Interview: Artist Nancy Burson with Associate Curator Pauline Vermare

Pauline Vermare: Your iconic piece Big Brother (1983) is currently on view at the International Center for Photography (ICP) as part of Public, Private, Secret. Would you tell us about it and how it came to be?

Nancy Burson: Big Brother was a commission for a CBS Walter Cronkite special that drew some interesting parallels about where we were collectively as a society, compared to Orwell’s fictional vision in 1984. They made a poster out of the composite image of Hitler, Stalin, Khomeini, Mao, and Mussolini and used it as a backdrop for Cronkite, who was standing in front of it on a London street corner. I especially like the end, where Walter rips up the poster and throws it in the gutter.

PV: You were one of the first artists working with morphing, in the 1970s. When and why did you start being interested in combining photography and technology?

NB: I was a painter in college and wasn’t thinking at all about photography. What I was thinking about were ideas and how to make things that hadn’t been made come to life. 

When I moved to New York City in 1968, the first museum exhibition I attended was MoMA’s The Machine as Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age. I was thrilled by the interactive nature of the art and Nam June Paik’s video works. These were new concepts to me.

Shortly after seeing that show, I began to develop the idea of aging people by computer and I knew nothing about computers. Of course, in those days, relatively few people knew much about computers! I went to Robert Rauschenberg’s organization, EAT (Experiments in Art and Technology), and they paired me with an early computer-graphics expert who told me I’d have to wait for the technology to catch up to the idea. Eight years later, I ended up working with what is now MIT’s Media Lab and that collaboration resulted in the methodology of what became known as facial morphing. 

PV: Would you tell us about the psychological intent of your composite portraits, including the Human Race Machine (2000–ongoing)? 

NB: Actually, the first portraits that I made were more about visual experimentation that served as answers to things I was thinking about. For example, what would happen if you put an equal number of men and women’s faces together? Would the composite look more feminine or more masculine? 

It was the later composites that I made between 1988 and 1990 that were viewed as confrontational. However, at the point that I made them, I didn’t see them as anything other than beautiful and was rather surprised when viewers found them to be a challenge. I wanted to get pregnant and at forty-one years old, I was thinking a lot about what might happen if I gave birth to a child with a deformity.

The intent of the Human Race Machine was to produce an empathetic response in all who used it, so it was really about the impact of seeing oneself as other than we actually are. 

PV: Can you talk to the social and political nature, and impact, of your work? 

NB: The real-life impact of my work was the finding of several missing children in the mid-1980s when my former husband and I were working with the FBI and National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Several of the missing kids updates were aired on national TV and the children were found immediately. There were about four children that were found in 1986 and the FBI had located at least one adult that had been age-progressed using our software. 

PV: You recently created a series, What If He Were? (2016), on Donald Trump. Do you feel that photographers—and photographs—can still play an important role in American politics?

NB: I believe that in any given moment and in any situation, there’s always the potential for change. And whether or not those changes occur is dependent on what I’d call destiny. And since we never really know what’s meant to be until it is, the best we can do is to make every effort to make a difference.

What If He Were was a commission by a prominent magazine that ultimately decided not to publish Donald Trump as five different races. My interest in creating this work was the desire to know what his reaction might be if he saw the images. Current research shows that the experience of oneself as another produces an empathetic response within the mirror neutrons of the brain. The question in my mind was whether Donald Trump’s brain would be affected with an empathetic response upon viewing the work.

PV: What are you currently working on?

NB: I’ve been working on what I refer to as “secret stuff” for the past several years. For now, I’d say that my interests are physics and its relationship to metaphysics, and the conjunction of cosmic consciousness to the Higgs boson and dark matter.