Monday, January 19, 2009

News Art: Manipulated Photographs from the Burns Archive

The last time I perused a book authored by Dr. Stanley B. Burns I had to sit with my head between my knees until I could regain my composure. Burns, a New York opthalmic surgeon, has amassed a collection of over 800,000 images pertaining mostly to medical and criminal photography and has published 19 books on subjects that are definitely not for the squeamish. His books have included: Deadly Intent: Crime & Punishment Photographs; Seeing Insanity: Photography & the Depiction of Mental Illness; Oncology: Tumors & Treatment; Respiratory Disease: A Photographic History; A Morning's Work: Medical Photographs from the Burns Archive; Face of Mercy: A Photographic History of Medicine at War; and Sleeping Beauty: Memorial Photography in America.

Dr. Burns and Sara Cleary-Burns have teamed up this time for a less disturbing presentation of images called News Art: Manipulated Photographs from the Burns Archive published by Powerhouse. Where many of the photographs in the Burns archive were produced for the eyes of few, these in News Art were created for public consumption in newspaper and periodicals that appeared between 1890 and 1950.

Due to technological limitations concerning printing clear reproductions, many news images were subjected to manipulation through application of collage-like techniques and vast retouching with brush and ink. News Art presents examples of artistically enhanced images that blend of art and journalistic photography in order to provide a clearer illustration of a story.

These one-of-a-kind images, each handcrafted, describe crime scenes, socialites and celebrities, war and human interest stories. While many employ a simple pen and ink outlining of the main subject in order to make it stand apart from the background, some interestingly attempt to convey passing time through a hybrid of photography with hand drawn illustration. These more complex constructions often draw attention to the limitations of the medium at the time to describing its subject clearly or as a sequence of events.

These older techniques are so apparent, they give the sense of a less nefarious use of manipulation than what today's seamless photoshopped fictions imbue. Seductive in similar ways to the art of the day, many of these look as if they could have fallen from the archives of Dadaists Hannah Hoch, Johannes Bader, Raul Hausmann or even Max Ernst.

Isadora Duncan's daughter Irma is shown sitting cross-legged in a chair while the background has been artificially whited out creating a beautiful, albeit unintended, composition complete with crop marks and measurements in black grease pencil. A frontal portrait of the suspected murderer Alex Miller is shown with the remnants of a sketched question mark surrounding his head with the words 'Is he guilty' printed across his chest. A photomontage of Pancho Villa boarding a train presents a combination of portrait and photo-op with images of his North Division fighting during the Mexican Revolution.

One of the pleasures of these images is seeing the hand at work. Today photography is often so removed from appearing handmade due to the cleanliness of description and the technologies allowing for cleaner outputting of prints. Once was the day when photography was an imperfect science. Dust on prints was 'spotted' by hand with a brush and could be seen if the print was held at an angle to light. Photographic paper run through chemistry and eventually re-dried will refuse to lay completely flat. These slight flaws connect us with the creator in ways that, like the techniques, have faded as well.

Journalistic integrity today has been "improved" with clear disclosure of images subjected to manipulation by labeling them as "photo-illustrations." Clearly these charming examples of the early years in "photo-illustration" on one level appear crude but with deeper consideration are they really much different from a photographer adjusting the levels of a digital file in order to make the photograph lighter or darker? Even subtle adjustments are a form of manipulation and shift perception. In many ways the obvious nature of these make them more truthful than the current applications of manipulation that want to insist on invisibility.

News Art: Manipulated Photographs from the Burns Archive is a handsome volume. The clean design honors the work and the printing is well done. One aspect that I appreciate beyond the content is the materials lend a nice feel to the whole package from the matte paper stock with its slight tooth, to the fully illustrated boards hidden under the dustjacket. This is a book whose subject could have been easily subjected to a generic treatment of book-making but like many of Dr. Burns' past titles, News Art achieves an elegance that celebrates these previously unstudied masterpieces of bold expression whose language is sadly no longer spoken.