outafocus isn’t

30 05 2007


(First published April 6. ’05)

California photographer Susan Burnstine’s photoblog, outafocus, is uniquely intriguing. Susan has a real feel for the different characters of various types of cameras and the kinds of pictures they take. Unlike other photoblogs which are catalogued by types of pictures or the dates the pictures were taken, Susan has built galleries around which kind of camera she used. From a Mamiya 645 medium format to the infamous Diana ‘toy’ cameras with plastic lenses (of which she owns many – so many, in fact, that this week she’ll be raffling off three of them), each gallery has a separate identity and its own individual look.

But the Dianas are by far her favorite. Of the 60 photographs currently living in her galleries, more than half -33 – were taken with a Diana. The soft plastic lens tends to blur the picture, and Susan uses that hazy blur to produce photos that seem to have been taken of a dream or a memory.

Pictures like this (‘In the Distance’) have an unreal reality, or perhaps a real unreality, that – a bit like those dark adult comic books, Sin City, say – belongs to a world similar to the one we live in but slightly skewed, softer around even its harder edges than the one we live in, a world where memories are stripped to their essence. The form of the man in the picture above isn’t the form of a specific man but of generic man, of Man sitting by the vastness of an ocean, dreaming. Dreaming of what? Perhaps everything, perhaps nothing, perhaps both at once. It’s an iconic photograph, out of time or real space, of an alternate universe parallel to our own. We recognize it, alright, but why?

‘It’s Love’ captures so many different levels and is so unspecific that it’s possible to respond to all of them: loneliness, profound peace, deep self-satisfaction, crippling sadness, the romance of need, or any one of dozens of other emotions the power of its simplicity conjures up. The Diana pictures are almost pure emotion, whether of pain or joy is often hard to tell, but they’re capable of humor as well. This picture, dedicated to Bush’s Inauguration and titled, ‘A Horse’s Ass’, manages to be both scathing commentary and a beautifully textured photograph of form and line:

The Diana gallery is arousing, thoughtful, and/or fun, but the rest are just as fascinating in their own ways. My favorite picture comes from the 35mm gallery.

Most of the photographs have short paragraphs attached to them telling you which camera she used, but occasionally you get the whole story, like this one, told simply and honestly.

Friends had been telling me for years that Big Sur would be one of my favorite places on earth. They proved to be right. But the intoxicating beauty wasn’t the only reason I fell so deeply in love with this miraculous place.

While driving through the heart of Big Sur for the first time last July, I caught a quick glance of a woman sitting in a wheelchair at the foot of a river. Despite the fact that she was bound to this chair, she appeared unusually content surrounded by her family members as they fluttered about the river.

I drove past, but couldn’t shake the image of that woman. So I quickly turned the car around, parked and walked to her. I introduced myself and awkwardly stated that I felt compelled to meet her, but couldn’t explain why. She attempted to grab my hand, but couldn’t raise her arm. When she tried to speak, only quiet, struggled, unintelligible mumbling emerged from her lips. Her granddaughter quickly walked over to introduce me to her “grand-mother, Bam”, then she proudly announced Bam was her favorite person on earth. Bam proceeded to mumble words to me and her granddaughter interpreted everything she said. It was if she was having an everyday conversation with a long lost friend.

I sat with Bam for sometime. She told me “Bam” was not her real name, but her chosen name. With her grandaughter’s aide, I learned all about Bam’s hard, but happy life.

After thirty minutes with this woman, I felt closer to her than most people I’ve known for years. Her strength and bravery to live, laugh, smile and continue on as if she hadn’t been debilitated by a crushing stroke moved me beyond words.

I dream of returning to that river every day, but sadly, Bam cannot. I’ve kept in touch with her granddaughter over the months and I’m pained to write that her condition has taken a turn for the worse. But I know Bam is meeting these difficult new challenges with the courage, dignity, strength and humor that most could not even imagine.

Burnstine is a major talent, though I don’t get a sense that she knows it, and outafocus is a one-of-a-kind photoblog. If you can go through it without losing yourself a dozen times in memories, dreams, and memories of dreams, you’re either very young or stone-cold dead on the inside.




2 responses

30 05 2007

I really like the ‘In the Distance’ photograph. To me it’s like a distant memory that you’re desperately trying to reach but cant’ quite grasp. very awesome

30 05 2007

Nicely put. I hope you visit the site. All the images are awesome. I went through dozens and didn’t find a bad one in the lot. Not even a questionable one. Burnstine is a real gift.

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