Solo Show "NANCY BURSON: COMPOSITES. The Pioneer of computer-generated portraits"


The Pioneer of computer-generated portraits

April 13th, 2018 – September 30th, 2018

Opening reception:
Friday, April 13th, 2018
6-8 pm

The artist will attend the event.

The Paci contemporary gallery is pleased to announce the solo exhibition "Nancy Burson: Composites, the pioneer of computer-generated portraits ", centered on the American photographer NANCY BURSON, the last great new entry in the gallery.

"Composites: Computer Generated Portraits"

In the early 80’s, artist Nancy Burson created portraits of people who don’t exist. A pioneer in morphing technologies, she combined faces via computer, producing the first believable images of faces an entire decade before Photoshop. Unlike a portrait that draws meaning from its connection to a real person, Burson’s pictures are simulacra; forms without substance that put a face on abstract concepts, personalizing the impersonal, and embodying the intangible. Her portraits are often amalgamations of well-known public figures, through which she explores themes as universal as gender and sexuality, and as common as beauty, celebrity, and political power. What makes Burson’s work so compelling is that she catches the eye off guard. We debate faces endlessly. Do you see the mother? Do you see the father? Do you see a long forgotten relative? Burson’s work reminds us that we are all composites, fusions of other lives, fusions of many people. Former New York Times Photography critic Andy Grundberg said, “Burson is in the grand tradition of people like Daguerre or Harold Edgerton who capture something that the eye itself cannot see.”

She is a photographer who works with concepts and a conceptual artist who works with photographs. While it was not Burson’s intention, her fabrications challenged fundamental assumptions about the nature of photography and still do. First created in an era when images in the mass media began to influence everything from political elections to best-selling brands, they are still relevant today. Francis Galton, a biologist, founder of eugenics, and cousin of Charles Darwin, made the first composite photographs in 1877. After Galton, a number of artists used super imposition techniques to experiment with photographic composites. Some of the most intriguing were done by Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and Wanda Wulz in the 1930’s, Max Wyss and Philippe Halsman in the 1950’s and 60’s, and Les Levine and William Wegman in the 1970’s. However, Burson’s work is unique because she introduced composite portraiture to the electronic age, providing the computer the algorithms needed to stretch entire faces without dividing them into parts.

Born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1948, Burson studied painting at Colorado Women’s College in Denver. She wasn’t thinking about photography, but rather about ideas and how to make things that hadn’t been made come to life. When Burson moved to New York City in 1968, the first museum exhibition she attended was MoMA’s, The Machine as Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age. She was thrilled by the interactive component of the art and Nam June Paik’s video works, as they were concepts that were completely new to her. The works presented the viewer the choice to interact with the exhibits, becoming part of the art itself. It was a playful exhibition capitalizing on new media’s awareness of the youth culture, and it brought up Burson’s memories of interactive games she attended at school carnivals she went to as a child. After seeing the show, Burson conceived an interactive “Age Machine,” a computerized video projection housed in a black box that would provide viewers the opportunity to see themselves reflected back older. She approached EAT, (Experiments in Art and Technology) Robert Raushenberg’s organization, that was pairing artists and scientists together. EAT provided her with a sympathetic early expert in computer graphics. However, it was apparent that the state-of-the-art of computer graphics in the early 1970’s was incapable of anything close to what she had envisioned, and she was told to wait for the technology to catch up to her idea.

In the interim, Burson turned to painting and drawing. In 1974, she exhibited at the Bertha Urdang Gallery in NYC, and in 1977, at the Hal Bromm Gallery in NYC. However, she did not give up on her idea to build an “Age Machine” and tenaciously kept in touch with those on the forefront of new innovations in computer graphics technology. Eventually, she ended up at MIT, at what was then referred to as the Architecture Machine Group, and which later evolved into MIT’s Media Lab. The department had just acquired a digitizer, the forerunner to today’s digital scanners. Visionary Nicholas Negroponte and his team were looking for a reason to utilize their new digitizer and Burson’s aging project offered an opportunity to create live self-portraits to test their newly acquired equipment. MIT assigned Thomas Schneider to the project, and he designed the basic interpolation system of triangles that allowed Burson to eventually manipulate and warp faces to fit each other. She also worked with David Petty, who provided the algorithms linking the hardware and software systems together. It was one of the first times that a computer interacted with a live image of a face. Volunteers would lie underneath a camera attached to a copy stand above them. It took a full five minutes to scan a face and subjects were advised when to blink.

In 1981, Burson met two computer scientists, Richard Carling and David Kramlich, who refined the methodology of both aging and compositing faces that became the basis of the first “warped” images produced. “Warping” was the word the team used to both age and combine faces together. However, “warping” evolved into the word “morphing,” a word first used as a verb in the 80’s to describe a computer transformation. At that point, Schneider and Burson shared a patent, “The Method and Apparatus for Producing an Image of a Person’s Face at a Different Age,” which became the basis for morphing technologies still used today. In fact, it later came to be regarded as a “pioneering” patent; variations of which were found useful for pre-visualization of plastic surgeries, for the advertising and marketing of beauty products, and for a wide range of special effects for the movie industry. And in 1992, nearly two and a half decades after Burson conceived it, “The Age Machine” was shown as a black-box installation reflecting viewers back older at the New Museum in NYC.

Burson used her composites to discover a piece of information, or an answer to an unasked question. To her, they were like visual experiments that served as unscientific answers. For example, what would happen if you put an equal number of men and women’s faces together? Would a perfectly balanced, androgynous composite prevail, or would the image appear more feminine or masculine? “The First and Second Beauty Composites” were created as a comparison of style differences. How would female movie stars of the 1950’s faces compare with female movie stars of the 1980’s? What were the similarities and differences between the styles of those eras and would those differences in styles visually translate in a composite image? For the 1950’s image, Burson combined Bette Davis, Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly, Sophia Loren and Marilyn Monroe. For the 1980’s image, she combined Jane Fonda, Jacqueline Bisset, Diane Keaton, Meryl Streep, and Brooke Shields. Their features, reproduced on countless movie screens and TVs, are deeply etched in the collective conscious. The composites are hauntingly familiar, and yet they are not. In truth, we know the stars only through the tunnel vision of their media images, so in a sense, the stars are themselves already composites, fabrications for popular consumption.

In some cases, Burson’s composites were weighted to statistical information via the use of percentages. In “Warhead I,” for example, the number of nuclear warheads in each country’s arsenal were used to “weight” the final image. The “Mankind” images that Burson worked on between 1983 and 1985 were weighted to population statistics. They were her peaceful attempt to unite humanity and a recurring theme that carries over into her work today. In 2005, she was commissioned by Deutsche Bank to present two huge banners of the “Womankind” and “Mankind” images for both ends of their public atrium on Wall Street. The faces comprising the images themselves were derived from the sample faces of different races that Burson had compiled for her “Human Race Machine”, an interactive installation that showed viewers how they’d look as a different race, beginning in 2000.

To age an image required interpolating between old and young faces, removing the wrinkles from an older face and applying them like a “wrinkle mask” to a young face. To composite images, the process was more additive. In 1983, an article about her work prompted the family of a missing child to contact her, and Burson was asked if she could produce an updated picture of the child. Burson realized that she would have to invent a procedure quite different from the one she used to age adults, as the growth of the facial structure of children is completely different than the effects of time on aging adult skin. Her solution was to find a photo of the person in the family who most resembled the missing child. Either a sibling look-alike or a picture of one of the parents as a child was used to complete the age progression. A few years later, several of the missing children’s updates were aired on national TV, and on two occasions, the producers brought a film crew to her studio to capture the parent’s reaction to the update of their missing child. When those segments were aired on prime-time TV, both children were found within an hour of the show’s airing. Eventually, the FBI and the National Center for Missing Children acquired the software and in 1986 alone, at least four children and one adult were found using her techniques. Today, a version of the original process is still used as a tool in the search for locating both missing children and adults, fulfilling her intention to create art that has useful relevance beyond artistic expression.

By the mid-80’s, Burson returned to her interest in painting which, along with drawing, still remains her passion. The Composite Painting Series was a good opportunity to reconnect with painting from a light-hearted point of view, and a way to utilize her state-of-the-art computer technology to create amalgams of renowned art historical paintings. The Composite Paintings became a unique, comedic comment on the history of painting, manifested through custom pre-Photoshop software. The images were first shown at the Holly Solomon Gallery in 1987 and five have been reprinted in 2018 for Burson’s exhibition at Paci contemporary.

Adapted from the original Introduction written by William A. Ewing and Jeanne A. McDermott for Composites: Computer Generated Portraits, by Nancy Burson, copyright 1986.