Nancy Burson – Inventor of photographic composites

We rediscovered and met Nancy Burson at Paris Photo 2019. Nancy Burson produced some of the earliest computer-generated portraits. In collaboration with MIT engineers Richard Carling and David Kramlich, she became a pioneer in the now familiar territory of computer-manipulated imagery. Burson continued to collaborate with Kramlich, who later became her husband. Together the two developed a significant computer program which gives the user the ability to age the human face and subsequently has assisted the FBI in locating missing persons. In Evolution II she combined the face of a man with that of a monkey to produce an imaginary portrait of a species (as well as a technology) in transition.

„Since the beginning of her artistic career, Nancy Burson has been interested in the interactions between art and science and was among the first artists to apply digital technology to the genre of photographic portraiture. Through the synthesis of several photos made possible by the use of her very personal working method, Burson generates completely new works that challenge photographic truth with the birth of digital manipulation. Her work is to be considered unique because she was the first artist to indroduce “composite” portraits into the electronic age. Indeed, she is known for her pioneering work in the use of morphing technologies: the use of computer programs to overlay and manipulate photos showing new aspects of the age, race or character of the original subject. In addition, by merging two or more images into a “composite”, Nancy Burson’s work also includes computer-modified images through a distorting system that intervenes by changing the reality of an image, aging and rejuvenating photographs, and thus projecting a portrait in the future or in the past.

In collaboration with researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Nancy Burson began producing computer-generated “composite” portraits in the late 1970s and early 1980s: she developed software that could be used to “age” a human face. Her work has its roots in centuries of social, scientific and pseudo-scientific studies on the human face. However, the artist’s attitude towards science has always been imbued with irony and a profound awareness of the absurdities inherent in many historical concepts, such as those of race and gender, which we take for granted today. This great anthological exhibition “Composites” explores the first pioneering works of Nancy Burson from 1976 (“Methods and Apparatus producing an image of a person’s face at a different age”) to the “composite” series of the ’70s and’ 80s. By digitally combining and manipulating images of often well-known individuals, including movie stars and world leaders, Burson examines political issues, gender, race and beauty standards.“ (Gallery information text of Paci Contemporary Gallery, Brescia, Italy)

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At first glance, the man on our July 30, 2018, cover might seem familiar: it was created by morphing images of two of the world’s most recognizable men, President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. The composite image, by visual artist @nancyburson, is meant to represent this particular moment in U.S. foreign policy, following the pair’s recent meeting in Helsinki. As our senior White House correspondent Brian Bennett writes in this week’s cover story: “A year and a half into his presidency, Trump’s puzzling affinity for #Putin has yet to be explained. #Trump is bruised by the idea that Russian election meddling taints his victory, those close to him say, and can’t concede the fact that Russia did try to interfere in the election, regardless of whether it impacted the outcome. He views this problem entirely through a political lens, these people say, unable or unwilling to differentiate between the question of whether his campaign colluded with #Russia—which he denies—and the question of whether Russia attempted to influence the election.” Burson, who became well known for developing a technique to age faces, which is used by the FBI to find missing children, says the goal of her latest composite is to help readers “stop and think” when it comes to similarities between the two leaders. “What my work has always been about is allowing people to see differently,” she tells TIME. “The combining of faces is a different way for people to see what they couldn’t see before.” Read this week's full cover story on TIME.com. Photo illustration by @nancyburson for TIME (Digital imaging by @johndepew. Source photographs: Trump: @gettyimages; Putin: Kremlin handout)

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