My favorite toy as a small child was a VHF Viewmaster. I had an overactive imagination and was convinced I could capture any scene I either witnessed firsthand or merely imagined-- just by clicking the little, plastic advance lever…ka-ching. I still smile when I imagine the sound
of that lever.
At the age of eight, I graduated to my first “real” camera. It was an old, decaying vintage camera that worked intermittently, but my mother refused to accept it was broken since she proudly purchased it herself years before. In order to get the shutter to stop sticking, I
had to jiggle the camera around and bang it incessantly on the advance knob. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. But that camera’s odd quirks made it more endearing and unique to me. When I saw the results of my first roll from that camera, it was love at first sight.
Yeah, they were horrible snapshots. But they were my horrible snapshots.
By the age of 12, I spent most of my free time in the darkroom my father built for me. By the age of 14, I started working as an assistant to one of the top photographers in Chicago, Joel Schachtel. After working in the commercial and portrait world for seven years (at a much too young
age), I became disillusioned by the business of photography. By the age of 21, I was burnt out and told myself I was better off without it. Or so I tried to convince myself-- much like young lovers do after their first heartbreak.
After graduating from college, life led me down a number of different creative paths, including stand-up comedy, screenwriting and script consulting. But following years in the entertainment business, I yearned for a new challenge once again. And that’s when my first love—photography—came
strolling back in.
What happened? My world was turned upside down when I was in my mid thirties: My mom died tragically, then my friend Michael Jeter passed away suddenly. The rug was pulled out from underneath me. Not once. But twice.
At Michael’s memorial service, clips of his award winning-acting performances and great personal achievements played and I realized I’d done nothing with my life that resembled the immense passion and love he had for the world and his craft. That’s the moment that changed
it all for me. Two people I loved being taken away much too early in life forced me to realize I better make something of the existence I had today, rather than living for the potential of tomorrow.
Days later, I received Michael’s beloved Leica M6 and his old Nikon. I started shooting incessantly, mostly with my trusty old Canon A-1 (since I feared breaking the Leica), but I told no one. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was attempting to process all that happened
to me through photography. And every time I clicked that shutter, it was just for me. The love was back.
Friends convinced me I should make a living at photography, so I pursued it professionally again. I shot headshots, portraits, parties and book jackets. Whatever paid the bills. But within two years, that feeling of disillusionment spawned from the business side of commercial work returned.
I was officially burned out for the second time. But this time, I realized I had to find a way to protect what I really loved and what mattered - the art. But how?
That’s when I saw Keith Carter’s print 'Levitation' hanging on a friend’s wall. I stared at that print for 45 minutes, mesmerized. I had no idea how Keith was doing what he was doing in that image, but I was inspired like never before.
Weeks later a friend of mine suggested Keith might be using a Holga to achieve his blurry effects and gave me one in attempt to shake me out of my photo doldrums. I raced out and shot two rolls. The results from the Holga were interesting, but I quickly realized it wasn’t what Keith
was using. Then I heard about the Holga’s predecessor, Diana, and tried it. Nope - it wasn’t what Carter was using either. But the blur - oh that glorious blur. It energized me.
For the next six months, I shot countless rolls with that Diana, but started to get frustrated with its rudimentary limitations. So I attempted to make it do things it supposedly “couldn’t” do well. I became proficient at modifying cheap, crappy, plastic cameras and
was able to refine my close-up work to as close as an inch (the minimum distance to focus in toy cameras is usually three or four feet). One of those close-up shots, 'Sniff,' landed me my first visit to the Krappy Kamera Contest Exhibition at Soho Photo Gallery. I was so excited to be
in my first juried show that I flew out to New York to attend the opening - probably just to prove it wasn’t a dream. Seeing my work on a gallery wall - wow. There was nothing better. I was hooked and wanted more. But I had no idea how plastic could lead to a career in fine art.
Sure there was Nancy Rexroth, Mark Sink and a few others…But how could I carve my own space in fine art photography with plastic?
I was struggling with this conundrum when a good friend asked me what I thought about when I shot toys compared to when I used “real” cameras with glass lenses. My response was that I didn’t “think”. I just felt and shot through my heart instead of my head.
(Yeah. I really said that. So corny, but true.) Soon after, I realized my heart yearned for more than modified toy cameras. My heart wanted an original blurry fingerprint and a signature style.
In spring of 2005, I began building my own homemade plastic lenses and mounting them on modified vintage cameras. Months later, I started making my own homemade cameras and lenses primarily out of broken toys, random household objects and vintage camera parts. I mastered the technical
development and look I desired, but didn’t know what I wanted to express or say. That’s when it hit me - dreams. When I stood back and looked at this growing body of work, I realized there had been a theme all along.
Ever since I was young enough to remember, I’d awake from a dream only to recall a single image. This obscure memory remained in my thoughts for days but then disappeared - usually forever. That’s when I started asking myself, “What’s real - waking life or dreams?”
And that question continues to fuel this ongoing series.
One of my first successful images from this series, 'Blue’s Nose,' landed me in a half-dozen exhibitions, three magazines and won two awards thus far. I’m proud two of my most treasured loves were merged into one unique work; my dog Blue and my one of my twenty favorite homemade
cameras. Recently, my work has been in several exhibitions and published in 'B&W Magazine,' 'Black and White Photography Magazine' (UK), 'Kamera & Bild Magazine,' 'Shots Magazine' and 'Camera Arts.' And the icing on the cake - I had the privilege to write a feature on my inspiration
and friend, Keith Carter, for 'Black and White Photography Magazine' (July 06). Pinch me, because it’s hard to believe this past year wasn’t a dream. Or maybe it was?
The series, On Waking Dreams, can be viewed at: www.susanburnstine.com. Her photoblog can be seen at: outafocus.my-expressions.com.