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#lamonoCHATS: bill burke, reality overcomes fiction

Monday, February 27th, 2017 | T: lamono

What’s special about Bill Burke’s photography is that it documents the elements of society, not from the lens of an outsider, but through the lens of immersed individual. Few journalists are able to achieve such level of neutrality, while also successfully capturing the most personal moments of their subjects; two consistent characteristics in Burke’s final product. This is a clear testament to his method, his knowledge of the world encounters, and his respect for the civilizations he documents. Through his work, Burke illuminates obscure global narratives. His intimate black and white photographs of Southeast Asia, the United States, and Brazil, contain portraits and landscapes, displaying the figures, staples and activities of the individuals in these communities. His frames are filled with stunning scenes, like a Vietnamese operation room in the middle of an amputation, or the talon’s of an American Red-Tailed Hawk clenching the bare forearm of its owner. In 2011, Burke released his sixth book, Destrukto, which, artistically, deviates from the style that became synonymous with his name. Not only are the photos multi-chromatic, but they all feature the destruction of consumer goods, like 90s computer monitors or bottles of Pepto Bismol. Though different, the photo collection successfully represents the new stories and methods of Burke’s critique of capitalism. lamono sat down with Burke, to cover some aspects of his personal life and his nearly 50 year-long career.

What was the first camera that you started shooting with? Do you still use it, or have it? The first camera I started shooting with was a Voigtländer Bessamatic. It wasn’t the first camera I used, but it was the first one that I bought and selected. I had a summer construction job on the Naval base at Guantanamo. There we had access to the exchange, which was basically the military store, where I bought the Voigtländer Bessamatic, which was really cheap. Then I photographed the workers and their work. I’m not sure where it is now, as I haven’t had it for years.

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How did your photographic style develop into the documentalist/travelogue mode that you are well known for? Did you always have the goal of traveling and taking photos? I never really had the goal of traveling. Harry Callahan was my teacher at RISD (Rhode Island School of Design), so I was really influenced by his work — Emmit Gowin was a fellow student as well — so these people and their work is what I thought of as photography. I also became aware of other photographers, like Robert Frank, but I always thought of it as being an artistic endeavor. Callahan made no apologies for being an artist. For photography and art, there was no debate about whether photography was art. I think my education, and my first influences were purely artistic, rather than documentary. Although a lot of the pictures I took then were my own experiences . . . you know things that I stumbled into. One important event during my school career was an exhibit of Farm Security Administration photographs at the University of Connecticut. Something about them really stuck with me, because art was not the motivation behind them. It was purely documentary, with what I’ve come to find out was a propaganda motive as well. But the fact that they seemed to be kind of free of art, and with the primary function of conveying the subject matter, is what really stuck in my head. I didn’t turn around and say, “OK, I’m gonna be a documentary photographer now,” but from looking at photographs without the pressure to make art, the concept was kind of lodged in my head. So I got out of school, thinking I was an artist. A few years later, I was invited to participate in a project in Kentucky that was associated with the American Bicentennial. The National Endowment for the Arts had money to support photographic surveys of various regions, and one of my friends applied to do a project on Kentucky. After he had a little momentum with that, he invited me to participate. The project was titled The Kentucky Bicentennial Documentary Photo Project. I wasn’t totally comfortable with thinking of myself as a documentalist at that point, but I started out and found it really suited me well; it satisfied a lot of my curiosity, and many things fell into place while I worked on that project, during 1975, 1976, and 1977.

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In your work you are always encountering new cultures and traditions, however, in this photo series you also documented the lives of Americans. Was it difficult to find interesting subjects that you saw worthy of documenting as an American yourself? Or was the culture in the states you documented, like Kentucky, much different from your home state of Connecticut? Kentucky was very, very different from Connecticut. There are strong industries for agriculture, coal mining, and tobacco farming, and nothing like that existed in Connecticut. People lived up in the “hollers,” again, a totally different world than what I grew up with. It was easy to find stuff that was interesting. I had the marching orders to record the life of the state, which again, reminded me of the Farm Security Administration photos I came to like over the years. I was driven partly by curiosity, partly I found myself in a different world that was quite unfamiliar to me. What I really liked out of doing that work was the freedom from having to make art. My reason for being there wasn’t to make art, but to record reality. That removal of conditions was liberating, and a revelation during the project.

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Do you ever have to separate leisurely travel from work travel, or is that just the beauty of being a professional photographer? I’ve always thought of traveling as an opportunity to make photographs. Although in recent years, I typically take road trips — because of my dog — and don’t leave the country. In the summer, during the course of a month, I’ll drive around the United States. I like San Francisco a lot, and there’s a lot of places that I find really pleasant, but those aren’t necessarily the places that I go to make photos. This past summer — without really planning it, but with the presidential election looming — it seemed like a big division was happening in the United States. I drove out West and, without planning to, visited a lot of gun stores, also I had, somewhat, an objective to go see some strip mines in Wyoming. Those were two kind of central topics, or at least peripheral, to the presidential election. In many cases, it highlighted the Boston, democrat-bubble that I live in. I’m aware that I live in a bubble here, and I’ve always been interested in coal, so it was interesting to see the coal mines, and take the temperature of the rest of the country’s position on guns.

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I think my education, and my first influences were purely artistic, rather than documentary. Although a lot of the pictures I took then were my own experiences

I found it interesting that you also had a small photo series dedicated to your dogs. It featured a couple selfies of you and your dog, as well as some Vietnamese paintings of dogs. The English motto, “man’s best friend,” refers to dogs, and their status in American society. Did you find that the people of different cultures shared this sentiment? At that time selfies hadn’t been invented, yet. A lot of my pictures serve to prove that I had an experience. In many cases, in the United States, I traveled with my dog and he was part of whatever happened to me. He was apart of the experience. I always have a dog around me, so they get into pictures. In the 80s and 90s I traveled through Vietnam, and I heard there were restaurants that specialized in serving dog meat. Just kind of stumbling around, I noticed big trucks loaded with dogs, kind of like the equivalent of the chicken coupes you see on American highways. I investigated that a little bit and found that in every town, there were people that would collect stray dogs, unwanted kittens, or different type of domestic animals. They would go around on a bicycle, equipped with tongs and a cage, and they would either catch animals on the street, or collect them from people who caught them. They would put them in the bicycle cage, bring them to a central collecting point, and then the big truck would come every week and take the animals north, where the eating of dogs was kind-of practiced. So, when I found out about this whole business, I took it upon myself to find the people who collect the dogs. For a couple of days, I would go out, find these guys, follow them around, and harass them. I’d give them lectures on Buddhism and talk about whether there are dogs in heaven, all in English. They had no idea what I was talking about, but I would try to harass and educate them, as well as express my horror about what they were doing. In Cambodia, big, scary dogs are also seen as a sign of security. I have a collection of hand made signs, because when I first got there, I admired the storefront signs of dentists. They were typically strange, distorted pictures of open mouths with hands going into them, kind of a hand made version of what a dentist does. I wanted to buy one, but my guide suggested that if I asked a business that was successful, they would think I was trying to fuck with their ‘juju.’ My guide suggested that I go to the sign shops in Phnom Penh, and from then I started collecting customized signs. I had them make a photo business sign, then I started bringing in pictures for portraits. I brought pictures of my dogs to a number of painters for several different jobs. And then a really interesting thing happened. I went back to Cambodia, maybe 10 years later, and the typical hand painted phenomena at the time was a painting of a German Shepard looking really menacing. There were quite a few places where I found it painted on a wall, to “guard the house.” It was clearly something that had descended from a picture I brought there. I guess you could say my German Shepard became the standard guard dog of Phnom Penh for a while.

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You also have a section on your website called the Ministry of Transportation, which is dedicated to all the modes of transportation that serve us as a specie. Is this in any way related to your new project, A Life At the End of the Gasoline Age? Also, what is it that you found interesting about transportation that made this a reoccurring theme in your body of work? I am the Minister of Transportation and I have a rubber stamp that says it. There are many other ministers, but I am the Minister, throughout my motorcycle crowds. A lot of my most ardent automobile fantasies are from when I was a teenager. In A Life At the End of the Gasoline Age, one of the first photos will be a picture that I took when I was 14. You can tell something about a person by the car they drive. It’s either personal expression, or maybe a burden they are bearing, or maybe it’s some kind of metaphor. However, everyone has to move. It’s a common part of the human experience. Personally, I enjoy riding motorcycles. I think it’s more than a hobby. A lot of my friends would agree that it’s like meditation, in the fact that it forces you to be in the present moment. That’s a space many people try to reach, and motorcycles provide that opportunity for a lot of riders. You’re not thinking about the future or the past, you’re pretty riveted on where you are. At the end of this book, the last pictures are going to be bicycles in Vietnam. When the gasoline runs out and people still have wheels and the need to get around, we’ll still have the option of bicycles.

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In Destrukto you take shots and destroy different consumer goods, including some cameras. What was the significance of this? I think partly where it started, is in the fact that its just fun to bust shit and see things splatter. It’s kind of related to the work of Harold Edgerton, who was as much of a scientist as he was a photographer. He worked in the electrical engineering department at MIT, but he developed instant photography with strobes, for stop action images of many things: guys whacking baseballs, pole-vaulters, and many other moving objects. Some of the photos that he became famous for were of things getting shot. His method was able to stop bullets, and captured interesting configurations of objects as they were splattered. I loved his pictures and I just was able to translate that into video, in a very crude and unscientific way. But he was one reference for this work, I would say. Another reference would be a picture I have of Hunter S. Thompson over my desk. It’s a picture of him shooting his typewriter. That seemed kind of poetic. In the Destrukto book, there are photos of tomato soups shot, which is kind of like a Warhol picture, or an Edgerton picture. But then there are pictures of 35mm cameras getting shot, and they might refer to the Hunter S. Thompson photo I mentioned.

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During the beginning of your career, and in many places you’ve worked, there has been some sort of political tension or conflict. For example, the Vietnam War, which sparked one of the largest calls for peace from the global community. From your personal experience, do you feel that the conditions of the world, in terms of dealing with social and political issues or conflicts, has gotten better, worse, or remained the same? Why? At the beginning of my career, I wasn’t engaged in global events and tension around the world. My generation went to Vietnam, but it wasn’t something I was particularly following. It wasn’t until there was a possibility that I would actually go, when I got more interested in these topics. I was attending art school, starting my teaching career, and working on the Kentucky project, while Vietnam was happening and winding. My interest in going there developed after the war was over, as it seemed to be an event so closely tied to my generation’s history. In dealing with global issues, overpopulation is a problem that has only gotten worse; global warming has certainly become more of a threat; and Donald Trump isn’t promising to make any of that better. So yeah, I’d say things have gotten worse. Don’t you? I mean, who wouldn’t?

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