Nancy Burson's career as a photographer burgeoned in the late 1960s, when she gave herself a set of guidelines.
"I wanted to ask people to expand their vision," she says. "Early on, I came up with three categories for my work: How we see ourselves, how we see each other and how we see ourselves within the universe."
In 1968 her plan took her to what she tentatively calls "computer graphics." At that time, computers were not common, and the idea of creating images from machines as such was not an everyday occurrence. Nonetheless, Burson was determined to create something -- a machine -- that would age people. She took the project to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and there, with the help of the Media Lab, she developed an entirely new technological system.
In theory, any person who wanted to could sit in front of the screen and have their facial features scanned. Keep in mind though that these scanners weren't like the ones we have today.
"It took like five minutes to scan one face," Burson says. "But it was the first time that a computer interacted with live images."
Burson and the scientists at MIT made a short tape of just three faces, aging. The FBI soon recognized the importance of the machine and bought a copy of the software.
"The first year alone, using the aging machine, (the FBI) found four missing children," Burson says.
Along those same lines, the artist began exploring with merging images and distorting them, as in the work now owned by the Cincinnati Art Museum. She dealt with humanity, obviously, and the way ordinary human beings or (in)famous human beings are part of the larger scheme of things. A powerful example is "Warhead I" from 1982, which merges the faces of Ronald Reagan, Leonid Brezhnev, Margaret Thatcher, François Mitterrand and Deng Xiaoping (with Reagan's and Brezhnev's faces being most apparent).
But Burson fell ill, and her health problems did not go away with traditional medicine. Soon, she sought the help of "healers," which led her to a different kind of focus on humanity: "Something I can only describe as energy," she says.
Her intention was to "catch energy on regular film." At the time, she was teaching art at Harvard University. Many of her students were in the choir, and she went to listen to them sing in the chapel. Suddenly, she was invited to speak in the chapel, something she had never done before. She found herself lecturing on faith -- her own faith, which isn't necessarily a dogma but rather an appreciation of the divine.
"A few days later," she says, "I had a vision."
The vision she recounts is of an elderly man wrapped in reddish orange robes. He told Burson: "Your job is to help the healers."
It'd be easy to write Burson off right here -- an artist with visions! But it's not that simple.
"This wasn't my idea of my life," she says with a little laugh. "I never wanted to be this odd."
Burson clearly recognizes the strangeness in her tales, but she is cautious and serious about them.
"What do you do when you hear from the divine?" she asks, and it's a good question.
She took her vision as a mandate from the universe, and followed healers from the U.S. to England and back again. She became a healer and a minister. But she isn't quite a preacher. She is serious about her faith but doesn't try to work you over.
A few more "crazy" things happened. Burson found her orbs -- round balls of light that followed her from England to the U.S. to protect her -- which she's photographed extensively, without manipulation. Even NASA has caught on tape her orbs playing in the sky.
A healer she calls "half human and half angel" put energy into a plastic, glow-in-the-dark statue of the Mother Mary. The night she took it home, the statue started dancing in the dark of her room.
Burson isn't the only person who has seen the statue dance. Art critics from The New York Times and The New Yorker have come to Burson's bathroom to experience her orbs and her statue. They agree that there exists the phenomenon that the artist claims. And yet none of these critics have taken on her work. Perhaps they're afraid of sounding as odd as Burson herself claims to be?
Since the early 1990s, Burson has dedicated herself to photographing energies and auras. The photographs haven't been manipulated, even though they appear to have been. Light emerges from the heart of a healer; gas discharges change shape when surrounded by negative or positive thought, love or anger; and altars seem to glow in regal purple.
Further, and going back to her roots in composite imagery, Burson has developed the "Race Machine," which allows a viewer/participant to have their face scanned and transformed into any race they wish.
It's not really about novelty. It's about how we -- as individuals -- fit into the larger scheme of the universe. It's about expanding our vision of ourselves.
In her lecture Wednesday at the Cincinnati Art Museum, Burson plans to let us see all this for ourselves. She's bringing the Mother Mary statue along with plenty of images. She'll turn out the lights and teach the audience to see auras. (About 95 percent of people who try to see auras can, according to Burson.)
She is "glad to have Cincinnati be crazy" with her.
NANCY BURSON speaks as part of the Lightborne Photography Lecture Series at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Cincinnati Art Museum. The event is free and open to the public.