Face to Face with Nancy Burson

Ms. Burson’s work blends photography and digital technology. Her “Beauty Composite” series will be part of J.P. Morgan’s exhibition.

Dec 17, 2012 | Related Links Index Hidden Parent

For photographer Nancy Burson, the viewer’s participation is a key element in her work. It may sound impossible to participate in a photograph, but Ms. Burson is no ordinary photographer. 
Merging traditional photography with pioneering digital technology, Ms. Burson’s art illuminates how preoccupations with genetics, race and beauty impact our notions of identity. Many of her projects explore the issue of photographic truth, and the results can be otherwordly and thought-provoking.
What is in a face?
Her work often makes the face a strange and malleable canvas. “I’ve always felt that faces were so compelling. And the interesting thing about faces is that no one ever agrees on what someone looks like—they’re an endless source of fascination for most people,” she says.
For many years, Ms. Burson made photographic studies of children with craniofacial abnormalities and people who had lost parts of their faces to cancer. “That was compelling work, and all these people were amazing—they were masters of the art of self-acceptance. I remember after I spent a weekend with them for the first time and then went to the airport to fly home. Everyone looked strange because they all had normal faces.”
Best Picture focuses on portraiture and appropriation at Paris Photo, the world-renowned photography fair. In these composite portraits, Burson combined images of movie stars from the 1950s to the 1980s to explore notions of ideal beauty.
Far-reaching consequences
Ms. Burson’s work has far-ranging social and political consequences. Her Human Race Machine is used nationwide to teach diversity, as it allows viewers to see themselves as a different race.
Both the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the National Center for Missing Children acquired a copy of Burson’s Age Machine software to update images of missing adults and children. It has been directly responsible for finding several kidnap victims, and a version of it is still used today.
“From the very beginning, I was very interested in the participation of the viewer,” says Ms. Burson. “I was also quite interested in having some piece of information come through, and so it became about art that viewers can participate in, that gives something back.”
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