New York

Nancy Burson

Holly Solomon Gallery

Because of its relentless detail, photography is a medium for depicting specimens, not types. When photographs are photomechanically reproduced and distributed through the mass media, they can easily become instances of implicit types, simply by virtue of the fact that they exist in the same form in vast quantities. But they actually deal only with specific moments and limited sections of the visible world. (Because of this, photographs tend not to be used for tasks such as botanical and medical illustration, where typical cases must be shown.)

Despite this, various attempts have been made throughout photography’s history to use the medium to depict generalized concepts, including by constructing, through multiple-exposure overlays, composites of individuals of a given class. Thus composite images of “the twenty richest men in America” or “New York’s thirty worst criminals” were offered in the 19th century as direct visual proof of the validity of physiognomical types. Nancy Burson has revived this old photographic curiosity and updated it with the aid of (as they say) “computer technology.” By digitizing the visual information in the various images that make up her composites she can stretch or bend them so they’ll stack more neatly on each other, and she can even give proportionate weight to different images according to external criteria. Her prototypical human face, for example—Mankind (Three Major Races, Second Version), 1983—mixes mug shots of examples of races according to their numbers in the world’s population, and necessarily comes up with a basically Asiatic-looking face. Appropriately, given the spurious logic behind this pseudoscientific enterprise, most of Burson’s composites are tongue-in-cheek applications of the process. In First Beauty Composite and Second Beauty Composite, both 1982, for example, she combines Hollywood stars from two different generations—Grace Kelly, Sophia Loren, Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe, and Bette Davis, in the former; Jane Fonda, Jacqueline Bisset, Meryl Streep, Brooke Shields, and Diane Keaton in the other—to try to come up with a type of female beauty.

These two examples reveal the fallacies behind the technique most glaringly. Any type is based on a definition of the class to be considered. Someone—in this case Burson—chooses what gets included and what doesn’t. Here, the basis of the selection is never made explicit; anyone could easily come up with another list of “beautiful” stars from either era. Moreover, stars are brand names, types of themselves, and to compound them into a type of types seems especially nugatory. And finally the implication behind these works seems to be to form an ideal of female beauty, but the resulting composite women are anything but beautiful. Instead they’re—well, typical; average. In the process of being agglomerated into types, the individuals have lost just those facial qualities that make them striking. Despite these limitations, Burson’s composites tease us to speculation with their often unexpected results. Thus in Big Brother, 1983, which combines Hitler, Mussolini, Mao, Stalin, and Khomeini, there’s a worried look to the composite tyrant, with his furrowed brow and tormented eyes, as if the fate of his victims were weighing on his soul.

A final piece here, Kurt Newton Update, 1983, demonstrated the sort of practical use the technique might be put to. A photograph of a child lost nine years ago at the age of three was paired with a composite—constructed not only from photos of the child, but also from pictures of his sister and parents at different ages—of how he might look today. The composite lacks the sense of presence of the photograph; we can’t see through it, as we can the photo, and imagine that we’re gazing into the eyes of a real person. But it extrapolates from given information, and provides an answer of sorts where none would otherwise be available. As such it’s like a high-tech police sketch.

Charles Hagen