Interview by John Camp
Introduction: I'm a writer—a novelist—and a few weeks ago my publishing company sent a well-known professional photographer out to Santa Fe to take my picture for the backs of upcoming novels...which shows a bit of optimism on the publishing company's part, since the writing schedule is killing me. Anyway, I very much enjoyed the company of the photographer David Burnett, who turned out to be a widely read, deeply engaged, intellectual sort of fellow, who looks a little like a long-distance runner—and, I mention in passing, quite a good friend of the Turnley Bros., who show up here on TOP from time to time.
I was interested, of course, in the way David functioned in carrying out the assignment of shooting my photo. We'll skip the parts where I was powdered and rouged ("We'll just take a little of the dryness out of those lips") and I'll just say that he showed me something photographic that I'd never seen before: he had an assistant, and used reflectors and so on, but he also had a couple of battery-powered LED lights, a little bigger than bricks, and quite lightweight, which the assistant would sometimes use instead of the reflectors. [The subject of our friend Kirk Tuck's latest book, if I may interject —Ed.] That way, David was able to put the light anywhere he wanted it, in a matter of seconds, with the prime light, the sun, coming from any direction. David joked that he was going to buy an "assistant suit" made out of Velcro, and put Velcro on the backs of the LED lights, and then he could just arrange the assistant's arms and legs as he wanted and slap the LEDs on him…. Anyway, my first photographic thought was, "Hmm, I gotta get me some of those." (LEDs, not assistants.)
After David had gone on his way, it occurred to me that I should have asked him if I could interview him for TOP. I emailed him, and found out that he'd already moved on to Dubai. He agreed to answer some e-mailed questions; people curious about his work can take a look at his website. Here's Part I of the interview:
John Camp: I've always been curious about what particular kind of traveling assignment-oriented professionals actually do…so what have you been doing the last year or so? How much time do you spend on the road? Have you gotten rich doing this?
David Burnett: My work varies constantly, the result I suppose of some Attention Deficit Disorder, adult version, which I notice a lot of my colleagues also seem afflicted with. When you are a freelancer, you can either choose to do a story on spec…go do it, then edit and try and sell it afterwards; or, if your phone rings occasionally with one of those 'magic phone calls' which leads to a cool assignment, then that will presumably be what you end up doing. Most of us work in some kind of middle ground, trying to place the work of our own interest in the mix, and if lucky, actually find a client to finance it. In the last year or so my assignments have included the following:
• Spending nearly three weeks (just for the record, unpaid, save for travel expenses) serving as the chairman of the World Press Photo Jury in Amsterdam, nominally in charge of a dozen other jurors from as many countries, sifting through 109,000 images, and in the end naming the contest winners.
• I've done a half-dozen author book jacket photographs (a somewhat new field for me, but great fun).
• I traveled for five days with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on a Europe-Mideast trip, when the U.S. was trying to forge an alliance to deal with Libya. Key point: in the lottery for who-sits-where on the USAF plane, I drew a low number, and had the upside of getting a business class seat (one of eight) instead of an economy seat (there are about 25.) When you travel 14,000 or so miles in a week, that is a big plus.
• I drove a 15-year old, aging Cadillac across the country in about eight days to deliver it to a friend in need of a car. Perhaps more importantly, it gave me a chance to drive the southern route, and shoot a few cool pictures. The problem became that I would find myself just short of making something really satisfying, but then feeling I had to keep heading west. Travel can be addictive, but it's not always the tonic we hope for.
However, these kind of trips do lend themselves to certain kinds of shooting, and when, four days ago, the editor at my agency (Contact Press Images) said on an iChat call he had a book jacket request for "an old car, with a kind of run-down, West Texas look...," I was actually able to upload a half dozen images in the four minutes we were on the phone with each other. Sometimes you just have the right picture.
• In April, I went for People [magazine] to the Royal Wedding in London (Will and Kate) but didn't have the same luck I'd had at that of Will's parents in 1982. For one thing, the entrance to Westminster Abbey is street level, while St Paul's has a large length of steps, and the steps win every time, I'd say.
• Early July I was in Florida for the last of the Space Shuttle launches, and found myself on the same beach where, 42 years earlier, I'd photographed the departure of Apollo XI to the moon.
A few good pictures this time, but living in the age of TV/internet/twitter/Facebook, it all feels like it passes far too quickly. The velocity of photos and images that society has created and runs through on a daily basis means it's very difficult for a great image to stand out. It still happens, but I think we are all being deluged with imagery, and not enough time to appreciate them.
• Later in July, in Glasgow, I worked with a new group of photographer friends, where we create our own projects, and work, more or less pro bono, in trying to uncover significant social topics. The group (PhotographersForHope.org) spent a week coaching homeless newspaper vendors in the use of their new Canon point-and-shoot digicams, trying to capture some elements of the lives they lead. Those pictures, plus ones we did of them, were part of a show at the BBC Scotland headquarters, and later the Mitchell Library, giving some voice to the situation of those who experience homelessness.
• August: Bonneville Salt Flats—Speed Week. Another chance to get an amazing sunburn and pictures of fast cars. Mostly of fast cars sitting there making a lot of extremely loud noise, but occasionally of them actually going fast. I grew up nearby in Salt Lake City, and have been going there since I was first shooting pictures in high school.
• In September I was asked to join James Nachtwey in Lausanne at the International Olympic Museum, and speak about the power of the image. It was a wonderful evening, getting a chance with Jim to not only show images, but talk about them and their impact on our world.
• In October/November I made a number of drop-bys to the Occupy Wall Street encampment, and was, at the very least, pleased to see that 40 years after the street protests of the Vietnam era, there were, in this over-indulged, over-connected world, still a few people who understood the power of showing up somewhere and stating their case.
In addition I have been doing a number of speeches, workshops, and appearances at photographic get-togethers: The Atlanta Photojournalism conference, the Australian Professional Photographers Association, and just recently the Gulf Photo Plus week of workshops, exhibits and speeches in Dubai. In every corner of the globe now, there are thousands of photographers and would-be photographers who are striving to become better. It keeps us all on our toes.
This is just some of what I did last year. How many days on the road? I didn’t count them but probably somewhere between 100 and 125. It takes a whole day to actually count them! And to what end? In this age of diminished assignments in the magazine world which I worked in for 40-plus years, one doesn't get rich. Well, if you happen to get that one image of the right starlet, you can make a bundle, but otherwise, the democratization of photography, the proliferation of cameraphones, and the fact that "everyone is a photographer" has, I think, tended to diminish and cheapen what was once a world in which a minimal level of craft was required to do the job. You can still make a living, but in so many aspects of editorial and commercial photography, the world has seen a quantum shift. A few people are doing extremely well, in most cases people who have not only talent with a camera but the ability to create an aura about themselves using social media and blogs. I am constantly amazed at the number of "comments" I see on some of the popular photo blogs. Dozens, sometimes hundreds of comments from what must truly be a large population of people with true photographic interest. Proof, I suppose that the photograph isn't the only way to connect with your audience.
JC: David, unlike most online photography forums, TOP doesn't spend very much time talking about equipment. So, naturally, my next question will be about equipment. When I saw you a few weeks ago, you were shooting Canons along with a Leica M9 and a Holga, interchangeably. I've seen on your website that you also shoot a Speed Graphic from time to time. So tell me a little bit about your relationship with the equipment.
I would probably be considered a dinosaur in some quarters as I still use the Mark 0 Canon 5D (well…they really weren't Mark anything, but 0 is as good as 1) for my main digital needs. I have the whole slew of Canon glass, fast glass (the red line lenses) and a few wonderful old beloved bits of glass from my Nikon days (pre 1978)—namely my Nikon 500mm ƒ/8 mirror and a wonderful Leitz 400mm ƒ/6.8 Telyt, with EOS mounts on them. In the world where every high school kid is sporting a 400mm ƒ/2.8, showing up with a lens three stops slower does create a wonderful mutter in the assembled press pens. But I know how sharp my Telyt is, and how light it is (it breaks into two small tubes for transport), and I'll stay with what I have.
My latest acquisition, courtesy of my involvement with the newly formed group known as FacingChange.org (a group of independent photographers, gathered together to address the vast range of social and economic issues facing the country) is the wonderful new M9 Leica rangefinder body. It has given me the chance to take out my Leica glass (yes, I have three 50mm lenses!) from the cupboard they have been sequestered for the last eight or nine years, since 35mm film gave way to digital and all the ups anddowns that presents. Essentially, while I still shoot some medium and large format film, my 35mm film days are dwindling down to very few, so the addition of the M9 has given me a chance to see again the amazing quality of those Leica lenses. The Noctilux (a 1978 version) is something to behold when you can see the results virtually instantly.
My kit also consists of a Speed Graphic (actually, several of them) on which I shoot lenses in most cases older than I am, and which are all considered "fast glass" for a large format camera (ƒ/2–ƒ/2.8). I began shooting large format in "real time" situations—Presidential Campaigns, the Olympics—in 2003, as a kind of allergic reaction to the mass movement over to digital. I wanted something different from what all my pals were shooting, something that would force me to look in a slightly different way at the subject, which, if I was lucky, would yield a picture that had a little something special to it. It is a downright daunting task to force yourself to shoot with cameras that have no auto diaphragming, no auto advance, no autofocus, no auto anything...but when it works, it really is worth all the mistakes en route. And those are legion.
In almost everything I shoot these days, I try to include something taken with large format or, at the very least, with my Holga. I really do enjoy the simplicity of the Holga, and every now and then it rewards me with something sweet. They are making Holga lenses with DSLR (Nikon, Canon) mounts, but, for me, the joy in that glass is in the extreme edges of the frame, and all of that beauty is cropped on a 35mm DSLR.
In the 4x5 realm, I still have so much to learn. Every time I shoot with the Graflex cameras it is a learning experience.
So far I don't actually own a camera, shocking as this may sound, with an ISO over 100,000. I suppose that day will come. But for now, I'm entranced with the chance to again shoot à la rangefinder with the M9. It is a whole different way of shooting, looking, seeing, than a reflex camera. Instead of, essentially looking at a TV screen to compose, you are just putting your fingers up to your eyes...and squinting happily.
I have been quite amazed, actually, that neither Canon nor Nikon has come out with their own re-creation of one of their classic rangefinder cameras. In all the advances in photo technology, it just surprises me that none of the traditional makers other than Leica (the preeminent) has seen fit to create a camera (please, no harping about the Epson...) which recreates all those great 1950s cameras.
Not to belabor the point, but I'm still looking for a snapshot of Cartier-Bresson carrying a Practica or a Nikormat. The new Fuji cameras (I just saw briefly the X-Pro1) are a step in the right direction, but in the end they try and look like a Leica, and yet deny you the real joy of a rangefinder camera, which is the rapidity of the focus, and blending those two images together in the finder. The X100 for example seems to look like a rangefinder camera, but there is still that hesitation for it to find focus. Nothing is as sure as your fingers guiding the lens and finder to the right place.
Ten-years-plus ago I had the Contax G2 set, all the glass, too. It was, no question, the camera to be slinging if you went to a cool and groovy cocktail party on the East side. But every time I tried to use it, the focus servos would buzz and buzz and buzz, finding the actual focus long after that "moment" I was in search of disappeared. I ended up trading the kit to a friend for another M6 and a Summilux 35, confident that I could focus way snappier than the G2 (and I still can, I believe). Sadly, cameramaker engineers seem to value the hotsie-totsie of fancy, rather than simply giving us something that we can use. I still like to think that all this stuff we have is just a tool or set of tools, and that in the end, you figure out what you want for a particular picture, grab what you need (or if you're lucky, figure that out ahead of time) and just make the damn picture.
[Continue to Part II]
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Original contents copyright 2012 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Jeffrey MacMillan: "David is absurdly talented, generous and kind. Having spent a little time with him on campaigns and elsewhere he brings an level of dignity to our motley crew. Go to his website and check out the large format photos. They are so beautiful you'll cry yourself to sleep after selling your gear!!"
Featured Comment by K. Praslowicz: "Years ago, probably 2004ish, I made a comment on a web forum regarding one of David's photos I had seen in a magazine. A day or two later he sent me a private message thanking me for liking it. I always thought that that was pretty classy for a working artist with a long history of success."
Featured Comment by Miserere: "Good call, John—you can't just let someone like David B. get away without an interview :-) . I'm ashamed to say I couldn't quite place his name at first, then I went to his website and looked through his galleries...oh, he's the guy that took that Holga photograph of Al Gore...oh, he's the guy who photographed the Olympics with a Speed Graphic...oh, he's.... Yeah, I know who he is. Damn shame he isn't making a good living off his talent and just shooting whatever he wants. Then again, if he did, he wouldn't have been hired to shoot you, and we wouldn't have had the pleasure of reading this fine interview. The Universe has a way I suppose...."
Featured Comment by Roger Overall: "What a wonderful piece of writing to wake up to here in Ireland. It's great that John has taken the time to write it, and David took the time to talk. That shows consideration and understanding of the interest out there in the work and lives of great photographers. John could have kept this encounter to himself, restricting it to airings at dinner parties only. He didn't. I for one am really grateful."
Featured Comment by W. Keith McManus: "Will be passing this along to the class I am teaching at RIT [Rochester Institute of Technology —Ed.] this spring."