In Certain Light

View Camera Magazine
Interview by John Paul Caponigro

Christopher Burkett was born in 1951 and raised in the Pacific Northwest. In 1975, while a brother in a Christian order, he became interested in photography as a means of expressing the beauty he saw present in the world of nature. Over the next twenty years, he gradually perfected his craft so that photography could be the means through which he could express his inspiration.

Today he works almost exclusively with 8x10 color transparencies. In 1979,Burkett left the brotherhood to pursue photography and married his wife, Ruth.He learned the offset printing process and ran four-color printing presses and laser scanners to create detailed color separations. Today Burkett travels extensively throughout the United States to photograph. His masterful printing and numerous exhibitions rapidly brought him international acclaim. Burkett is also a recognized national expert in printing Cibachrome. His photographs are featured in many public and private collections. In addition, Burkett has taught several workshops sponsored through the Friends of Photography and Anderson Ranch Arts Center.

JPC: How did you get involved in photography?

CB: Well, differently than most people, I’m sure. I used to be a brother in a Christian religious order for about seven years, and there were times I would come out of the chapel after communion and occasionally I would see the world transformed, filled with light, and it was very, very real. It was not imagination. It was realer than most things I’ve experienced.

It’s not the way most of us see the world on a day to day basis. I knew that if it was real, which it was, that there must be some way to photograph that. I knew if I learned how to paint those things, that people would just say: “What a great imagination.” Photography has an inherent believability. At least traditional photography has an inherent believability.

JPC: You had to get that in. What I think is interesting in many photographs, by many different photographers, is that there is a focus on accurately representing what the eye sees. At the same time, many of the photographs present to me a different experience than I could ever have with my eye. I can’t see that level of detail at once. I can’t see that large grand vista at one instant, sharp all over, with all those color relationships locked into place. I think of the things that photography can record that the eye can’t see: starry nebulas, the crown created by a drop breaking the surface tension of a pool of liquid, the running motion in Muybridge’s horse. The camera eye can see more than the human eye because it sees differently. Photography can give me something close to the mental composite I create in my head when I look, but this is often confused with verisimilitude. Our relationship to that is a very curious thing.

CB: I do appreciate the work that you do, and the work that other people do, but I have problems with it in terms of portraying what I’m trying to do.

JPC: It serves a different intent.

CB: Right. If this was a digital print, you could say, “Oh, well he just cranked up the unsharp mask and fiddled with it and that’s why it looks the way it does.” The plusses of digital manipulation like that, to me, is also a big minus. The things that I’m trying to present in my photography are things that are absolutely real in the world, subtle qualities that many people don’t see. As soon as that enters the digital realm, then it can all be fantasy, even if you haven’t done much. Just the fact that it has been digitized means that everything is malleable and nothing is believable. I’ll go out for two months, go thousands of miles, work like the dickens, and maybe end up with two or three worthwhile photographs where everything has come together. Then people look at a photograph and say, “I’ve never seen anything like this before.” It’s already hard enough to believe.

JPC: But I have to say, Chris, just because I’m looking at this print, I personally don’t assume that it had been done in a traditional manner and therefore represents reality. I’m taking your word for it that you’re using an 8x10 and limited manipulation. My credulousness rests on my faith in your ethical stance, not the medium.

CB: Mm-hmm. Well, I already have people going into galleries saying, “Oh, well that’s just been digitally tweaked.” And it makes a big difference to them when they find out it hasn’t been digitally manipulated. And it becomes much more believable, because even though photography is interpretive, and even though it’s different than our normal visual process, there is still a direct physical link to the scene. There’s really only so much I can do.

JPC: There are other clues that go along with traditional manipulation. So in a sense, you’re turning a limitation into an advantage.

CB: Right. I’m working within a very limited box, in terms of possibilities. But, by working within that box to the maximum amount…it’s like a form of discipline. It is a form of discipline, and there is a strength and a depth that is possible within that discipline that doesn’t happen in any other way, whether it’s music, or painting, or photography. I just got some recording by Frederic Chui, Chopin etudes. He’s so fluid. He reaches beyond technical mastery to where he gets total expressiveness through the limitations of what would normally be considered very cumbersome passages of music, yet tremendous life can come through a situation like that, and it’s the same idea here.

JPC: This activity is very hard to put into words. We often have to resort to analogies. Sometimes the ineffable is the life of the picture. The best way to understand it is to experience it.

CB: And that’s what art is all about, right? That’s the whole meaning and purpose of art, to convey those things that are so precious and so valuable. As a sidelight, that’s what’s missing in much art today. It’s relying on shock value or social issues, which may have their place as well, but to me, it’s not necessarily art. It’s not dealing with the uplifting possibilities that can be expressed through art.

JPC: To a point, I agree. Very rarely today does artwork have any kind of a spiritual dimension.

CB: Traditionally, art was not meant to be a worship of the ego of the artist, it was meant to be an expression of God’s grace, of divine things.

JPC: That’s placing art in the service of something beyond ourselves.

CB: Yes, much greater. I think it was Bach, at the end of all his compostions he wrote a phrase in Latin which translated “to the glory of God.” You can hear that in his music. To me that’s the life that should be in art. I’m Orthodox Christian, which is not usually understood in the United States very well. Orthodoxy is the original Christianity; it never split off from anything. You can say that pretty freely because it’s backed up by historical writings. One of the keys to Orthodoxy is that you mind your own doorstep, not what your brother is doing. So when we talk about blanket statements, I’m concerned about myself, what I’m doing, what my spiritual answer is, rather than what I think other people should be doing. If my religion has any value it’s in my life and what I do. That’s its power and that should be evident. If it isn’t then it won’t be obvious. You know what I mean?

JPC: I do. It’s a very tricky subject. Very often it is the spiritual life of a person that most informs the work and generates it greatest value. People are loathe to speak about this these days because there’s a notion that if one does one is trying to covert someone or insist that their way is the one true way, suggesting we can’t embrace other perspectives, which is a shame.

CB: And yet there is still a delicate balance in here. I think some things are true and some things aren’t. And that’s not a popular thing to say. I don’t normally talk about this, but I think it needs to be said. It’s what I’m trying to photograph. This crystal clarity is part of the experience of trying to see the world as it truly is. The world is full of an infinite number of details. It’s only our blindness, in one form or another, that doesn’t allow us to see that. Many of us have had an experience where we’re walking down a path and all of a sudden we see the world more clearly, for a moment everything is sharper than normal and usually more full of light. The truth is that if we lived… I was trying to find a word for it earlier, but all terms are limiting… in a state of divine grace, everything would be even more real. That’s exactly what I’m trying to portray in my photography, that moment of…. I don’t like to put a word on it because it’s too limiting. As soon as you put a word on it, it becomes a concept rather than a reality. And what I’m trying to present with my photography is that almost super real quality, not fake real, but super real. I’m trying to show something that is precious and real: something that most people do not see.

I’ll say it blankly, or flat out, it does have to do with God. I’m not ashamed to say that. I think it is very ironic. I don’t want this to sound like a negative thing, but it is highly ironic, that in our society, those who are most insistent that everybody be allowed their say don’t want you to talk about God. I had a show in a museum, and I had an artist’s statement, and in it I actually wrote the word God. The curator said, “Well, you know, we have some trouble with your putting that word “God” in your statement.” I said, “Too bad, That’s what my work is all about.” They left it in there, but if I would have said a bunch of profanities there probably would have been no problem.

In this picture, I brought it to show you that you see things in the 30x40 that you don’t see in a 20x24. If you look down into the canyon, by the side of the river, in this grassy area here by the rocks and the beach and the ripples, there’s actually more you can physically see.

JPC: When this level of minutiae is brought up, some joke, myself included, that you don’t look at images on the wall with loupes. Yet you’re talking about an experience where it is not only valid, but important, to get two or three inches away from the print and pay attention to that kind of detail.

CB: I have terrible vision without glasses. I didn’t know that until I was in first grade. Most of your visual processing mechanism is formed by the age of six. I couldn’t see the features on someone’s face unless I was about a foot and a half away from them. I learned to identify people by their shape and the way they walked. I had no idea. I had no idea at all. Then I got glasses. It was quite a revelation. All of a sudden the world was transformed with these details. I’ve tried not to lose that sense of astonishment and wonder. I never knew there were leaves on trees; I could only see them if they had fallen. I’d never seen clouds before. The moon in the sky had been a fuzzy blob. I could never see stars, some of the brightest ones were a very faint globule, out of focus, about the size the moon would normally be. That whole sense of incredible wonder, of miraculousness has stayed with me. The whole world is full of marvelous details.

JPC: Interesting, you recently said you had developed a reputation as being the man who photographed trees without leaves and leaves without trees. I was thinking about miracles earlier this morning in reference to the kind of questions I might ask. A sense of the miraculous does seem important to your work; finding a sense of the miraculous in the things that we take for granted, that are all around us. We expect a miracle to be something that shatters the boundaries of what we ordinarily consider. And yet if we would simply shatter our own boundaries, we could rediscover the miracles that surround us.

CB: That’s exactly right. Although there’s only so much we can do with our own bootstraps. One of the religious sayings says something to the effect of the lesser doesn’t encompass the greater. You can only do so much by yourself; you can do a lot, but more is done through prayer than self-improvement books, even spiritual self-improvement books. Nothing replaces pick and shovel spiritual work.

JPC: What made you choose color?

CB: A good question. I started out in black and white. I was still in the order when I started photograpy and I had five dollars a week, so I did my photography on five dollars a week. So I did black and white. Black and white is a great place to start even if you’re going to end up in color. I started with 2 1/4. I ended up leaving the order to pursue my photography. Then I started thinking about color. I realized that they are such different mediums that I had to concentrate on one or the other because in order to really work effectively you have to work within the parameters of that small box we mentioned. So I set all my work out and looked at it as a group and what I saw with the color was that there was more exuberance. The sense of vitality that I felt was better conveyed in color than black and white. I love black and white photography, it’s extraordinary. But to me, some of that getting-your-hands-deep-into-life feeling is all about color. A lot of what we sense about life has to do with the colors around us. So that’s why I went into color.

The issue of color balance is actually a crucial one that’s not talked about enough. First of all, I don’t use any filters when I photograph…ever. Now when I’m printing, what am I trying to make for my print? I’m not looking at my transparency. Believe it or not I’m not “trying to remember what the scene looked like.” Color memory is inadequate. You’re not going to really remember, though you may have a sense or a feeling about it. So I look at the print. All the visual clues for color balance are in the print. I used to think that on any given print there was a range of acceptable color balance. It was just kind of interpretive, or whatever you felt like, but that they were all equally valid, or that they were all going to be equally good. I don’t believe that at all anymore. Now I believe that for a given light source, and I do print for halogen lighting, that there’s only one color balance that’s going to be right for that print. And usually it’s going to be a very critical color balance.

If a color print is printed way off color, let’s say it’s yellow, it’s just like taking a sheet of yellow acetate and putting it over the print. It’s the same way with finer and finer increments. You have these veils of different colors and you simply remove them. The veils become finer and finer, or more subtle, but when you get the right color balance, it allows all the opposite colors within the photograph to come alive and to interact with each other. Every photograph has it. The only way I can see it is to look at the whole photograph. It’s a very hard thing to teach people. It’s easy to teach if it’s far off but if you have it a little bit off it’s much harder. Between two prints, sometimes just a very small adjustment in color balance will produce a much greater separation and it will have much more life in it. That’s just from color balance. The big thing I gained from working on four color presses, aside from learning about printing, is that I was adjusting minute amounts of color all day every day and it does develop your eye for color. And in scanning I learned about tone reproduction. I think that was tremendously valuable.

JPC: That you did this makes sense when coupled with your philosophy of bringing back what was really there. Most people relate to reproductions far more frequently than they do originals. If you want to share your work with the widest audience possible and still have as accurate reproductions as possible, it makes absolute sense to learn that craft.

Some consider this kind of work, this genre, romantic, conservative; they might even go so far as to say passe. There is a tradition that has been established some time ago. I think it would be difficult and interesting to distinguish oneself in a field that has already been established, particularly in a culture that insists that something has to be new and different to be original and worthy of the highest respect. I feel very strongly that reverence for nature, the recording of introspection about it cannot be accurately described as passe. So I wonder how you address that personally.

CB: I don’t know if the question is as asked in the black and white medium.

JPC: Well it might be an issue for John Sexton or Bruce Barnbaum. Many feel that this kind of work is overly romantic and doesn’t always accurately represent the way the landscape is. Emmet Gowin, Richard Misrach, Mark Klett, Richard Adams, to name a few, are photographers who have taken a look at how man has impacted the environment. There is less and less pristine wilderness every day. They let current conditions inform their explorations of a previous genre, the landscape, creating tension along traditional boundaries. Some say that doing traditional landscape work today is a form of looking through rose colored glasses. Others say, well, I was actually there. I witnessed it. The camera proves it. It’s still beautiful.

CB: Those are tough questions. To be honest, I just ignore it all. I think the work is strong enough to speak for itself. I don’t mean that to sound arrogant, but to me it’s not an issue because I know what I’m doing is unique and I feel comfortable about that. When I’m out there, I’m not trying to look for a picture that looks like a picture I’ve seen before. I’m trying to see the world fresh and clean, and yet with a knowledge of the history of photography. I don’t think of working within a tradition, I think of working within the world, within life.

I tend to get that kind of reaction more from people on the East Coast that the West Coast. It is disappointing when people look at work and give me that reaction but, nowadays I don’t have too many people actually say that about what I do. I’ve had museums say, “You know, I really like your work, it’s not what I’ve seen before, but museums are going to have a hard time collecting it because it’s so beautiful.” Not it’s been done before, not it’s trite, not that it doesn’t have meaning, but it’s too beautiful. There’s something suspect about beauty. That says something, doesn’t it?

JPC: Is there anything left that we haven’t covered that you would like to speak about?

CB: Yes, I should mention my wife, Ruth. She helps me tremendously.

JPC: It was very interesting for me to go down to Georgia for a recent opening. On the spur of the moment I was able to interview Harry Callahan. I was very impressed by his wife, Eleanor. It seems that in many cases -Emmet and Edith Gowin, Jim and Jackie Dow, Ed and Melanie Ranney, Arnold and Gus Newman, my mother and father, to name just a few, the partner will help the artist along quite a lot.

CB: Well Ruth’s been very supportive, emotionally and in every other way too. When I quit my job running presses and scanners and devoted myself to my photography, she worked full time for a number of years. Even more than that, she helps me haul equipment around; she does a lot of the phone work with the galleries and contacts. She’s always been there. She’s very supportive and enthusiastic about what I do. Many, many times I’ll have an opening, or be teaching, and photographers will come up and say, “You know you’re really lucky to have Ruth for a wife. My wife doesn’t understand what I do. She won’t wait while I photograph.” I tend to forget how uncommon it is. You can see that we’re quite different personalities, but that can work to our benefit.

Sometimes we can be oversensitive about our work, when someone says something about it, and read a lot more in to what was said than was meant or than really has any significance. You feel crushed. And Ruth will say, “Hey, it’s not that big a deal.”

Even nowadays when I’m printing, I show a lot of things to Ruth. I’ll ask her what she thinks. Sometimes I’ll get crabby about it when I thought it was going to be a good print and she says it looks a little dark, or something like that. “Ohhhh! You’re right,” I’ll admit. You even get that type of feedback from them.

JPC: I know exactly what you mean. It really helps to have someone whose eye you can trust. I feel that I can trust my wife Alex’s instincts. Our partners in life can help us enormously. They’re there for you and understand who you are and where you’ve been. When a set of circumstances doesn’t work out optimally, there’s someone there with you to say, “Keep going.”