David Burrows: Photography as an End in Itself

Born and raised in New York, David Burrows left a distinguished career as a college English professor to pursue his passion for Photography in 1979. Since then he has lived in France and India, more recently in Japan and China and is currently based in Panajachel, Guatemala. After working for decades with a Leica M2, he began using the D-Lux 4 and is now doing virtually all of his work with a Leica D-Lux 5. Here, in his own direct and eloquent words is the story of how he came to create an iconic document—78 portraits of Guatemalan women that honor his subjects, de-emphasizes technique and take portraiture to the level of fine art.

“The project came as a surprise to me. A friend who is a videographer asked if I’d like to join him in documenting a four-day conference that brings indigenous Guatemalan women to the town where I live. Many of these women had never been away from the rural villages where they live. They were all recipients of micro-loans designed to help them start their own small business and raise themselves out of poverty. An NGO based in San Francisco, called Namaste Direct, sponsored the conference and provided seminars in basic business practices.  My video-maker friend asked if I would come along and make black-and-white photos that he could include in his video.

When I arrived at the hotel where the conference was being held, the CEO of Namaste Direct asked if I could take individual photos of each woman. She suggested I begin that morning, so I found a non-distracting background, made sure the light was appropriate and without a tripod, began to take portraits. When I got home that evening and looked at the 30-40 photos on my computer screen, I had the feeling that there was something special about them. I returned the next day and completed the collection. When the CEO saw the images, she had the idea to have prints made, so each woman could return home with a copy of her photo. The 78 portraits will be exhibited in a gallery in Panajachel in early spring.

Q: What made you decide to use your D-Lux 5 for this project instead of your M2 or any other equipment?

A: The D-Lux 5 is currently the camera I use for all my work. I moved to Guatemala from Japan a few years ago and had to abandon my darkroom. I had avoided the switch from film to digital for years and am now watching my yearning to return to the darkroom give way to acceptance of my computer as darkroom. My M-2 and twin-lens Rollei sit patiently on a shelf.

Q: Though you took the Guatemalan portraits with a modern compact camera, the D-Lux 5, you chose to present them in square format and black-and-white. As you mentioned, “They resemble 6×6 photos from the pre-digital days.” Why did you decide to present the photos in this manner?

A: I always had a fondness for the square format, especially for certain kinds of portraits. I very much admire the work of Irving Penn and his ability to compose within the square impressed me. These photos of the Guatemalan women are mostly focused on the face, hair and shoulders. The square seems to me more appropriate than a rectangle. It all fits better.

As for why black-and-white, it’s just part of the attempt to create beautiful photographs. A black-and-white image touches me more deeply than a color image. I have a more direct apprehension of the form of an image, when not distracted by red and yellow and green. I feel a mind stopping instant of pleasure when I see a truly fine black-and-white photograph. I don’t feel that when I look at a color photograph. I have thought, ”wow!” when facing a well-made color photo, but “wow” is not comparable to the ripple in my consciousness in the presence of an image with rich black, a range of grays and white.

Q: What is it about portraiture that interests you? Are there any other genres that you dabble in, or may explore in the future?

A. I enjoy the process of creating a relationship with a person in order to make a good portrait.  I try to engage the sitter in a collaborative effort. I think it makes for a more interesting photograph, when something of that relationship is visible or can be felt.

I am completing another project that I haven’t thought of as “portraiture” until now, but this question makes me realize it is. I have been photographing one woman over the course of several months and have about 35 photos of her that I plan to exhibit as a group.

Q: How would you describe your photography?

A: If you mean how would I describe my photographs, I’d say they’re static (as opposed to dynamic). I don’t think they ask the viewer to “think” something or “do” anything. To me, they seem to have the quality of being self-composed. I like to include fairly large areas of black or dark gray to give the sense that the subject is emerging from that darkness. (I would have preferred a dark background for the photos of the Guatemalan women, but that wasn’t available.)

I want to add that I am making photographs throughout my waking hours. Sometimes I have a camera with me, sometimes I don’t. When I don’t have a camera, the image is still framed in my mind. There are images I’ve “missed,” that still live in my memory decades later.

Q: When did you first become interested in photography as a mode of expression, an art form, a profession?

A: My father had a friend; a doctor, who had a basement darkroom. One evening when I was about 10 or 11, we watched him making a print. I stood next to him as the grays emerged on the paper in the developer and then some of the grey became black. I was hooked. I know that many photographers have had the same experience. It is magical and I don’t think there is anything to equal it in the digital process.  Soon after that, my father helped me buy my first somewhat serious camera, a Kodak Bantam 828 and an Opemus enlarger. There was an unused room in our house with no window, black walls and running water. I guess it had been a darkroom in the past. I had found a mode of expression, an art form— and from time to time in my life, a profession.

Q: Did you have any formal education in photography, with a mentor, or were you self-taught? Was there a photographer or type of photography that influenced your work or inspired you?

A: I’ve had no formal photographic education or mentor. I’m mostly self-taught, though I’ve always had friends who shared my passion for making photographs. I learned a lot from them and still do.

During the years my “eye” was forming, most of my influences came from looking through magazines like Popular Photography and Modern Photography. The annuals featured the work of the best-known photographers of the late forties and fifties. Most of the non-commercial work in those years was still black-and-white. As a teenager, I responded to what I now call the “sensibility” of artists like Kertesz and Penn. Even on the magazine page, the richness of the images and the humanity of the artists and their subjects moved me.

Q: How did you first become interested in Leica?

A. Those photo annuals I mentioned always included thumbnails of the featured pictures along with a couple of sentences about the photographer and the situation in the photo. I remember the last line included the camera used to take the picture, the f/stop and shutter-speed. I saw that many of the photos I had responded to were made with Leicas.

I began haunting some of the well-known camera stores in New York. In those days, you could hang out at places like Willoughby’s and Olden Camera and the other shops in the photo district. The M series was new then and I got to hold the M-3. Every other camera felt clunky in comparison. I knew there was a Leica in my future.

Q: What approach do you take with your photography, or what does photography mean to you?

A: My training and education were largely devoted to developing my verbal skills. I was raised with the expectation that I would become a lawyer. I thought that putting words together in a certain way would help me to win. I think I was unconsciously drawn to making photographs because they did not depend on language and did not require any end beyond themselves. They were complete. I was content when a photograph succeeded and it did not need to succeed in anyone else’s judgment. I knew.

It was through photography that I began to deal personally with the question of quality. I learned how framing a subject in the viewfinder affected the quality of the photograph; that holding the camera steady and deciding on the proper lens opening and shutter speed was necessary; that even a great subject in light that was too harsh or too flat did not produce a photograph with value.

Q: Your black-and-white portraits of Guatemalan women are utterly straightforward, but also very revealing in terms of the subjects’ individual character; and somehow very emotional at the same time. Do you agree and do you have any thoughts about this dichotomy?

A: I agree. But I’m not sure there’s a dichotomy. It seems to me possible that an “utterly straightforward” photograph might, because of its very lack of artfulness or technical embellishment, naturally reveal character and evoke emotions. Box cameras made snapshots that to this day reveal the character of people long gone and often those snapshots still have the power to move us. Similarly, in these photos, I feel the presence of the women strongly, perhaps because of the relative straightforwardness of the technique.

Q: The Guatemalan women series also presents something of the character of icons, with the subject in the center and an ornamental background that suggests a common traditional heritage. Was this a conscious decision and why do you think it is conceptually and visually effective?

A: Consciously, the decision was a technical one. I needed the right light and a background that would not interfere with the presentation of the subject. I thought, if only I had a piece of black cloth to tape up there or a good space with window light. The tiled wall, however, would have to do.

I think the background is effective.  You are right: “an ornamental background that suggests a common traditional heritage.” It does have that effect. When I looked at the first downloaded image, I worried that the background was too busy and called attention away from the woman. But after looking at a few more, my eye was no longer distracted by the tiles; it was as if the background had given way to the succession of women’s faces.

Q: The technical quality of the images in this series is outstanding. Were you surprised that a sophisticated point-and-shoot camera like the Leica D-Lux 5 was capable of this level of imaging? Can you tell us something about how you used this camera to create these images (such as the focal length and ISO you typically shot at) and the method used to achieve the warm tone black-and-white images?

A: I’m not surprised by the technical quality of the images. I had a D-Lux 4 for about a year before buying the D-Lux 5 a year ago and know what they are capable of. It doesn’t seem fair or honest to call the D-Lux 5 a “point-and-shoot” camera, even a sophisticated one. I rarely point and shoot. I’m usually aware of the f/stop and shutter speed as I shoot and of course the ISO.
A technical note: On the square format, only 3/4 of the available pixels are being used and yet, as you point out, the technical quality of the images is remarkable.

I like to keep the ISO set at 400 and as for focal length, for these photos, I mostly used the equivalent of 50 to 75mm.  As for the warm tone, just lucky, I guess.

Q: There is a classic and very formal quality in your Visually Possessed series you shot over 20 years ago that parallels the severe classicism of the Guatemalan women series. Do you think this reflects a continuity of style or a common approach that venerates the subject and subordinates technique?

A: I’ve never used terms like “formal” or “classic” in thinking about my photos, but I have had the sense that there is often a feeling of repose, a sense of stillness. I don’t look for it when I’m making the photo, but it is usually there in the ones I appreciate the most.

The question of venerating the subject to the point that technique is subordinated interests me. I care about the people who agree to be photographed by me. They trust me.  Something that happens, or is felt, in our time together makes both of us want to create something beautiful. Here, for me, is the magic of portraiture.

Q: How did the Guatemalan women you photographed react when they saw your images? They seem alive yet serene and there is a great sense of dignity in these images. Do you agree and do you think your subjects perceived that?

A: I wasn’t there when the women received the photographs and although I enjoy showing my work to others, I usually avoid being present the first time a sitter sees her picture, as I don’t want to influence their reaction in any way.

I do agree about the aliveness and serenity— and especially about the women’s sense of dignity. I love that about these photos. I don’t know what they see in their pictures. I hope they see themselves as I see them.

Q: Since you have had experience with the Leica M2 and may even have a few Leica M lenses, have you ever considered shooting with a Leica M9, which essentially provides the Leica M experience in digital form?

A: I’ve considered shooting with an M9 ever since I first heard and read about it. (I used to fantasize about a digital back for the M2 that would retain the camera’s contours.) With an M9 I’d be using my M-series lenses again. It would be like a reunion with dear friend after many years. I took a look at a friend’s M9. When I held it to my eye, it felt familiar. Yes, I’d like to do some work with an M9.

Q: How do you see your photography evolving over, say, the next 5 years and do you have any plans to document any other countries or cultures in the near future?

A: I don’t know how, or if, my photography will evolve in the future. It has been an important ingredient in my life for so many decades that I can’t imagine giving it up or in any way losing it. I don’t see that it is taking a direction other than the one I’ve followed since my box-camera days: an ever-growing appreciation of the beauty that I see and the desire to somehow make it mine in a photograph and then pass it on to anyone who will take a look. Projects arrive spontaneously and mysteriously. We seem to find each other.

As for other countries or cultures, I’m more prone to follow a magnetic pull, than to chart a course. Guatemala is a fine place to live. If daydreams are a reliable indicator, maybe I’m being drawn back to Japan. I felt at home when I lived there and studied the language. Nothing is certain at the moment.

Q: What do you think you have learned about your creative process and about conveying the human experience through photography as a result of executing the Guatemalan series and over the course of your photographic career?

A: I get embarrassed when artists talk about their “creative process,” but here goes: My process consists of doing whatever I’m doing and in an instant sensing that something has composed itself in my field of vision. If I have a camera with me, I do my best to make a photo that more or less resembles in mood and form what I have seen.

Do my photos “convey the human experience?” That has never been a goal of mine. I guess viewers can realize something about human experience by looking at the Guatemalan series, but they’re not realizing anything I was trying to convey. I don’t consider these photos in any way sociological, economic or ethnographic. They are, as I look at them, images with their own particular appeal, an appeal that translates, when it takes verbal form into… beautiful!

The entire collection (78 photos) of Guatemalan women is available for download at https://public.me.com/dasburrows.
(password: dasb.pub)

A collection of photos from Visually Possessed can be seen at http://homepage.mac.com/dasburrows.