A unique practitioner of straight photography, Susan Burnstine shoots her black-and-white cityscapes and landscapes using hand-made film cameras and lenses that she crafts out of plastic, parts from old cameras, and “random household objects.” The images made from these devices have some resemblance to those produced by the famous plastic Holga camera—imprecise, shadowed and clouded. They lack the fine gradations of gray scale and are slightly distorted, but they exude a great sense of solidity, belong firmly within the legacy of the Pictorialist tradition of the early twentieth century, which attempted to translate the aesthetics of Impressionist painting into photography.
Burnstine has developed her technique to make a philosophical-emotive point: Although we exist in the perpetual present, the traces of the past persist in the here-and-now, however much they seem to be effaced. She is aiming to evoke those moments in which we detect a fleeting hint of something that once was and has presumably vanished. There is a decided sense of distance in Burnstine’s images that she cultivates by shooting her subjects from afar and bathing them in a murky liquid haze, as though we were staring through a fine drizzle; yet no sense of the past intrudes on our perception of the present moment. We are, instead, drawn into her scenes for the integrity of their aesthetic surface and as instigations to focused meditation.
Burnstine’s most characteristic and existentially revelatory image is “Impasse,” in which we look down the walkway of the Brooklyn Bridge and see in the distance a solitary figure receding from us into the fog. With this image, Burnstine comes closest to realizing the experience that she wants to capture, although it is not so much the tenuous return of the past as it is the inaccessibility of the subject. We have the sense of watching someone to whom we’ve bid farewell going away from us and disappearing; we deeply feel the pangs of separation. More fundamental than her insight about temporal experience is Burnstine’s wrenching sense of separation, with which her images grip us. (Michael Weinstein)
Through August 22 at Berlanga Fine Art, 230 West Superior.
Elliot Josephine Leila Reichert is a curator, critic and editor. She is the inaugural Curator of Contemporary Art at the Eskenazi Museum of Art, Indiana University. She was formerly Curatorial Fellow at the Chicago Artists Coalition, Art Editor of Newcity and Assistant Curator at the Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University.