At Home with Nancy Burson

RFP When we first spoke about this image, Blue Marble Simulacrum, you brought up the Mayan history to this pigment.

NB The Mayans would use blue paint to completely cover their victims before they sacrificed them. Then they’d kill them and throw them down a well [editor’s note: in fact, it was a natural sinkhole known as the Sacred Cenote]. It was very violent. The well was found about a decade ago and there was a lot of blue paint [in a layer that was 14 feet deep] and a lot of bones. What’s interesting about the Mayan blue is that it survived better than any other color used in the Mayan ceramics. Scientists never figured out why the blue is as vivid and long lasting. They know that it was apparently forged at a higher heat than a fire, and they never figured out how the heat got so hot. It’s the mystery and miraculous quality of why it’s endured that’s interesting to me. 

It’s such a cool color, in terms of temperature. What I find so fascinating about that Mayan history is that... I assumed that in all cultures that violence or pain or suffering was represented by the color red, as well as love, of course. It seems that for the Mayans, blue was more representative of that. Is that right?

NB Yes. From my point of view, over the years, what I learned was that, green is supposed to be healing, red is supposed to be action and energy, and blue is supposed to be calming. But there are exceptions.  

So why do you think the Mayans used blue to paint their victims?

NB Chac, their rain god was portrayed as blue, and he was the overseer responsible for human sacrifice. So perhaps the coating of blue paint on their victims was what they felt to be the most appealing to Chac. 

I’m so fascinated by that sense of violence in that Mayan blue and how you’ve brought that back here. You represented that blue in this broken way, on this disc in a black void, in a similar way as the iconic first photo of the whole globe, Blue Marble, which your title even references — it’s almost not about people, it’s about phenomenological experiences on earth in general, for all beings, it’s not just about water, it’s about this ever-present hue.

NB For me it’s about seeing the bigger picture and about the fact that I don’t believe good and evil can be separated, in a certain way. The differences between good and evil are sometimes hard to discern. The polarity in human lives happens so easily, one minute we can be having a great day and then all of a sudden, something happens that flips it.

Yeah, this photo shows that kind of melding. I don’t know. It has a spiritual sense to it. You’ve made several versions of this image. How many are there?

NB There’s only five.

So the pigment in this picture in particular, what is it made of? Where did it come from?

NB There were sets of watercolor paints that I got the year I hand-painted a lot of furniture. I made it into powder. Most blue powder pigment is really toxic, and this was safe. I’m not good with toxic materials. 

What does the void represent?

NB Space.

Outer space?

NB Yeah, but the question that’s been on my mind for decades, is, what’s between us, other than the space between us? 


You see a lot of cultures, like you’ve said, return to blue in their pottery and artworks and so on. It’s a big part of our history.

NB That’s right. What I think is fascinating is that the secrets that the Mayans used to forge their art at high heat were initially used by the Egyptians and later the Greeks. There’s a whole history of ancient high-temperature forged art that’s miraculous and still unexplained. It also has a history in contemporary art, with people like Yves Klein. Not only Klein, but even people like Jeff Koons, who did the blue Gazing Balls.

You’re shooting photos of explosions in the sky, so again you’re returning to the color blue. Have there been other moments when you’ve been looking at blue in your work?

NB Yeah. By the way, you’ve got a blue shirt on.

And you have blue circular glasses!

NB There’s some new drawings I should show you.

Yes! So you’re drawing. You’re still shooting. You’re planning on exhibiting work in the future?

NB We’ll see what’s meant to be! 


Would it be true to say that you’re most known for your work with facial recognition software. Can you speak about that?

NB Yeah. The idea that I had when I first came to New York in ‘68 was that I wanted to make a machine that would show people older. Nobody knew how to do that. But what I do have is tenacity. [laughs] I went to Rauschenberg’s organization,  E.A.T. [Experiments in Art and Technology], that was pairing artists and scientists together... so years later when I finally started working with MIT, we called the project A.T.E.! [laughs] It was like, post-E.A.T.. In the very beginning, there was so little in the way of computer imaging. There was just a pen and a tablet, it was so unimpressive. I thought, I can just do this with a pen and pencil, what do I need this for?

And yet, now, someone from my generation, we’ve gotten used to this kind of idea. But you were really the first to drive this home, to build on this.

NB When Nicholas Negroponte invited me into MIT, I think it was ‘76, they had a scanner. It was brand new, and they didn’t know what to do with it. There’d been very little work done with facial recognition at that point. When I had this idea to age people, I took it to Nicholas, and he said, “This is great, we could even implement this in color.” He’s a visionary. I ended up at MIT and was in and out of the building for the next couple of years. When I left MIT with a video of three facesaging, one of the stills of a young man and his accompanying aged image were run in Men’s Health Magazine. All of a sudden it was all over the world. That was the first press that I got.

Recently you were published in the book 100 Most Influential Photographs of All Time by TIME Magazine. Congratulations!

NB Thank you! It’s the Androgyny piece of six men and six women together from ‘82. I made it at a company around the corner from MIT with two programmers I met there. 

TIME noted that the FBI acquired the software.

NB Yes, they acquired a copy. I did hear recently that they’re still using similar techniques, but they’re not using our software these days!

interview by Romke Hoogwaerts
photography by Maggie Shannon