Try to imagine Brooke Shields
at 50. Or Lady Di as a grandmother. How about John Travolta in his dotage? Hard to picture? Well, not anymore, thanks to Nancy Burson's futuristic Age Machine. Burson is a New York-based conceptual artist who has devised a way of aging faces by feeding pictures into a computer. The first significant results of the process appear on these pages. "It was a crazy idea when I first thought of it," Burson says, "so crazy, in fact, that I didn't tell a whole lot of people about it."
But now her brainchild appears likely to be a money-maker. The process can also be reversed to make a person look younger, and Burson can make composites of several faces. She has already created her ideal presidential candidate, the face of a typical assassin and a composite of all the world's races. Burson envisions other commercial uses. Plastic surgeons could show patients what they will look like after an operation, and law enforcement agencies could better visualize the likeness of a criminal who has been on the lam for a long time.
The most interesting and potentially the most lucrative application of the Age Machine may be in movies. "Say a director had a tough role that only a younger Laurence Olivier could handle," speculates Burson. "He could use my device to de-age Olivier so that his 'younger self' would appear on the film. There are directors now who would go crazy to have this kind of control." In fact, Hollywood has already taken notice. "The use of computer graphics in movies is about to explode," says one special effects expert, "and Nancy's got a piece of it."
The daughter of a management consultant, Burson showed an early aptitude for art as she was growing up in St. Louis. "I would say it began when she was 2," jokes her mother. "She took her brother's crayons and did the whole living room. We had to repaint the walls." Burson studied art at Colorado Women's College but dropped out after two years to pursue a painting career in New York City. In 1969 she attended an art-and-technology exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art—and inspiration struck. "I remember the exact moment I got the idea," she says. "I thought, 'How great it would be if people could walk into a gallery and see how they would look in 20 or 50 years.' " But it wasn't until 1977, when she learned that computer technology had advanced to the point where it could help her, that Burson began to work seriously on the Age Machine.
In 1979, after collaborating with several programmers from MIT, Nancy applied for a patent. It was approved last year. "It's a so-called 'pioneer patent,' " she explains, "which means there's nothing like it." The process is complicated: After freezing an image on a TV screen, Burson matches it with a facial type already in the computer bank. Then she adds characteristics from another bank of aged faces. "It's like taking a wrinkle mask off one face and putting it on another," she explains. She refuses to specify the age of the individual in the resulting photo.
But is the process art? "A lot of people would say it's not," says Ron Feldman, a friend and New York gallery owner. "They'd say a computer's doing it. But Nancy is." "For me," Burson insists, "this is first and foremost art. What I'm creating is a possibility—in the same way that painting is a possibility." Of course, Burson also hopes she is creating the possibility of a financial windfall. She's already spent an estimated $35,000 in legal fees to patent her invention. "My lawyer has been pretty good about the money," she says, "but I need a regular income." Burson, who was divorced in 1978, plans to form a company and buy needed video equipment. Meanwhile she pays the rent on her SoHo loft by taking free-lance commercial art jobs. "I've negotiated with a lot of people who want to buy my idea," she says, "but I'm not selling yet. I came to New York to make art—and become rich and famous."