About the work

NANCY BURSON

ABOUT THE WORK

 

   NANCY BURSON Warhead, 1982
     Warhead, 1982
Silver gelatine print
35,6 x 27,9 cm
Warhead is a portrait photograph done on a computer. The work does not portray an actual, existing person but rather someone fictitious who is created in the merging of several people’s features in the computer’s digitally manipulable image world.

Comprised of portrait photographs of powerful dictators and leaders of superpowers, Warhead consists of pictures of the five heads of state who participated in the 1980s nuclear race: Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, François Mitterrand, Deng Xiaoping and Leonid Brezhnev. The individual portraits are not evenly balanced but weighted proportionally with the nuclear arsenals of the nations. Specifically this means that Reagan’s features are represented with 55%, Brezhnev with 45%, and Thatcher, Mitterrand and Deng with 1% each. Technically the tones of the surface have been translated to the picture’s smallest units, called pixels. Subsequently the computer carries out its calculations and generates a recognisable clone of the cold war’s powerful dictators and heads of state.

FROM DOCUMENTATION TO SIMULATION
In her computer manipulated head of state portrait Warhead, Burson shatters the myth of photography. Before computer manipulation became possible, photography was considered a truthful witness – a mechanical documentation of reality. Therefore photography was used for passport photos, documentary films and press pictures whose primary object was to testify to reality. Thus portrait photography became the evidence of a person’s identity, to be utilised for identifying and verifying the existence of the person portrayed.

In today’s information society the photograph has gone from analogue to digital. Unlike analogue photography the digital image is comprised of small units called pixels which can be treated with virtually no limits. Because of this the digital image fundamentally alters the notion of photography as an objectively recording truthful witness. Rather than documenting the depicted subject, the digital photograph creates an image that can be manipulated and which does not necessarily refer to an actual, existing reality.

In Warhead Nancy Burson simulates an official portrait photograph. By emphasising the artificiality of the portrait picture, Burson radicalises our experience of living in a high-tech information society: The portrait, hitherto attesting to the existence of the depicted person, can now freely be manipulated; and the identity, previously the object of social and psychological analyses, now appears a variable and digitally manipulable entity.

Nancy Burson’s art in general
Burson’s composite portraits take the form of an exploration of the human face. The technique of superimposing portrait photographs on each other was originally developed in the late 1870s by the British scientist Francis Galton, the father of genetics as a scientific discipline. Galton worked with merging portraits of different individuals, each representing what he referred to as ‘a natural kind’ – e.g. the criminal, the bearer of a particular disease or the officer of a certain rank. The idea was to superimpose the portrait photographs on a single photographic plate in order to reveal how the ‘ideal’ type would look in a variety of psychological, social and racial categories.

HUMAN STEREOTYPES
In her digitally manipulated portrait photographs Burson develops the photographic method for categorising and typing different kinds of people. In the work First Beauty Composite she superimposes photographs of famous movie stars like Bette Davis, Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly, Sophia Loren and Marilyn Monroe. In the work Mankind she employs the same photographic method to construct the portrait of a representative world citizen, in creating a picture where the subject is composed according to the percentage of the different races in the total population of the world. In other words Burson’s pictures are not real portraits but fictitious average people expressed through the form of portraiture.

Burson’s computer generated portraits put a face on the 1980s nuclear race, on the movie industry’s ideals of physical perfection and on the racial composition of the world’s population. But at the same time they question the notion of an idealised type, in pointing to the difficulty of wanting to identify a certain type from a number of – more or less arbitrary – selected portrait photographs.

A GLIMPSE OF THE FUTURE
Burson’s artistic practice encompasses photography and drawing as well as interactive computer stations where the viewer has the opportunity to study various modified versions of himself: combined with another person’s portrait, transformed to another race, to another age or added a number of different physical abnormalities. Common to Burson’s works, however, is the interest in portrait photography and the human face. Her ‘transgenetic’ visions of the future for gender, age and race pose a series of fundamental questions for the conditions of man: Who are we, and how much of what we are can we change? To what degree do we differ as humans, and how much do we in fact have in common? These are questions that have always been relevant and that in our current information society have gained renewed pertinence.

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