirty or scratched, which resulted in grainy, blurry, imperfect photographs. I suspect that’s how a developed a respect for bad optics.
When I was eight years old my mom encouraged me begin shooting with some of her vintage cameras. From the very first picture developed, she insisted I had an “eye” for making pictures and continued to encourage me to take photographs. I became obsessed with photography, so when I was eleven, my dad built me a darkroom in the basement next to his beloved tool closet. I spent most of my high school years inhaling photo chemicals in that darkroom.
At the age of 14, I began working for a respected portrait, occasion and commercial photographer in Chicago. I worked for him throughout high school, but the fun of making pictures disappeared when it became a means to make money. I ended up walking away from the commercial photography world to pursue a life in the entertainment field for many years.
Then there was my second incarnation as a photographer…
Ever since I can remember, I’ve suffered from night terrors, which were a byproduct from a real life trauma that occurred when I was five years old. As a young child, my mother taught me to handle the debilitating effects of these dreams by drawing and painting images from the nightmares. The process of recreating these dreams through art helped eliminate some of the paralyzing fear I walked around with, and thus, it was a practice that stuck through childhood.
In my early thirties, mother died tragically and the event triggered the reemergence of night terrors again. I needed a way to cope with and process my loss along with these new nightmares haunting me, so I attempted to photograph my dreams for several years. At that point, I had no intention of becoming a fine art photographer. Matter of fact, I had no idea it was an actual profession since I had solely focused on documentary and commercial work prior. I merely began journaling, then photographing my dreams to cope with my loss. In 2005, this process lead to creating my own cameras and lenses in order to emulate what my unconscious world looks like. Twenty-two homemade cameras and lenses, eight galleries and one monograph later, here I am. Kind of like a dream.
What inspires me to keep making photographs?
The search for the answer “why?” I’m like a petulant child that refuses to stop asking questions about vital unknown, unanswerable facts in life, such as death. Making photographs afford the perfect canvas to observe, explore and imagine all the possibilities to all that remains unfamiliar or unsolved in our lives.
In your opinion and experience, how can emerging photographers evaluate themselves as ready to start promoting their works and seek broader exposure for their photographs? What is one vital action you would recommend photographers undertake to find their audience, be included in exhibitions, and gain professional representation?
First and foremost, it’s necessary to create a body of work that you believe in with all your heart and soul. To achieve that, you have to focus on and express something that is personally meaningful.
When I first began making images for Within Shadows, I was merely creating self-portraits of my unconscious world in attempt to cope with the unbearable realities of my conscious world. I think that’s the key… to make images that mean a great deal to you personally and which you also feel are the best possible photographs you can make at that time. The other key component is to be able to transfer your unique life experiences and vision into these images.
I am a frequent reviewer, teacher and juror and there have been times when I’ve witnessed new photographers “put the cart in front of the horse”. Some want the end result before creating a fully realized body of work, but they are skipping over the most rewarding and meaningful part of the journey. They may be technically proficient photographers, but their vision and voice has not penetrated the work yet. So it’s important to be honest with yourself and also to get the opinion of those you put the work out there. Feedback from those you trust is perhaps the most important element in the equation. If you and those that your trust believe the work is as realized as it can be and that your individual voice and vision is shining through, then it’s time to take a leap of faith and promote the work. A good place to start is reviews. They can be wonderful tools for evaluating your work and/or moving forward in your career and they have proved to be a vital and effective tool for my work over the years. There are also some contests that have the means to offer photographers a good deal of exposure and opportunities such Photolucida’s Critical Mass or the Center Awards just to name a few.
How did it come about that you achieved the status of successful, professional photographer? What steps were involved in reaching your level of success?
Words like “status” and “success” make me itchy since they tend to define my work in a way that has an absolute or an ending, rather than an ongoing flow. Of course we all want what we envision as success. I’d be lying if I claimed otherwise. But what is success and how does one personally define it? The definition constantly changes in my perspective and that's what makes me itchy. But if you held my arm behind my back and made me scream “uncle”until I answered what attributed toward the elements of my success, I’d be forced to confess that I work 24/7 on my art and I have always subscribed to my native blue collar, Chicagoan belief that hard work usually generates results.
As far as the steps involved in reaching the point where I’m at today, my trajectory was not the usual fare. I was represented in galleries before I finished my first body of work, Within Shadows. And I was tremendously fortunate to find an audience for the work. I should note that this scenario is not what I’d suggest for anyone else to do, but opportunity knocked at Photo LA 2007 so I opened that door. Months after my first gallery signed me, two more galleries signed me up and so on.... I was making a lot of new work, attended reviews, made a lot of great friends at reviews, won some awards, wrote my own column for Black and White Photography (UK)… basically, I haven’t stopped to take a breath since I began but I enjoy every second of it. The culmination of all the hard work I put toward the first body of work recently paid off when Charta Editions released my monograph, Within Shadows, in June 2011. Two weeks later Within Shadows won PX3’s gold prize for best fine art book of 2011. All in all, it’s been a crazy, wild ride and I eagerly anticipate the next chapter.
Bridge To Nowhere, from the series On Waking Dreams
Threshold, from the series Flight
© copyright all images Susan Burnstine