Interview: Emily Burtner
This is the first installment of our ongoing series of conversations and interviews we will be holding with a variety of people from all aspects of life and society. We decided to use the medium of photography as a starting point for this collection. It’s commonly said that photography sings a song of life and we celebrate this statement whole heartedly. Whilst browsing the internet late last month I stumbled upon the work of Emily Burtner by chance, I instantaneously found a deep interest in her photography after only seeing a small proportion of her shots. Her body of work seems to echo this aforementioned song of life so I decided to find out her story..
Let’s begin standard procedures, tell us a bit about what makes you who you are?
The people I know – my family and friends, the internet (no joke/duh), punk/DIY, lately I’ve been a slave to my job at a cafe/sandwich shop which isn’t the most fun, but sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do.
Where are you in the world right now, what do you see?
I’m in my bedroom which basically also functions as my studio, in Baltimore, Maryland. I’m staring at a tiny hand drawn calendar I taped to my wall for reference and it’s bumming me out – lots of work and little fun these days.
What was your first passion?
Probably ballet, or maybe The Monkees.
So can you tell us about your beginnings as a photographer?
I found my mom’s SLR at some point early in high school and was devastated with the results from a trip to the beach, everything was underexposed or nothing but splotches of lightleaks (which may be exciting to me now, actually). Regardless, I was enamored with the mechanics of the camera, so I took a couple black and white darkroom classes and figured out how a camera was supposed to work, snuck into the abandoned steel mill in town with some friends and got a few good shots. after that, it became expected that I’d have a camera with me through every adventure (or non-adventure).
A lot of your work brings an awe-inspiring look into what it’s like to travel and explore. Tell me about your reasoning for this fascination – where did the ‘on the road’ ethic stem from?
I’ve been lucky that my family has done some interesting traveling throughout my life and my father’s always been adamant about documenting those travels but I think recently the need for movement has been a result of a general discontent in my day-to-day life. Travel has become an escape- simultaneously looking for somewhere better to be and trying to take in as much of the world as I can in my small life. I’ve also met some really great people who live all over the place and I’m always hoping to expand that circle- no matter where I am, there are people that I miss.
Is there a specific photograph that got away? One that you wish you could have captured but didn’t manage to for what ever reason?
There will always be missed opportunities or shots that didn’t fire at the exact second I wanted, but I don’t dwell on them.
I recall you graduated from Maryland Institute for College & Art last spring, how are you finding the transition from academia into what you’re involved with now?
The transition has been strange (although I know I’m not alone in this feeling of strangeness), I feel lucky to have been able to keep myself actively working since finishing my formal education. I wish I was doing more work in the field I studied (design), but I’ve kept busy with making and I’ve been getting back into reading. I like the idea of being a life-long learner and for now I’m just trying to find a balance in self-learning, actively making work, and working (to pay the bills).
You suggested that getting out of education means you’ve got more time to do what you want to do. Do you find it beneficial to finally be free of the restrictions that academic study brings?
I wouldn’t say beneficial as much as timely. I’ve had a really great experience at MICA, but it ended at the right time for me. I like being able to work on my personal projects at my own pace. In school, most projects or assignments ran at 2-4 week turn around, but now sometimes I’ll work on a project for three months or sometimes I’ll throw it together in one night and it can all feel equally finished if I think I’ve done it right. I don’t have a set process for working, it’s all arbitrary.
In a previous conversation we had you said the DIY punk community plays a major part in your life, it’s apparent that a lot of your work revolves around this do-it-yourself ethos too. Could you tell us a bit more about how you got involved with this way of living and the journey it has taken you on as a result?
As a freshman in college, a group of friends and I decided to “start a collective” together and I don’t think any of us really knew what that meant except that we wanted to learn about how to make zines. We did a couple art shows together and released several zines and kinda died out. We’re mostly all still friends though, and we work together often, but focusing on a collective art practice between thirteen people became difficult with school. Maybe that will change now that we’re all out of school – or maybe real life will continue to get in the way. In the mean time, I’ve been refining the art of using the resources at your alma mater to print stuff for free.
DIY punk has allowed me to meet some really great and talented people and travel to places I never would have gotten to on my own. I’ve travelled hours to see a band play a fifteen minute set. These days, going to a punk show is the best opportunity I have to see certain friends or get out of town for a bit, it’s become kind of an escape from the daily grind which is kind of a bummer, but I’m hoping things will change and I can be a part of that community more fully eventually.
As the punk community seems to revolve around a free thinking ideology, I was wondering whether or not you have an opinion on the grassroots movements and community driven initiatives that are arising throughout U.S? From the groups of individuals cycling from state to state giving seminars on raising awareness of environmental issues to the globally recognised ‘Occupy’ movement?
I’m not particularly involved or knowledgeable of all of the issues challenging the U.S. and the world at present. Honestly, I primarily get my news from The Daily Show and what my friends post about on facebook :-/ (that isn’t to say I’m not concerned with these things, there’s only so much depressing news one can take in throughout a day). That said, I find it really encouraging to see people doing something about their discontentments. It’s not a new thing by any means, but I suppose it feels new to our generation because this is one of the first times many people our age are getting upset and trying to do something about it. Again, I’m not the most knowledgeable person, but I’d say these movements are steps in a better direction, in general.
Your photographs present an obvious appreciation of the natural beauty within your country. As saddening as this is, there’s no doubt that the environment is being destroyed at an alarming rate primarily due to deforestation. What do you think can be done to protect the remaining Nature Reserves in the U.S?
hah, again, I’m not exactly the most knowledgeable and I certainly couldn’t suggest any new way to reverse the destruction taking place, if there’s one thing an individual such as myself can hope to do, it’s to instill an appreciation for what remains- a desire to preserve and protect it. I hope my photographs (along with those of many, many other talented photographers shooting similar subject matter) can help inspire people to get outside and fall in love with what’s left of the nature in this world. I also feel very strongly about “take only pictures, leave only footprints” and I even go so far as to try to carry empty bags to collect the trash of other more careless visitors. (side note: doing that has also helped me get out of trouble with authorities when caught illegally swimming in a nearby reservoir!)
Okay to finish up, have you got any upcoming projects you would like everybody to hear about?
I’m working with two friends to organize and curate a fashion show at Open Space Gallery in Baltimore, as well as conducting a series of workshops questioning and experimenting with fashion in the social experience of the contemporary art world. The first workshop is taking place this Saturday at the Penthouse Gallery in Baltimore.
I’m working on a zine with my friend Andrew Eargle (andreweargle.tumblr.com), we’ve got a semi-secret blog for sharing photos with each other, but so far the process has been slow. I’m also working on a couple zines/new photo series on my own- one consisting of a pile of old polaroids from high school and college that I found recently, and another centered around photographing my bedroom.
Thanks for your time Emily.
Thanks for letting me ramble!
To see more of Emilys work go to emilyburtner.com.
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