MB: I wanted to start with this: it is hard for one to assess oneself. It is a hardship not only prompted by the immodesty of the enterprise, but because one is incapable of understanding himself fully. However, if I were to summarize, my main interest in many artists’ work is the nature of time. What time can do to a person? Your work seemed to be particularly concerned with the subject of time. Is this confrontation with time also an attempt to confront death, to understand how much we can endure? Or is it to show how dying can turn into eternity and is incomprehensible?
JB: Yes I seek ‘time’ in each print. Function is to some extent form in this: a ‘still’/’stop-time’ camera; ‘slow’ film; long exposures, during which I…..; locations in the ‘Old World’ (western/eastern Europe) or ‘tribal’ world (S. America) or world ‘out of time’ (Mexico). But ‘death’? To be honest I know no more of what that is or means than anyone else nor do I expect to learn much more.
MB: French philosopher Julia Kristeva addressed the question of whether beauty and death are facets of the same experience or opposites. “Is beauty inseparable from the ephemeral and hence from mourning?” she asks, and concludes that the creation and appreciation of beauty springs from the sublimation of grief. “Beauty represents an artificial imaginary conquering of death that allows life to continue.” (ed. Vanitas: Meditations on Life and Death in Contemporary Art 6). What is the notion of beauty for you in context of death & art?
JB: Roughly, I guess, what you & Kristeva have sketched in here. I myself have no words for what beauty is, what death is.
We tell kids to “use your words”, don’t get violent. But for beauty & death I’d rather use violence.
MB: This makes me think of one of my favorite directors, Michael Haneke. His work is particularly concerned with the subject of cruelty and violence. In our emails exchange you once mentioned his movie ‘White Ribbon’. Haneke is a piercingly honest filmmaker, often at the expense of being merciless. He also often talks about things that are unjust, that yoke to repressive personalities or society, that are morally and physically disintegrating, although no one’s is really prepared to confront it. We haven’t had a chance to talk about this movie afterwards, and I wanted to ask you what specifically do you like about it?
JB: 1] the gorgeousness of b & w tone & detail in each frame
2] the superb faces & bodies of the actors
3] the spacious slabs of silence
4] the smooth unerring respect for evil/gentleness/horror/scum/light
MB: Have you ever experienced violence against yourself?
JB: I’ve been fortunate. In Cambodia when UN forces were trying to eliminate remnants of the Khmer Rouge, the sounds of artillery were part of some days in Siem Reap. But the shelling stayed at a distance. In central Mali we arrived in the town of Mopti a day or 2 after some Tuareg had kidnapped a pair of French travellers. We heard later that they had been killed. We saw various Tuareg in the town but were left alone. In Mexico all of us were pulled off a bus for long, thorough body checks by a special element of the military looking for weapons & drugs, but I was among those allowed to go on. In northern Peru I travelled with a driver who vowed not to move outside daylight hours, to avoid remnants of the Sendero Luminoso who worked the highways at night. Occasionally we’d get into a town just after dark & he was visibly tense. But as I said: I’ve been very fortunate.
MB: In your artist’s talk during the Magenta Festival you dedicated a great part of your talk to the concentration camps. You photographed Auschwitz II-Birkenau in Poland…
JB: …and many other sites…
MB: … and many others. It was an attempt, as you said in one of your interviews, to approach a place where the body is taken to its limits—in extremis. “At Birkenau the bodies are (outwardly) gone from a place that’s physically vast. But what we are, what we do in our Western civilization, is centered in that place. I felt I could start to know how we are with each other, how we live.” Like Kiefer or Boltansky you belong to the generation of people who experienced the war second hand. Some of your family members went through the Holocaust. I can relate to this as my family has been deeply affected by the war. I grew up breathing in its stories. Do you think that violence in art is capable of bringing about the waning of injustice or radical forms of suffering?
JB: Can art have this effect? On more than, let’s say, 3 or 4 people? Not at all.
MB: …Or would you say that whether or not one intends for one’s art to express or stir compassion, to address or rectify some forms of cruelty or social injustice, may end up irrelevant to its actual effects? Is embracing cruelty a path to moving beyond it?
JB: It could do that to certain individuals who are open & able to respond in that way. It’s a question whether such individuals ever committed much violence in any case, given that they are open & responsive to that. But these individuals are just a handful of humanity. The vast majority are unaffected by such art—or even aware of it. It would have no effect on the elimination of violence.
MB: This used to be different. Art used to be a powerful tool in the hands of the Church for instance, and affect a large number of people…
JB: Well, I don’t know. To this day, tho’ in shrinking numbers in many areas, there are gently spiritual souls who attend different religions & places of worship & either learn or confirm the need not to hurt others, & that’s great. But (for example) the Catholic Church, like many other major religions, has of course been in bed with some of the worst violence in human history. & the art of the Catholic Church is drenched in violence, in endless forms of physical violation—& of course also drenched in the ornate, cosmetic gilded overlay of precious objects & materials, often gathered at the expense of mass genocide.
MB: So there is a paradox between giving with one hand and destroying with another…
JB: Yes. Unleashed artistic violence & the perpetration of violence for the sake of Church art, without which we would have none of the magnificence of Caravaggio or Tintoretto or Bosch or Bruegel (or even, say, Francis Bacon?)—linked on some level with the blood of the church’s victims, the blood of slaves, & the proud perpetrators. (Remember the old pun for the Spanish order of proselytizing monks? Domini canes. Hounds of the Lord. On the hunt for prey in the New World.)
MB: Tarkovsky’s ‘Andrei Rublev’ comes to mind, who showed this contradiction quite well.
JB: Catholic Poles & Orthodox Russians would know this, wouldn’t they?
MB: Do you share your work with your children and what do they say when they look at the pictures?
JB: Not a lot. They’ve been young through most of the work. The older is 25 now, the younger 21, & I’ve been doing this for maybe 30 years. They’ve been either not in my life or else very young for much of the time. I haven’t shared any of it until recently. & I’ve never taken work to them & said: look, you need to sit down with me & see what I’m doing. That’s not how I want them to look at the work. My girl, who’s grown in good understandable directions that don’t coincide with the art, doesn’t express opinions about it. Most people live in directions that don’t coincide with my work. Among them are numberless sensitive, strong humans. I’d like to think of my daughter among those. My son has some interest in it. But we don’t talk much about it, because I don’t talk much about it—as a rule.
MB: Interesting, that you don’t share…
JB: …Only if someone asks—like you. & my son’s asked a few things in the last few years. But some of it’s still: ‘Dad what’s up here, why?…’
MB: …you mean, why you are photographing this?
JB: …Of course. But most people wonder—those who look at the work & learn it’s been going on a long time…as if I had to do this, always. So it’s why? –everyone, immediately. Occasionally my son seems silently aware—not anxious, just wondering why, maybe because, more or less on his own, he’s started to pick up a camera. & it helps to bridge the gap between us. But you can’t explain that much to a young man who doesn’t yet have the material to work with: the sense of these bodies, places, times. He’s gotten outside Toronto just a few times, hasn’t yet gone into the ‘world’. I’ve divided my last 30 years between this town & the places I go to do the work: every year, far from here.
MB: Why is that a choice by the way? Why do you photograph outside of Canada?
JB: Because with a few exceptions the work isn’t available to me here.
MB: I’m sure you’ve been asked this before, I am curious about your take on the ethical questions that are often raised specifically here, in the North American society: whether you are exploiting the subjects in photographing them. In the photographs of the dead the issues are more confused, since presumably the subjects had not consented to be photographed, or even preserved as specimens to begin with. Unlike many other cultures, here death is hidden.
An English anthropologist Geoffrey Gorer claims that death had become the new pornography, replacing sex as society’s greatest taboo. He also writes that pornography would appear to be a concomitant of prudery, and usually the periods of the greatest production of pornography have also been the periods of the most rampant prudery. Bodily waste, death, decay are aspects of humanity that our society considers abject. What do you say to people who are concerned with this?
JB: I say, yes. In North America death is largely disgrace, filth, failure, expense, ‘waste’, worthless distraction, litigation: thus many viewers here know how to feel shock & force when they see my work because it’s one of the last things they want to see & so must repel it with force—which some do quickly.
I think, put very briefly, it stems from North America’s Protestant ethic, the governing ethic of the last 400 years. The Westernizing takeover of North America was & is in the spirit of Protestantism. It oversaw the rise of a culture that strives to deny what I do. Fine. Trains & planes & cars work. I like the going. It’s like an unending gift. & I get to see a lot of what isn’t in North America.
MB: And you’ve been doing this series, you said, for almost…
JB: 30 years, something like that. Haven’t been counting.
MB: It seems rather unusual, considering that contemporary artists now are working mostly from project to project…
JB: Yeah, maybe. The work, it can shed its skin & seem to wear different ones. An abandoned registration/tattooing room in Birkenau can look a long way from a dissected woman on a steel slab in São Paolo. But in ways that matter to me they’re the same image, even unto the framing: the panoramic spread of these images is the physical window on the same ‘view’ of the body. & I’m aware of some difference too—merged deeply in the sameness. When I’m in what’s left of some of the camps, it’s good to work (in a way) toward the bodies that are gone from there. The piping’s been ripped out of the registration-tattooing room at Birkenau, probably soon after the camp’s abandonment in January ’45, by either the Russians or local Poles; the windows are smashed; ceiling-panels are broken & powdering onto the floor: & you’re in the room where tattooed forearm digits were the entrance to the body’s 8-week purgatory/hell (the average life-expectancy of those not selected on the nearby arrival ramp for immediate gassing). It was a place of the most finely-calibrated violation of the body—on a 400-acre massive, rusting, industrial scale. It was of course a true industry: debits & assets; double-entry accounting; a largely Western mode of keeping score: how magnificently naked in that sense are the SS invoices for shipment—by the dozens & hundreds of kilos—of Jewesses’ hair, for use in mattresses, socks & bomb fuses back in the Reich? I held & photographed such hair at Majdanek.
—& is it a mere coincidence that so much of the great thrust of modern anatomical study, investigation, probing, advance, is German? The institutes of anatomy that I have worked at in Italy & France are superb; so are others in Poland & Hungary & Bulgaria & Argentina. But one still is overwhelmed by the unending richness of those in Germany, most of which extend through hundreds of years of continuous achievement.
So for me, the camps & autopsy rooms & anatomical storerooms in Germany or Brazil or Peru are the same place, the same road. So are the desperately sensual, ordered, exploding churrigueresque retablos in a hard Mexican town like Tepotzotlán. It’s the same image, the same want, all the time. Let there be some surface flux or apparent difference in the work: there is in each of our bodies.
MB: You carefully plan your pictures ahead of time, they are done in a very meticulous manner. Is it a question of being able to explain what you want or more a case of feeling comfortable knowing what’s going on?
JB: It’s partly that I do stupid things when I try to move fast in those places & times. Partly the way of the physical machine: big, old, slow. Partly the reciprocity factor of T-Max & Portra which extends exposure to something slow. Partly the inertial remnant-flow of the months/years/whatever of negotiation & travel & waiting that have made for an act that is without start & finish: aka slow. Partly—by far the largest—the achieved stillness of this man or woman’s head within reach of my hand.
MB: Can you talk about different ways of preservation of the remains in different countries where you’d photographed. Do you think that the relationship to this subject of death and dead is also reflective of the culture? If yes, what does it tell you?
JB: I’d say no. Or rather it’s as reflective of time as of culture. The Chachapoya dead from the 1500’s in Peru were ‘dry’-preserved—so finely, in such slow layers & stages of protecting—by their own what? Relatives? Priests? Shamans? while the Argentine dead of the 1920’s & ‘30’s, not far away in space, were often ‘wet’-preserved by Pedro Ara, well-familiar with the evolution of preservative methods from the 16th century to his, an evolution that (until plastination) moved away from dry methods for good & obvious reasons.
Otherwise: if by ‘culture’ you mean something larger than scientific method, then of course I think the relationship between the dead/body & place varies by culture. I’ve long known that my work—at least in the Western world—must be done mostly in (once-) deeply Catholic regions—where the body/spirit/son-of-God/his Mother/”saints”, all steeped in sensual blood & dying, stand in for what all of us are or want (while in Protestantism the drive is to strip down & away, sever all relations but the ‘rational’ & linear, give the logic-acid-bath to anything wild & tortured/dead).
MB: On the surface you are depicting death. When people die our bodies decompose, and become generally not appealing. Your images have painterly qualities in them, intentionally or not but they look beautiful despite the depiction of the decomposition. The images possess both austere realism [the way the work of August Sander could be, for instance, almost documentary-like] and yet poetically beautiful. I know that people who develop a familiarity with death (nurses, soldiers, etc.) can eat in the same room with a corpse. Many people are both drawn to and repelled by death. Do you find death repulsive or soothing? How do you find possible to reconcile the formal sophistication — and beauty — of your photography with its “repulsive” elements?
JB: You’re drawn to your way, not repulsed by it. Each head/hand/torso/foot is ‘the way’ & when I’m a few feet from them it is there. The rest of the time not. The problem is with the rest of the time. That time is work—at a remove. You have to live with the remove & work.
MB: So it’s an obsession…
JB: Of course, what art isn’t? It isn’t something that you do some of the time.
MB: How did you start photographing?
JB: In the ‘70’s, in my 20’s. Never went near a camera before. I was writing before that–& one day picked up a camera for reasons I don’t recall, unspoken then & now. I picked up a camera & the writing went through it.
MB: Did you get any training in photography?
JB: No. Only the self-inflicted …
MB: …Pain? [laughs]
JB: That’s it. Just making mistakes & looking at the mistakes. You know the deal [laughs].
MB: What were the subjects of your photography when you started?
JB: The usual. You know what that is. My earlier shows can be tracked & I don’t have problems with them. But there were no dead in them to speak of.
Q: Most artists have had a turning point in their lives when something really crucial happened to them – what was yours?
JB: A time when I went over a line for some years to where everything’s true.
MB: I’m guessing…
JB: That’s all I can give you.
MB: … oh, no, I am not asking about it! My question is different. I am guessing that was a difficult time, but did it force you to work more, or did you abandon making art for a while?
MB: What state of mind, or what emotions make you the most productive? Are these things related at all?
JB: I don’t know how to answer that… I try not to produce nothing–ever. I can’t piss away too much time.
MB: And you don’t use any assistance…
JB: …Almost never. Let me throw in this: it’s physical work—in the literal & figurative ways that it should be & is. I work through my body to theirs.
MB: Do you remember your first photograph related to the subject that you have been photographing over years of your practice, would you be able to describe it?
MB: Not my photograph but his, Peter Hujar’s: the image on the cover of his book Portraits in Life and Death which I found in a remainders bin back in the 70’s or 80’s—of a dead body in the catacombs of the Convento dei Cappuccini in Palermo. The title is accurate because most of the book displays New York art-world people: anywhere from his lovers to Susan Sontag & other SoHo types with good faces, good bodies & good willingness to sit for him: “Portraits in Life”. These didn’t really interest me & still don’t. But then he appends this image group at the back of the book, probably sensing that he should end with the strongest work, of varying success at times but including some images that are superb: of the dead in the catacombs. At that point I started raising airfare to Sicily.
MB: How old were you?
JB: Maybe 30,31. I’d been shooting in the American desert for the previous 7 or 8 years, every year, 4-6 weeks in the Southwest. Learning heavy camera equipment, moving around, film, working with light.
MB: Basically you came to this body of work as a mature man…
JB: …Sure, right. Mature in some ways…[laughs].
MB: Are you still writing at all?
JB: No. Not with words.
MB: Originally you wanted to become a writer?
MB: A British writer, Jeannette Winterson in her book Art Objects writes that ‘sincerity of feeling is not enough’. She believes that ‘the true writer knows that feeling must give away to form. It is through the form, not in spite of, or accidental to it, that the most powerful emotions are let loose over the greatest number of people. Art must resist autobiography if it hopes to cross boundaries of class, culture… “ In one of our conversations you mentioned that your writing of the doctoral thesis on Melville’s Moby-Dick became very personal. You chose to explore it through Melville’s book as a form. Would you consider your photographs equally personal [expanding outwards] the way you made the parallel between Melville’s story and yourself?
JB: I work with (as the lawyers would say) the ‘person’ per se—English & Latin almost duplicate for good reason.
“Call me Ishmael.” It wasn’t Melville’s name until he wrote it & even then it does not show on the book’s cover, but he made & put on the being as I strive to do with each face of ‘another’. & his ‘Ishmael’—“the Biblical Ishmael, son of Abraham by the slave Hagar”—the slave—“was sent forth into the wilderness with his mother”—as I & my mother were in 1954. “In accordance with the prophecy of an angel, Ishmael was ancestor of a vast nation, but he and his descendants were visited by a fate that the angel also prophesied: ‘And he will be a wild man; his hand will be against every man, and every man’s hand against him’” [see Genesis 16, 17, 21, 25].
I can’t know my legacy as ‘ancestor’—but I work in the knowledge that [loosely, but importantly] every man’s hand is against me. (But hands can do different things. One day a girl in Ukraine—the region of my ancestors tho’ she could not know that—emailed to ask if she could have ‘Germany #49 (Katatonie), 2009” tattooed on her body. After a while we agreed. The start of a legacy—no? Or else just an intersect with the registration-tattooing room at Birkenau.
MB: It’s interesting that the subject of your PhD thesis was primarily Melville’s Moby-Dick. What interests me is a thread that runs through: the subject of a shipwreck, of survival, isolation & loneliness and finally the telling of the story of hardship & survival. What made you think of picking up Melville over some other authors?
JB: 1st: because I would not bring Faulkner down to the filth-strewn arena of ‘doctoral research’—so Melville entered as the poor man’s substitute. But then his beauty & rawness guarded against all ‘scholarly’ degradation to my deep surprise & relief. Otherwise it was of course as you say: there is only one story among us ever: to reach for without end & with brief grip & then live on to learn or relearn all that was let go: which only a few have written or painted or filmed well: 1 of them Melville.
MB: You’re still a voracious reader…
MB: Who are the writers/artists other than Faulkner and Melville whose work moves you the most?
JB: Shakespeare; E. Dickinson; S. Beckett; Cormac McCarthy; W.G. Sebald; Caravaggio; Tintoretto; Goya; Robert Frank; Arbus; Witkin; Ingmar Bergman. & maybe one other, now that I’ve heard Geeshie Wiley’s ‘Skinny Leg Blues’ a few dozen times.
MB: Do you reread books?
JB: Of course. Not that I don’t read other things, to allow time to pass so that I can reread the Faulkners & Becketts. Those are the engines.
MB: Are they motivating you to photograph as well?
JB: Of course. Their striving is a model.
MB: … this is once again about obsession. You mentioned Faulkner. I’m not as knowledgeable about Faulkner’s work as you are, but among things that I recall Go Down, Moses comes to my mind as an example. Faulkner’s character Ike McCaslin recites the virtues that are important to his life: loyalty, courage & pride, tolerance & forbearance… He renounces his patrimony thus putting an end to the procession of the [to-some-extent criminal] generations, to become a simple carpenter. This seems to be Faulkner’s own voice in understanding of what ‘a man’ should be. He struggled a great deal to realize these qualities in the reality of the world, including his family life. I’m talking about another one of his obsessions: his alcoholism and the violent outbursts. He was writing when he was sober but in the ‘in-between time’, in the time of ‘being with the world’, he struggled profoundly, often drinking heavily. I remember once reading the accounts of his daughter, who said that during these attacks the servants had to hold Faulkner so that he wouldn’t harm his wife and daughter…
JB: He was out of his skull—where others were concerned—when he was drinking. I hear you… I don’t think you & I have any problem saying that on one hand there’s ‘an ideal man’ who could well have the qualities Faulkner names. He wasn’t saying he was an ideal man. He certainly had some of these qualities—some of the time. But he had others you’ve mentioned that weren’t ideal. Like the rest of us.
MB: I guess, what I am trying to say is that what he was expressing through his work was a way of reconciliation with the impossibility of this ideal as well…
JB: …& he achieved that. Otherwise we wouldn’t be talking about him here. He did it through long hours & years of work at the writing desk…working toward the knowing & measuring of the ideal–& the equally-superb knowing & measuring of what wrecks the ideal.
MB: I wanted to come back to this divide, when we feel inadequate with the world, then there is this separation that we all struggle with on the every-day basis…
JB: …that obviously creates a mess, a conflict that’s going to have hard effects, particularly in a society like our industrial, Protestant-based one, which ultimately despises art. It does not even know what to do with artists. Should it oppose them because they’re not part of the plan, of ‘progress’, or should it ignore them because they’re so profoundly irrelevant. This has to bring a bit of mess into a life like yours or mine. But you’ve got your Asiatic/East European Russian blood in you, your non-North-American blood…
MB: …it makes it even harder, I think [laughs]
JB: …& I’ve got my Polish & Ukrainian blood on both sides. So maybe that’s part of why you & I do what we do, salvage things that matter: like death.
MB: …although, it’s an immigrant society…
JB: …sure. But it’s an immigrant society started & controlled thereafter by non-artists, people with radically other concerns than art. It’s a headless, artless society of the (largely) desperate-to-survive from the 16th century on down. No artists to speak of came on the Atlantic boats. The fresh start, the last conquerable, habitable land-mass left on the earth was taken without art: taken, regulated, owned to this day by a society bent on ‘progress’, not art. You & I are a generation or less from bloodlines that are anything but North American. That may be why I’m talking to you today. Otherwise, I’d be in business.
MB: I hear frustration in your words when you’re describing this world, this place…
JB: Really? That’s not what I feel—or not without adding: bring it, North America. Sure, it’s a broken, tragic world—but is another available? Or have I moved elsewhere to seek it? Not at all. Every year I go out for the work–& then come back. I like the cold open clear air of this place, Marina.
MB: … which also means this world’s brokenness…
JB: … You’ve read Faulkner, you’ve read Moby-Dick, Kafka. There’s no difference. The entirety of Moby-Dick & The Trial & Absalom, Absalom! is that: magnificently-stylized rage & frustration with what they were describing obsessively. The same is in your work. “The world’s okay, it’s sweet”: –that’s not what your work is about. & it’s not what my work is about. Nor any of the others I’ve mentioned.
MB: …there is so much blackness in Goya’s work…
JB: Yes. Even in the judicious commissioned portraits there are black stains at the edges so while they look nice to client eyes, there’s a bleed at the edges for the few who might see.
MB: You mentioned Caravaggio’s paintings as your necessary companions.
There is a painting that comes to my mind, where Caravaggio depicted David with the head of Goliath, in which he painted his own face onto the severed head of the slain giant as if predicting his own death circumstances, which are still debated by scholars. David, although looking perturbed, has an expression of compassion. It looks strikingly similar to the way you photograph faces of the human remains.
What drew you to paintings in general and also what particularly attracts you to Caravaggio’s work
JB: This is of course too big for a clear shapely answer but I think you’ve already started the answer for me: as in Goliath’s case, but absent the explicit symbol of that (self-)portrait, take any of the other great torturer/murderer/bystander-to-vileness heads—as in the man pointing downward in ‘The Beheading of St. John the Baptist 1608’ or the Hun in ‘Martyrdom of St. Ursula 1609-10’ or Judith in ‘ J and Holofernes 1600’—in front of which I stood for a long time one day in the Palazzo Barberini irresistibly & pleasurably aware of the extraordinary painted/breathing blush of her full breasts (those of I-forget-which-favorite, good-looking whore-model of Caravaggio’s) that breathes through her thin-fabric top some 400 years later, alive & beautiful but still subordinated/integrated perfectly & truly with every other dark/light death/eros piece of the canvas: & you realize: Caravaggio penetrated all parts of his seeing, all of the surface of the work with one sharing, one lust, one truth.
MB: Your work is abundant with art historical references, Baroque staging and lighting. Why painters not photographers?
JB: Maybe because the painters got there first & did it as well as it’s been done. I think it matters too that the painters (almost all 16th – early 19th cent.) worked in the ferocious upthrust of the ‘modern’ world’s break-out in their time, were seminal & inseminated in all senses by that time—while Arbus/Frank/Witkin/Kiefer/Bacon, tho’ true-practitioners, only ride on the backs of Caravaggio & Velazquez.
MB: Finally: many of the remains that you work with are located in medical institutions—placings of caring for the body, of healing or training in healing. Do you think that art has anything in common with medicine? Could it be a way to survive, or a form of resistance? Or would you say that it is an outlet [or what Aristotle suggested, ‘a catharsis’] for a certain measure of bloodlust that humans have? Unlike Plato, who wanted to banish all poets from his Ideal Republic, Aristotle had more of a practical social-control stance… He was more pragmatic, politically speaking…
JB: I’m with you & Aristotle to some extent. We go back & circle the dark holes, irresistibly—some of us. But I see & feel no healing or ‘outletting’ ever. I don’t feel that. The real wounds are always open.
Jack Burman’s website: