Nancy Burson, 'Big Brother'

Nancy Burson, 'Big Brother'

Nancy Burson (born 1948)
'Big Brother'
Gelatin-silver print
Museum no. E.273-1990
© Nancy Burson

The Photograph This photograph was produced in 1983. Burson produced a series of images of political figures. This image is a blend of the faces of Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, Mao and Khomeini and creates a recognisably human face. It comments on the similarities in behaviour and character of the men, rather than their political differences. The title 'Big Brother' presumably refers to George Orwell's novel 1984, and suggests that Burson is creating the face that personifies dictatorship.

The Photographer
Nancy Burson started her career as a painter. In 1968 she began to consider a project of producing computer generated portraits that could add the development of ageing onto the faces. Her concept was not totally possible until the late 1970s when computer scanning of images was developed. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) was interested in her ideas and in 1978 MIT and Burson were making the first 'aged' portraits. This process was labour intensive and slow and it was not until 1982 that the processing speed was increased. Burson used the 'ageing' technique for her own work and also agreed that it should be used to update photographs of missing children for circulation, with which several children were found.

In the late 1980s Burson began to scan images (mainly from medical text books) of deformed children, manipulating them with the computer to create new deformities. This work offended some people because the deformities were artificial, but Burson maintained that this series was intended to address viewers' ability to be aware of real children with craniofacial conditions. These works, when shown in New York in 1993, were accompanied by a video screen in the gallery into which visitors' faces could be scanned and manipulated to represent the deformities shown in the exhibition.

Processes and Techniques
This is a gelatin-silver print. It is a digital image made up of portraits of Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, Mao and Khomeini. A photograph of each political figure is scanned by a computer onto a silicon chip containing hundreds of thousands of microscopic photoreceptors called pixels (from 'picture elements'). These individual units of brightness and colour that make up an image are stored on a floppy disk that holds about 50 images. The stored images can be combined (in this case five) and the composite image regenerated onto a photographic unit.

This photograph can be found in Prints and Drawings Study Room box EDUC 14.