David Burrows: Capturing Beauty to Share With the World

David Burrows, a talented and thoughtful portrait and figure study photographer, doesn’t consider himself an artist; but he can’t help being captivated by the female form and creates memorable images that showcase its beauty and sensuality. Here in his own words is the heartfelt story of how he came to create the Ingrid portfolio showcased on these pages. We’ll start with his brief first person bio:

“I was born and raised in and around New York City. I went off for a B.A. and an M.A. to the University of North Carolina and then returned to New York (NYU) to earn a Ph. D. in literature. I taught in the English Dept. at Rutgers University from 1960 to 1979 before leaving academia to experience life in other countries. I have lived in Sweden, France, India, Japan and China. My base for many years has been the town of Panajachel in Guatemala. I have two daughters, two sons, and quite a few grandchildren.”

Q: You last appeared on the blog in April 2012. What have you been up to photographically and professionally since then?

A: Soon after that blog appeared I began working with a young woman I met in a local gallery. We worked together for some months and that developed into a collection of 34 photographs, some of which are reproduced in this blog entry.

Recently, I agreed to make photos for a friend, the chef/owner of a Japanese restaurant in the town where I live. I began with the intention of making files for uploading to her website and for use in her menu. I soon realized that some of the images had a life of their own, that they are something more than representations of the food she prepares. An exhibition of these photos will take place in May.

About a year ago, with the help of a friend, I created a website to make some of my work available online. There are about fifty portraits of women from Visually Possessed, a book of photographs I published 20 years ago. The website also includes the complete collection of portraits of Guatemalan women, the subject of the April 2012 blog entry. The 34 Ingrid photos, some of which are featured in the current blog, can also be seen on the website.

Q: You’re using the Leica D-Lux 5 as a studio camera, correct? Can you tell us why this camera works for you in a studio setting? What technical characteristics make it ideal for your kind of work?

A: Back in the days of film I used to enjoy mounting my M2 on a tripod and attaching a cable release. For portraits it allowed me to frame the photo and then move my eye from the finder and engage the subject.

I tried the same setup with the D-Lux 5 and, although there’s something almost comical about such a small camera on a tripod with a cable release dangling, it works. Of course, there’s the added advantage of being able to use the LCD panel as a modern ground glass. This recreates the feeling of working with a view-camera. I haven’t yet added a dark-cloth, but there is a well-made accessory available online which allows the use of a cable release with the D-Lux 5.

I usually use ISO 200 and make RAW images. The resulting files are a pleasure to work with and print from.

Q: The portfolio you want to share is of the same model: Ingrid. Can you provide background for this project? What is the inspiration and idea behind it?

A: About two years ago some of my photos were being exhibited in a local gallery. I like to watch people as they look at my work. Do they stop to look? Do they seem to be engaged by the photographs?

I saw a young woman who was moving quite slowly through the exhibition. She stopped, approached each picture, spent some time seeing it close up, and then moved away again and stopped for a last look before moving on. And sometimes she would backtrack for another viewing.
I said “hello” and told her I took those pictures. We talked for a minute or two and, somewhat impulsively, I asked if I could photograph her. She said she wanted to think about it. I called her about a week later and asked what she had decided. She said yes.

Q: You mentioned in your email about developing trust and the collaborative effort involved in this project. Can you elaborate on this statement? How did you go about establishing trust with this model?

A: I didn’t consciously try to establish trust with her. Rather trust arose between us through getting to know each other and learning to respect what each of us could bring to the project. The photos from the early sessions made clear to me that she was the right model for the project and after a while she became convinced that my skill and experience were sufficient.

At the same time, we came to trust ourselves. The sense of collaboration developed almost from the beginning. We were both finding locales and suggesting clothing and choosing background material. Sometimes I would ask for a certain pose and sometimes she would simply relax and there it was.

Q: What are some of the differences you have found between a single sitting with a subject versus spending weeks with them?

A: The major difference is the sense of collaboration. In the single sitting the mind-set is usually that the photographer is active and the sitter passive. The photographer manipulates the camera and directs the sitter and the sitter sits. Over the months a relationship developed between us. The goal remained to create photographs together, but as we came to know each other better the roles of photographer and model became one aspect of a friendship. I don’t know if this would be the same for any two people engaged in a project requiring trust and respect, but I’m grateful that it happened for us.

Q: Have you ever thought about exploring other photographic genres besides portraiture?

A: I’m not sure where it came from, but black-and-white portraiture seems to be rooted in my photographic DNA. In 1949, I used my Bar Mitzvah money to buy a Kodak 35, and in a small windowless room in my house I developed film and printed 8 x 10 portraits of my fellow Sunday school students, sold the prints to their parents (for 50¢ each), and donated the proceeds to the temple. That was almost 65 years ago. If I find a subject that attracts me more than the human form, I’ll go for it. Until then…

Q: Do you have any upcoming projects that you’d like to share?

A: There is one project that is still in the daydream stage and can’t really be called upcoming; perhaps if I mention it here it will begin to take shape. I would like to make a portfolio of portraits of my friends, about ten or fifteen of them — I haven’t made a list yet. Some live close by, in the same town where I live. Others farther away: New York, San Francisco, Hamburg, Bali… I don’t enjoy traveling as much as I used to, but this project may help get me moving around the planet again. Perhaps subconsciously related to this project, I recently bought an M9-P from my friend Ken Hansen. I’m looking forward to working again with my Leitz lenses that have been idle since I reluctantly retired my M2.

© David Burrows

Q: Can you say something about why and how women inspire your creative vision and why they comprise the main focus of your work?

A: Why and how women inspire my creative vision? I don’t know the answer. Is it the idea of a beautiful mother, adolescent curiosity about the female body, the pleasure of being in the presence of women, the relationship that grows during the photo session, the beauty of the woman that is preserved in the negative or digital file? Is it that the image, like memory, allows me the illusion of possession?

How do women inspire my creative vision? I don’t know if I have a “creative vision.” That’s something real artists have. What I have are eyes that scan constantly and every now and then, often at unexpected moments. An image stops time for me for an instant and I am seeing something that makes me think, “Do I have a camera with me? I want that image.” When I am among women, that thought comes to me more often.

Q: You often use your Leica D-Lux 5 on a tripod with a cable release, you sometimes use the LCD as the modern equivalent of a view camera ground glass, and all the images in this portfolio are presented in black-and-white. What are some of the advantages of this traditionalist approach, what do you find especially compelling about the black-and-white medium, and do you ever shoot your D-Lux 5 handheld and compose in a more freewheeling manner?

A: For me, the greatest advantage in treating the D-Lux 5 as a view camera is that I get to assume the posture of many of the photographers of the past who showed the world that photographs can also be works of art. I find myself working more slowly with a tripod, a bit more meditatively. With the cable release held between my fingers it seems natural to await the you-know-which moment. I’ve been careful, paid attention to the details, and am watching for the 1/60th of a second of show time.

Yes, I often handhold the D-Lux 5 — sometimes even in a freewheeling manner. When I’m in a city I like to hold the camera in one hand, point it in the general direction of what I think might be an image and click away, letting the camera make the finer technical decisions. I don’t why I continue to do this since I’ve never kept a photo that I’ve taken this way. Obviously I prefer my framing over chance.

Why black and white? Not sure. Maybe it’s because that’s what I fell in love with during the hours in my darkroom as a teenager. Or perhaps because the photographers who were my heroes and, through the pages of Popular Photography and Modern Photography, my mentors, made images in black-and-white which taught me to see and to respond emotionally, not just because of the subject of the image but because of the power and subtleties of the blacks, whites and grays. Color pales in comparison.

Q: In getting to know Ingrid both as a model and as a person, you note that “The photos from the early sessions made clear to me that she was the right model…She saw that the woman in the pictures was beautiful.” And “The sense of collaboration developed almost from the beginning.” Do you think this outlines the essential process that must take place before authentic images that capture and convey the model’s identity and personhood can be captured? How did you know that she was the right model, and how important was it that she saw her own beauty in your images?

A: I don’t know if it’s an essential process. It’s what happened as Ingrid and I worked together and found that we could trust each other and make photographs we both felt good about. I knew that she was the right model because the qualities that moved me to ask her to sit in the first place were present in the photographs. Sometimes we’d look at an image and I’d say, “Beautiful!” She’d say, “Yes, beautiful.” I’d say, “I meant the woman.” She’d say, “Me too.”

Q: You implicitly refer to the process of creating this portfolio as “two people engaged in a project requiring trust and respect,” but that eloquent description applies to many other collaborative human relationships, including friendship and marriage. Do you think this paradigm manifests in all your work? Do you think it’s possible to create authentic portraits without this level of mutual understanding?

A: Does the paradigm manifest in all my work? I try not to photograph anyone I don’t feel good about. In the first moments of meeting a potential sitter, I know whether or not we can work well together. Trust and respect begin to grow.

I don’t know if authentic portraits can be created without a level of mutual understanding. My motivation in making portraits does not include showing aspects, good or bad, of a sitter’s character. In that sense, maybe my photographs are not really portraits. My intention is not to illuminate who this person is. It is, rather, to create an image which she and I, and hopefully others, find beautiful. I can’t imagine that a lack of trust and respect can allow much to flourish in such an undertaking.

Q: Aside from the obvious enhancement in optical flexibility, what are you most looking forward to in your “daydream stage” project of photographing 10-15 of your old friends scattered across the globe with your new Leica M9-P? And which older Leitz M-mount lenses do you plan to press into service?

A: I’m in the newlywed stage with the M9-P. It’s with me constantly. I used an M2 for many years and the M9 feels remarkably familiar to my hands (although the body contours are not exactly the same). I feel as if I again have a camera that works the way I work. In the next few months I plan to photograph some of my friends who live in this town. This time it will be the M9 on the tripod. I want to take advantage of the full-size sensor and make large prints to hang in one of the local galleries.

As for my lenses, I’ve always liked working with the 50 mm. It is indeed my normal lens (I have a collapsible Elmar, but I think I’ll leave it on the M2. I’ve gotten differing opinions on whether it’s a good idea to collapse it on an M9). What I use most is a 50 mm f/2 Summicron I bought a long time ago. I also have a 35 mm f/2 Summicron 35 and a vintage 90 mm f/2.8 Elmarit which, even though there are little white spots here and there on the internal lens surfaces, remains startlingly sharp. I don’t think I’ll be removing the 50 very often though. When I do the framing in my mind, it’s usually in the neighborhood of a 50 mm. I see a lot wider than 50, but my mind’s frame-lines gravitate toward the normal focal length.

© David Burrows

Q: Here we have a sensual semi-nude in silhouette against translucent drapery. It certainly captures the beauty of the female form in a suggestive rather than an explicit way. Do you agree? What does this image mean to you personally, and can you provide the technical details?

A: The technical details first; ISO 200 has been standard for me since I began rating Tri-X at 200. It was shot at f/2.8 in Aperture-Priority mode at 1/160 sec. I wanted the silhouette form but was hoping to keep some detail in the figure as well.

What does this image mean to me personally? I’m looking now at a framed print of it on the wall. I look at it for a while almost every day. I’m fascinated by it. For me, the form of the body is erotic, while the effect of the entire composition is calming.

The pose, the fabric she’s wearing, and the window are all Ingrid’s.

Q: This figure study has a timeless quality that is enhanced by the black-and-white medium. It looks like it could have been shot 100 years ago or last week. Can you tell us how you lit it to emphasize certain aspects of her form and how you arrived at this particular pose that combines a sense of repose, but with a visual energy and tension in the arms?

A: This is one of the photos we made by the light coming through the small frosted window at one end of the room (it’s the same frosted glass that you find in the bathroom window in older houses). It was for me serendipitous that it worked so well as a source of light for photographing the human body.

As I remember, the pose developed as Ingrid moved through a series of slightly different poses. I stopped her when it seemed right. In the minimal rearranging that I suggested the light and the form came together.

© David Burrows

Q: This image is a classic nude study that embodies a serenity and contemplation while celebrating the female form. Again, it is the lighting that really makes this shot — emphasizing the line, solidity, and elegance of the forms. What was going through your mind when you pressed the shutter release and can you tell us how you lit this picture?

A: The light for this photograph came from a window about two feet in front of her on the same wall.

It wasn’t so much what was on my mind as it was the feeling that comes when I release the shutter and I know that the image is special. In the old days I’d want to rush home and develop that roll immediately. Now, I take a quick look to be sure that it’s well exposed and sharp, but I save really looking at the image for the computer screen. Those infrequent moments of sensing the intuitive “Yes” as I press the shutter release, are among the most satisfying in my life as a photographer.

Q: This one was obviously shot from above as the model touched her toes with her hands. How would you characterize the visual effect of shooting from this unusual perspective, and what visual message were you were trying to convey by emphasizing her elegantly shaped and manicured fingers and toes?

A: The visual sensation of viewing Ingrid’s hands and toes from just above her point of view was at first a little disorienting for me, but I was drawn to it. I like the structure her arms and hands and feet create, and I like the light on her painted toenails. When I look at her hands and the way they touch her feet, the image holds my attention. I’m not sure why.

Q: How do you see your photography evolving over the next few years and do you plan to continue pretty much in the same vein or to explore other genres such as travel photography, male portraits, or fine art abstracts?

A: Long-term, I have no idea. What I want to do next is make black-and-white portraits of some of my neighbors and friends with the M9-P. I’d like to make large prints for a change. I will need to farm out the printing. I don’t have room in this casita for a large-format printer and getting hold of printing paper and ink is a challenge in the Third World.

Q: Are you planning on publishing a hard copy or online book of your work, exhibiting your work at galleries, or getting it out there in some other way going forward?

A: It pleases me to know that some people are seeing my photographs. I’ve had a few shows at local galleries and enjoy watching people looking at my work. Right now, I have three collections (including the complete Ingrid photos) on my website. I am not driven by an urge to make a career or become wealthy or well-known through my photographs. When I make something that I feel is beautiful my instinct is simply to show it to people who might also enjoy it.

Q: Since you are evidently committed to black-and-white, have you ever considered using or acquiring a Leica Monochrom, the M-series camera that delivers maximum resolution and superb tonal gradation exclusively in black-and-white?

A: I’ve been fascinated by the Monochrom since I first heard about it. I read whatever I can find on the web about the camera and am curious to see prints. The tonal gradation you mention, though, is evident even in images on the computer screen. Perhaps when I feel the work I’m doing deserves it, there will be a Monochrom.

Thank you for your time, David!

– Leica Internet Team

To see more of David’s work, visit his website or click here.

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