It’s probably inaccurate to call Walt Burton a gadfly, even though a run-down of his career might suggest that. He’s been a photographer, a dealer in historic photographs, a teacher, a guest lecturer, produced books (two of them autobiographical) and now, after two strokes and a heart attack, is making startling prints based on collages and has published a book devoted to these works.
He was still making photographs when I first began writing for publication, so long ago that it took me a moment to decipher his name on my answering machine. He proposed we meet somewhere so that he could show me what he’s doing now. “Not photography at all!” he said. After a false try (I gave the wrong address? He heard me incorrectly?) we met at Iris, that hospitable spot on Main Street for meetings of this kind. The far table in the back room, beneath a window, seemed to him lighted well enough, and Walt, his driver/assistant Michele Ricker and I settled in. He no longer drives – “two strokes change your brain.”
The prints came out of their wrapping immediately. They are big, sixteen by twenty inches, intensely colorful, full of shapes that need deciphering, printed on heavy paper with a rough surface that gives depth to the color, he points out. Each individual print is enhanced by a string of words, cut out from any of a number of sources by the artist himself, who has been collecting such things for twenty years from “half-price books, old Smithsonian magazines, gay women magazines.”
For example: “The next day, I massaged the edge of reality, and decided to stay there” is the text of one and “Take your market research and shove it” is another. Modern modes are balanced by a quotation from Sappho: “The moon has set, and the Pleiades: and time passes, time passes, and I lie alone.”
Burton says his current works are “figurative, philosophical looks at the world” and describes the process as “multi-media collage.” He showed me original art for the prints, a quarter the size of the finished work. The prints, he says, are $600 each; $300 wholesale through firstname.lastname@example.org. Burton himself eschews the computer; Ricker handles that for him.
“But exactly how do you make the finished pieces?” I ask, because some of the original material clearly had been altered in one way or another. There was no direct answer then or later, at our second meeting, when he admitted he didn’t even tell close artist friends who want to know. “An Exacto knife and a twelve-color Epson copier” is the extent of the information he cares to share. Earlier on, he described the Epson copier more romantically as “a mysterious modern machine.” He also calls his current work “A fist in the face of digital photography, which has swallowed up aesthetics. Photography is dead.”
Back before photography died, for this photographer, he was making pictures that four times appeared in New York exhibitions alongside Edward Steichen, Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Weston and others. In 1963 he photographed the Beatles in concert for their first North American Beatles booklet. A job close to his woman-loving heart made him the official photographer for Playboy’s largest division, headquartered in Cincinnati. He was also official photographer for the Playhouse in the Park through much of the 1960s and into the ’70s and in the about the same stretch of time he was a photography contractor at the University of Cincinnati. There were commercial assignments from Look, Newsweek, Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, other American and European magazines.
“When I was 40, I gave up photography,” he says, by which he means being a photographer for hire. That would have been 1975, as he is quick to say he’ll be 78 in January. He had a photography gallery after that in Mt. Adams, then he had one on Fourth street. He became a dealer in antique photographs and lucked into a hoard relating to Wilber and Orville Wright and their historic flight. This resulted in a prize-winning book, co-authored with Owen Findsen, long-time Cincinnati Enquirer art critic and a photographer himself.
What about what he’s doing now? “It all feels really good. I always had bosses or editors or clients and deadlines, and there was political background in one way or another. Now I’m doing exactly what I want to do. Some like it and some don’t. It has feet. It’s not yet set. I’m standing on the top of a pyramid balanced on its tip. It will go in the direction of its own.”
The work, particularly in the second of what he loosely calls autobiographical books, LOOKaway, (2008) is shot through with sex. (He didn’t show me the earlier autobiographical work, No Panties - unsuitable for a woman of my generation?) In LOOKaway the text actually is written by Michael Caporale, clearly a long-time friend and previous collaborator, who says in the book’s introduction that he was hired on to scan photographs and plan the design, but in the end became the writer as well. He is an objective writer, fond of his subject but well aware that Walt Burton crashes through life making friends and enemies with equal vigor. He is, for instance, “possibly the most reviled person in all of professional photography,” Caporale notes. This explained why a well-known Cincinnati photographer emphatically declined my request for comment on Burton. The reasons were not lined out.
Whatever the reasons, the talent is real, as the work attests. In LOOKaway Caporale “ignored the instructions” and set about “editing and designing the portfolio as I knew it had to be done.” The book became a biography plus “large chapters exclusively of art images punctuated by introspective musing on aesthetics, morality, genetics, philosophy, psychiatry and ethics. . . .not a book about Walt or his art, but about something else.” The something else may be hard to pin down, but the book demands attention and holds it. Chapter headings are high on impact and low on readability, perhaps a deliberate move to require attention from the reader. The book on Burton’s new prints, Found Dreams Words, reproduces a hundred or so of the works at fraction of their actual size. The impact is necessarily lessened and the slick finish of the paper stock eliminates the depth of color in the prints themselves but the complexity of image remains.
Burton has stories. With a 78th birthday coming up there’s a lot to look back on. At our second meeting, held at my place, his eye lighted on a painting. . .was it a Knipschild? Yes, Robert Knipschild, long time painter and educator at University of Cincinnati. There followed a hilarious account of a painting made by Knipschild on the bulging stomach of Burton’s pregnant wife, at the nine months point, actually, and the unusual happenings in the hospital shortly after. Knipschild is no longer living. Burton is no longer married. Life changes.
Burton is a man given to pronouncements. Near the close of our second meeting he threw out “Making art is not a burden, or a privilege, but a mystery.” and after a moment added “It can speak without prodding.” Nonsense. Of course it prods. That’s what makes it art. But he is right that art is, ultimately, a mystery. Just when we think we have its essence, it slips away again.