Nancy Burson

Nancy Burson is cited on page 20 of the course notes as being an innovator in the field of digital imaging. In the 1970s she collaborated with Massachusetts Institute of Technology engineers Richard Carling and David Kramlich to produce a computer programme that had the ability to age the human face, that is, digitally render an image of a person that showed how they were predicted to look many years after a photograph was taken. This technique was later used by the FBI to locate missing persons.

Early composites:

This composite brought together images of world leaders in 1982 in a ratio weighted to the number of nuclear warheads each country had – Reagan 55%, Brezhnev 45%, Thatcher less than 1%, Mitterand less than 1%, Deng less than 1%.

Burson explored notions of beauty with two composites which combined the faces of female film stars from the 1950s and 1980s. The concept behind this idea was to explore the notion that different looks are favoured at different eras and debunk the idea that there is such a thing is ideal beauty, although, there are conventions such as whiteness, symmetry and full lips.

First Beauty Composite: Bette Davis, Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly, Sophia Loren, Marilyn Monroe (1982)

Second Beauty Composite: Jane Fonda, Jacqueline Bisset, Diane Keaton, Brooke Shields, Meryl Steep (1982)

A series which focuses on portraits of people with facial abnormalities and shows them in intimate and everyday settings rather than an institutional setting or clinical style – an approach which emphasises normalcy.

Human Race Machine (2000):

Burson - There's no gene for race.jpg
There’s No Gene For Race (2000) – Billboard located in New York sponsored by Creative Time

Initially launched as an exhibit at the London Millennium Dome in 2000, The Human Race Machine allowed viewers to see what they would look like as a different race. For this project Burson wanted to explore race as a socially constructed rather than genetic concept and aimed to focus on sameness rather than difference.

Trump Images (2015-16):

To mark the summit between Presidents Trump and Putin, Burson was commissioned to make a composite image of the two men for Time magazine – something that had added resonance given the scandal about Russian interference in the US Presidential elections. Similarly, Burson made a composite of Trump and Kim Jong-Un – titled Warhead 2017. Much has been made of the distinctive appearance of both men and Burson seems to revel in making a composite of the two which accentuates the odd physicality of both men.

Further thoughts – 16th January 2020:

For project 2 in part 2 we are asked to read the paper ‘The body and the archive’ by Allan Sekula. This is an excellent and wide ranging essay that covers many ideas, however, it is Sekula’s analysis of how Francis Galton, the pioneer of the since debunked field of eugenics attempted in the late nineteenth century, to demonstrate that an individuals physiognomy could be read in a way that could determine their level of intelligence. I have read about Galton before, however, I was unaware that he sought to provide empirical evidence into his theories by compositing photographic portraits. For Galton, these combined images provided a “statistical constancy” with individual features fading away due to underexposure and common features combining to make a blurred final image. Galton used the process to make composites of ‘types’ in order to prove that there are clear physiognomical differences attached to class, race and even criminality and that the final images proved this through the similarities that became evident. Most disturbing perhaps, given the link between eugenics and the holocaust is Galton’s work to demonstrate there is a Jewish ‘type’.

Reading the section of the essay made me think of Burson’s work and wonder about her intentions and whether she was aware of Galton. Towards the end of the paper, Sekula makes this connection himself and is scathing in his analysis of Burson and her composite works:

“the computer-generated composites of Nancy Burson, enveloped in a promotional discourse so appallingly stupid in its fetishistic belief in cybernetic truth and its desperate desire to remain grounded in the optical and organic that it would be dismissable were it not for its smug scientism. For an artist or critic to resurrect the methods of biosocial typology without once acknowledging the historical context and consequences of these procedures is naive at best and cynical at worst.” (Bolton, 1992: 377)

What do I think about what Sekula has to say? The argument is compelling and Sekula makes no bones about the problems he has with Burson’s work. I am not sure how I feel however, this is mainly based on not knowing enough about Burson’s intentions – is it really necessary that she makes these obvious though? Does she need to specifically address the concern about the similarity with Galton’s work, and if she is not aware of it, (although I find it difficult to believe she would not) does that matter? The lack of context for Burson’s composites leaves the series open to interpretation by the reader, for example, what I initially thought of as an interesting, playful concept has taken on much darker connotations now that I am aware of Galton’s use of a similar technique. Because it makes me feel uncomfortable and question the work more closely does not mean that Burson is in any way complicit or have suspect politics. The suggestion by Sekula that more context should be given – something that would inevitably change the reading of the work – is also problematic…how much information should an artist give their audience and how much should they allow the reader to make their own judgements?


Kelley, T. (2002) Through machine, seeing more of others in yourself. The New York Times, April 14, 2002. Available at: [accessed 15th February 2019]

Perrone, J.J. (2018) Artist Nancy Burson on the convergence of art, politics and tech. New York Film Academy Blog. Available at: [accessed 15th February 2019]

Sekula, A. (1986) The body and the archive. In: pps. 342-389, Bolton, R. (ed) (1992) The Contest of Meaning: Critical Histories of Photography. Cambridge, MT: MIT Press.

Sturken, M. and Cartwright, L. (2009) Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press.