Book Review: Absence of Being by Susan Burnstine
Book Review by Katt Janson Merilo
In Absence of Being, Susan Burnstine shares with us glimpses into a psyche tormented by loss and trauma, while making the experience both fascinating and compelling. Burnstine’s opening essay provides a unique motivation, process, and insight into the series and her lifelong body of work. Taught by an artistic mother to create art as a response to childhood night terrors, Burnstine eventually settles into photography as achieved through the scratched up, well-worn lens of a 110 camera. At the devastating death of her mother several years later, Burnstine sought to recreate this former therapy, needing to manufacture her own cameras to produce the effect she needed to evoke the emotions of her once again troubled dreams.
The resulting body of images is unique, haunting, and other-worldly. Small groupings of images are preceded by excerpts from Burnstine’s dream journals, providing the viewer with the thoughts and emotions that inspired the unreal-feeling scenes. While most of the images are all set in what may be some of the most photographed places in the world - New York City, Chicago, San Francisco - the combination of the handmade lens and dream-guided eye make the resulting scenes feel entirely unfamiliar and unreachable through any worldly means. We’ve all been here before, and yet it looks so different, an effect very much like visiting a well known yet slightly warped setting in a dream.
All the images are emotion-provoking and interesting, and some are especially memorable. The skyline in “Around the Bend”, pg. 33, is cast in a real or optical fog and glow that, accompanied by the beautifully balanced composition, gives the viewer the feeling of approaching a grand yet ominous land in another world or state of consciousness. “California & Stockton, 8:02AM”, pg 47, provokes similar feelings of a possibly ill-fated arrival by way of a city street - trolley and pedestrian vaguely in focus, bridge far off in the horizon, a haze of street lights, car beams, trees, and skyscrapers framing the view and blending into one another. After turning through the book several times, there are still several viewings left to be had. The hazy images are likely to stay with you well into the next morning.
Following the images are two essays which help to place Burstine in the continuum of photographers and photography: “The Evolving Legacy” by Del Zogg and “Gathering Time” by Chantel Paul. While informative and intriguing, the effect of reading about technicalities and histories after turning through Burstine’s book is a bit like waking up too fast. In some ways knowing less is more, and Burnstine’s introduction provides enough of an insight for at least the first viewing. The essays are both interesting, but are more for those interested in the pragmatics of photography like Burnstine’s, and are not a necessary component to enjoyment of the book.
This collection of images, words, and emotions creates a compelling and unique vision. While Burnstine may have been inspired by nightmares, her book is the stuff that alternative photography lovers’ dreams are made of. ♦
Absence of Being Photographs by Susan Burnstine Text by Del Zogg, Chantel Paul, Susan Burnstine Damiani Editore, September 2016 First Edition 112 pages, 45 duotones Designed by Masumi Shibata