Picks and Pans Review: Portraits

UPDATED 02/01/1988 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 02/01/1988 at 01:00 AM EST

by Bill Burke

After leaving art school in the '70s, Bill Burke explains in I Want to Take Picture, "I learned to use photography as an excuse to go where I had no business and to make pictures in places where I was uncomfortable." Whether traipsing around the war-torn Thailand-Cambodia border in I Want to Take Picture or, in Portraits, making character studies in hardscrabble Kentucky, West Virginia and Brazil, Burke uses his sense of being "off balance" and ignorant of "the rules" of local conduct or even survival to make photographs that are stark, frank and gripping. When a sophisticated photographer takes pictures of poor, ravaged or isolated people, questions arise about motive, exploitation, condescension. In return for pictures taken—and it is a taking—subjects can be beneficiaries of compassion, moral outrage or idealization. At the other extreme is Richard Avedon's brilliant if rather cold-hearted In the American West, in which he plucked drifters and other rough-hewn people out of their milieus like lab specimens and photographed them against a portable white scrim. Burke neither takes omniscient control of his subjects nor tries to seduce them (or his viewers) with a bleeding heart. If he is fascinated by people or situations that seem hard, mean, sordid, lurid or just bleak, he is at least meeting these people on their own turf. Their curiosity or reservations about him are nearly as important in shaping the picture as is his own fascination with them. Picture for picture, Portraits (Ecco Press, New York, $20.00) may be more probing, but as a unique physical object and triumph of graphic design I Want to Take Picture (Nexus Press, Atlanta, $50) is extraordinary. A scrapbook and photographic record of Burke's two harrowing descents into the world of the Khmer Rouge and the Cambodian refugees in 1982 and 1984, it aptly uses collage (pages from Burke's journal, Thai product labels and currency, religious trinkets, hand-scrawled captions) to suggest Burke's feverish and awed state of mind and the tenuousness and squalor of daily life in the region. It's a three-handkerchief book—not for dabbing your eyes but for mopping your brow.

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