Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Within Shadows

Susan Burnstine

Crossing the Bridge - 2005 © Susan Burnstine
Reprinted by kind permission of the artist
 I can still vividly remember the one recurring nightmare I had as a boy, I was probably around six or seven and this dream stayed with me for several months, maybe a year, though the time it stayed to plague me isn’t important anymore. I can still see a single fixed image in my mind from the nightmare, I know how the nightmare would continue but it never does anymore, I have even willed it to continue but it is a still; it has ceased to haunt me. It is a black and white puppet animation of a spaceship with the spaceman sitting proud of his vehicle, with the cockpit similar to an old fashioned airplane. The pilot is, seemingly, impervious to the vacuum around him and he is orbiting what appears to be a moon-like planet and whilst it is clear it is an animation it scared the life out of me for some months and for reasons that I still couldn’t and still can’t fathom.
I was subsequently nightmare free only and until I had parental responsibilities. It wasn’t a return to the nightmare I had had as a boy, these nightmares are of an impending disaster of some sort, where I am powerless to intercede and protect my family. Either I am incapacitated through falling off a ledge or I’m held back from preventing whatever fate has in store for my family, and it cannot be interrupted by me; I am powerless. Emasculation? Probably. Institutional patriarchal conditioning? Possibly. Whatever the reasons I will wake up with a start in recognition of the futility of the struggle against which I know I will lose. Once a week still; sometimes more.
Glide - 2006 © Susan Burnstine
Reprinted by kind permission of the artist 
I have been aware of Susan Burnstine’s work for a while, she has been featured in a number of publications and her work was referenced to me quite recently in an interview I did with Chris Friel who cites her work as a major influence. I had always liked the ethereal nature of Susan’s work, but it wasn’t until I looked more closely at her book “Within Shadows” that I started to get to feel a sense of connection with the work. On initial viewing I got the feeling of the narrative being projected, to me, from the shadows. There isn’t a great deal of detail in the shadows of the work in this book, but there is of variance in tone and a presence that occupies the darker areas. The camera’s that Susan uses aren’t designed to deliver crisp detail anywhere in the monochrome palette, but the tonal extremities are especially devoid of fine detail, leaving the imagination to supply the specifics . These camera’s are based on toy cameras, plastic lenses, boxes cobbled together almost as the antithesis of the modern day multi mega pixel cameras and these use film; from Susan Burnstine’s web-site; “With this body of work as with my former series, I captured these visions entirely in-camera using a collection of hand-made film cameras and lenses that are frequently unpredictable and technically challenging. The cameras are primarily made out of plastic, vintage camera parts and random household objects and the single element lenses are molded out of plastic and rubber. Learning to overcome their extensive limitations has required me to rely on instinct and intuition – the same tools that are key when trusting in the unseen.” All the work is done in camera, these images aren’t further manipulated in photo editing suites.

Yearn - 2007 © Susan Burnstine
Reprinted by kind permission of the artist 
The closer I looked at these photographs the more I felt I understood what it was I recognised in them. The images are in the main very blurred and have the appearance of film stills from movies. These filmic extracts do not try and represent the passing of life in the same timeframe as everyday life. If these images were captured in perfect focus there would perhaps be no ambiguity to the image, the questions that I feel are raised would disappear in the clarity of the image. It is the ambiguity that these images deliver that holds my attention, I feel I am drawn into the image by the impellent force of the narrative. "Crossing the Bridge - 2005" has me at the tipping point ready to be toppled over the edge, I have been there in so many dreams. Many of the images seem to waver at a point of decision, where something might be about to happen, where the fulcrum of fate seems to have been retarded or even arrested and a glimpse of the potential is made apparent in the sub-conscious. Often, the images conjure the innocence of childhood or the naivety of everyday circumstance, which drives the viewer to draw conclusions that we are about to experience something that maybe quite dreadful, and, like my own nightmares, the effort to contain the inevitable would be futile. Glide - 2006 is a dream of a photograph, a young and innocent child playing in the surf, in a state of almost grace that no parent surely would want their child to miss out on; but that licking wave is moving toward the child.
The Road Most Traveled - 200 © Susan Burnstine
Reprinted by kind permission of the artist
Within Shadows by Susan Burnstine is published by Charta ISBN 978-88-8158-811-4
Susan Burnstine's web-site is here


  1. Really interesting post John. Especially your personal experience and sense of responsibilities; and how this has influenced your interpretation of/relationship with them.

  2. Thanks Vicki, They certainly struck a chord that I didn't expect.

  3. Haunting images. Reading your nightmare recalled mine around the same age which was of half-waking and seeing kings and queens (like the ones on playing cards) on the closed curtains. As I got older I reached a stage where sometimes I was able to half-awaken, go back into the dream and change it - usually the early morning dreams (they're called lucid dreams I think).
    The one that called to me of Burnstine's was 'Yearn' - reaching out to connect. We've 'talked' about text and images - n this case do you think the text added to your absorption or not John?

  4. Thanks Catherine, As I've mentioned before I'm not a fan of titles. However Susan had used titles and for completeness I added them. In the book the titles aren't on the same page as the image and I only really noticed them when righting up my thoughts. The titles give a direction to the viewer and in same cases they were contradictory to my own thoughts - such as in the photograph "Glide" which suggests, to me, at any rate, an innocuous feeling whereas I felt the image is quite threatening and works well in the overall theme of nightmare.