Art photographer from Portland, Oregon.
Creativity. For some it’s a release. For others, the driving force behind everything they do. At times it controls us, takes over. We give in and let it take us where it may.
For Rich Burroughs, the creative outlet hasn’t always been through a lens but it has always pulled him toward collaborating with others, creating something stronger through that combined effort; the joining of two creative forces.
His story traces a familiar path, one that we’re certain you’ll enjoy and relate to.
This interview has been edited for clarity and content.
I shoot with what some call toy cameras. But when I was a kid I literally played with cameras as toys.
I hadn’t really thought about it but a few years ago I picked up a Polaroid SX-70, one of the Sonar models. They make a specific sound when the sonar auto-focus is doing its thing. The minute I held down the button I instantly knew that I’d done it before. We must have had one of those cameras when I was a kid. My sister also dug up our old family Brownie camera from the 50s. It was the same exact thing. I pressed down the shutter and I immediately had this real visceral flashback.
My first time really shooting was when I was in high school, working on the school newspaper. I was actually more of a writer but I learned to take pictures to go along with my stories. I learned to do the basics and to use a darkroom. At that time there was no digital. We learned to shoot on these manual Pentax K1000s and my friends and I would hangout in the darkroom.
I had dabbled with photography on and off over the years. There actually had been big gaps of time, like 10 years or more, where I didn’t touch it. I’m a sysadmin during the day — I was looking for a creative outlet, and about six years ago I picked up my old 35mm Nikon again; sometime after that I got into Holgas.
I was doing all landscapes, urban landscapes at that point. I wasn’t really shooting people much at all. I’m very camera shy myself so I never did portrait work at all. Because I don’t like to have my picture taken, it felt like I would be imposing on other people.
Three years ago I was doing what I think was some really solid medium format landscape work. I had gotten pretty serious at that point: I had picked up a Hasselblad and my work had really gone up to a different level. As I was considering the different directions that I wanted to go, I started thinking more about wanting to do portrait work. It seemed like working with models would be a good way to get into it. You clearly have a willing subject, as opposed to worrying about approaching someone on the street and the awkwardness that could bring.
That was initially how I got into working with models. Honestly, at first, I really didn’t even plan to do nude work at all. That all came later.
You know, it’s interesting: I think that it’s about beauty. The women I shoot are women who I think are naturally beautiful. I think the work isn’t that different from that perspective.
I started showing my portrait work and got really good responses. That was what really encouraged me to keep doing it, the fact that it just kind of went so well. I can be a cynical person when it comes to myself. I can have low self esteem at times, so I tend to be drawn to things where I have a very high level of success early on. When I do something that I’m just kind of good at I’m a lot more likely to pursue it than if I try something and fail miserably.
I grew up in a very conservative area. In some ways I had a very repressed view of sexuality. I was very ashamed about sex. I was shy about it. That has sort of turned around in the last few years.
I don’t think of myself as an erotic photographer. I don’t go out of my way to portray that in my work, but I think there’s a level of eroticism that’s there. I think that’s part of what’s been going on, this opening up with me.
In some ways I’m more comfortable around women than I am around men.
The images I tend to like are the ones that are more introspective, the ones that look almost like candids. That’s really hard to do — to get a model to be that open and comfortable where they really think that there isn’t a photographer in the room. Those are definitely the kind of images I aim to create.
Up until I was 10 years old, I lived in one of the bigger cities in Iowa. Then I moved to this really small town with a population of 9,000 people. It was a very miserable place. It had a lot of very conservative, small-minded people. Everybody knew your life story, even if they hadn’t met you. I was there until I graduated high school.
I was literally an outsider. My dad hadn’t been on the football team when he was in high school. It was that stifling small town feel. Coming into that I ended up falling into a group of kids that were in the same boat. We were the computer nerds of the time. In the 1980s, in rural Iowa, being a computer nerd was not common at all.
I was very good at college or very bad at college, depending on how you look at it. I went to school for like 6 years and never graduated, but had at least 4 different majors. The problem was I kept getting jobs in the real world.
My first time around I was a theatre major. I started to make a living directing plays and doing improv comedy. We started doing these comedy gigs during the day and they totally interfered with school. So I ended up dropping out of school.
I went back when I started to get involved with tech stuff. I was going to study computer science. I ended up getting a job at an internet provider very early on in the process, so I dropped out again.
I was drawn to the collaborative aspect, the fact that you’re always learning different things, and having different types of challenges.
I have a short attention span. One of the cool things about theatre is you get together to work on a project for 3 months. Then you move on from that and do something completely different with perhaps a whole different group of people. It’s good and bad, but it’s cool to have constantly new challenges. I think that’s something I really appreciate.
I think about that a lot. I learned a lot about light: I was more of an actor and a director, but I had to take lighting design classes. Even as an actor you’re around lights all the time. You learn to step into the right spot where the spotlights hit you. You can feel the light on your face.
As I started directing and working with lighting designers, I started talking about color, texture of light, and direction. All those things come into play. I feel that experience really helped me develop an eye for light.
The other side of that was just working with models. I don’t direct models much. With my directing background you might think I would give the models a lot of direction, or try to put them in a pre-determined settings. I kind of tend to go the opposite route.
I had a college professor who would literally build a miniature of the set and put chess pieces on it to figure out where everybody was standing at every moment. I was exactly the opposite. I kind of work the same way with models: I really try to encourage them to be loose, to be creative, and to go with their impulses. I try to capture that.
I believe that my work is portraiture. To me a good portrait is one that reveals something really honest about the subject. My background working with actors, and studying acting myself, really helps me a lot in that area. You learn how to sniff out bullshit.
That’s what I try to look for, finding those kind of honest moments. In some instances, it’s not even so much about the shoot. It’s more about the image selection after the fact.
For most of my life there’s been some kind of big creative outlet. I was really miserable without one.
When I was very young it was music. I was always singing in choirs. I took piano and guitar lessons. I’m not a musician at all at this point, but I always had something.
Then it was the theatre. I was interested in filmmaking for a while and took some filmmaking classes.
There were a few years in the late 1990s and early 2000s when I ran an internet radio station that was fairly well known. It got mentioned by Spin Magazine and Playboy.com. It one of the only places online to listen to independent music at the time.
I’ve met some really amazing creative models, photographers, and lately I’ve even started connecting with some painters. I have a ton of admiration for people who can draw and paint well. One of my favorite painters is Audrey Kawasaki. She is actually now a fan of my work. She told me she would like to buy my book when it comes out. That kind of blew me away.
I’m hoping to do a book of my Polaroid series. Honestly I don’t know a lot of specifics at this point. I don’t have experience in that area so there are a lot of big question marks for me. I’d like to try and find a publisher if possible but I think the publishers I’m interested in might be out of my league at this point without a lot of exhibition history. We’ll have to see what happens.
My first couple of shows were through a little place in San Francisco called Photoworks. They’re a lab that does little exhibitions in their space in SF. They displayed my work but I wasn’t able to attend, so I didn’t really get a sense of it at all.
The real exciting one was the first time up here in Portland. I was in a show at a place called Newspace Center for Photography. It was really exciting to see one of my images up on the wall. To see people looking at it and talking about it — that was really fun. I haven’t been exhibited that much really and nothing in a while.
It was one of the images that I shot in central Washington State. There was this horse that’s out in the fog. I really like it. I think it’s a striking image.
I’ve been working on this Polaroid series for a few years now and I’ve had just one of those images exhibited. It was in a show at a gallery here in Oregon in the summer of 2011. My hope is that, in addition to doing the book when that series comes together, that I can hopefully start getting solo exhibitions with that.
I had a lot of experience with collaboration because of my theatre background. I worked with this model named Jess Robinson. She was on the cover of the Playboy Lingerie issue in the magazine stands at the time, and here I am in my second shoot with a model — ever. I was kind of intimidated.
But she was fantastic. She brought so much to the table. So much energy, great posing, and it really felt like we were doing some cool stuff together. Looking at the percentage of strong shots, I can define how successful a photo shoot is. That was probably the first shoot where we just really killed it. There was something like half the images that I would consider keepers, or that I would’ve been comfortable showing other people. That’s really a pretty absurd percentage, at least for me.
I really can’t even imagine what it would be like without Flickr or Instagram. I did photography years ago to some extent but social media has changed how you can connect with people. When I started off a few years ago, Flickr was really instrumental in exposing me to lots of different work as well as encouraging me with feedback.
One of the biggest mentors that I’ve had is a woman here in Portland. She’s a fine art photographer named Lauren Henkin. She’s very good. She’s someone who gave me a lot of encouragement and really good advice about fine art photography, galleries, and other things like that.
A lot of the advice I got from her has really stuck with me. I don’t sell a lot of my work online, and part of that is because I’m still holding on trying to figure out what I want to do in terms of working with galleries. Some of them don’t want a whole lot of work out there. There’s more appeal to collector’s if there’s not a million prints of something out there already. She’s someone who had a big influence on me.
What I usually say is that I’m happy, but not satisfied. And that’s enough to keep me motivated.
Newspace Center for Photography, the whole group of people there are really fantastic. They really believe in photography and are very encouraging. I took a number of classes and workshop there a few years ago when I was starting to get back into things.
There’s a camera store here in Portland in an area called St John’s called Blue Moon Camera. You go in and it’s full of film cameras and typewriters. I don’t think there’s a digital camera in the place. They’re a great lab, with a very high level of expertise. They’re also just really great people to talk to.
In some ways I just feel more akin to the 21 year old photographers that are out there and just killing it. I get jealous of some of those folks. I see these guys and girls who are doing work at such a high level. At times, I just wish I was in their shoes. But we all are where we are. In some ways I also wouldn’t give up growing up in the 70s and 80s. That was a pretty awesome time.
I think that a lot of it was the level of freedom we had as kids. It’s one thing that kind of freaks me out a little bit about parenting these days; there’s a level of parental control lately that just didn’t exist when I was a kid.
I wonder what it does to you if you’re taught to be afraid of the world? I think that’s not just a problem with kids, but in general there’s a certain culture of fear. You have to wonder what that does to people, when they’re constantly taught to be afraid of everything around them.
I’m never satisfied. I’m not an incredibly negative person when it comes to my work, but I do have bad days. I think everyone does. You know, those days where you see something that really blows you away, and you feel like your work is just horrible compared to it. I’ll just want to burn all my negatives and hard drives. I don’t have a lot of those days. But they do happen occasionally.
A lot of it is about collaboration for me. It wasn’t there in some of the other work that I did. I hadn’t had it since I stopped doing theatre. It’s been a little bit addictive from that perspective.
The other thing is — and this is strange — photography can be kind of competitive in some ways. I’m a fairly competitive person. I try not to be, but the bottom line is that a level of that is there. A certain model may not be as excited working with you but might be excited about working with other photographers that you know. Those kind of things come into play. It really is a little bit of a treadmill that you get on, and it’s kind of hard to get off. There’s a drive to constantly improve and get your work in front of more and more people that you want to work with.
In some ways I might not be the best person to ask this sort of question. I know photographers who come from an academic background. They’ve done the MFA. So much of that seems to be about learning how to write artist statements, going through critiques, and learning to defend your work.
I just come at it from such a different perspective. For the most part, I don’t really think that much about what I’m trying to do.
I think there is value in both approaches. I do usually have some constraints; with this Polaroid project it happened organically. I’d done something like 7 shoots with this very specific Polaroid film. I really liked the look and just saw it taking shape as a series. I didn’t really plan it at the outset. It just happened. But at the same time, there were some restrictions. It was a very bare room. Very minimal. I had certain choices I made in terms of hair and makeup and wardrobe. So I continued that. The shoots I’ve done have all had similar constraints.
You know, I think that honestly it’s probably not even one of my model images. It’s one of my landscapes.
I mentioned that shot of the horse that was my first image I saw up on a gallery wall — it was on that same trip. There were maybe 20 minutes between these two images and there are couple of my favorites, but there is also a shot of this tree in the fog. It’s a very odd shaped tree, really interesting, visually. I was in that kind of high deserted landscape that’s there in central and eastern Oregon and Washington.
Back when I was first talking with models, before I had much of a portfolio, I tended to show my landscape work. I had a number of models say things to me about that specific image like “I want to be in that picture.”
I would like to do more outdoor photos, but some of that honestly is just due to practical matters. One of my many eccentricities is that I don’t drive. It honestly hasn’t bothered me that much in life. But if you want to be a landscape photographer, or a photographer who shoots models outdoors, then it makes it a lot harder.
I would shoot in town a lot, or I would go out with other people. I’ve had people offer before to like assist me in my work with models and in general I am kind of little wary of that. It changes the dynamic. Sometimes it’s even been women who asked and it’s not like I’m worried about them harassing the models or anything like that.
My work is intimate. I feel like I am able to get models to be a little bit more open and creative when it’s just the two of us and not a whole bunch of people watching and standing around.
Some models actually don’t want to shoot unless they have somebody with them. They are scared of photographers. In a way it goes back to what we were talking about with the culture of fear. There are a lot of sensationalized stories out there about photographers.
I don’t mean to make it sound like there is no danger. There are certainly dangerous people out there. People need to take that seriously, but I think that some people take it too far. In the case of someone like me, I think that a model should be able to look at my work, at the number of people I’ve worked with, and know that I’m not just some random person.
I really love women, I have an immense amount of respect for them. I was really raised my mother and sister. My dad was in the house but he in some ways neglected me. I didn’t really get a lot of time with him. My parents were divorced when I was about 14. At that point it was just my mom and sister with me in the house. They sort of would segment the feminine stuff away from me because, I dunno, they thought it would make me feel uncomfortable.
I’m in some ways more comfortable around women than I am around men. I have many more women friends than male friends. I think in part that’s due to being in the tech industry. It skews very heavily male. I work with so many men that I don’t necessarily feel a big obligation to hang out with guys all the time outside of work.
There’s a lot of issues that come up working with models. There are certain things that I have ethical questions about. The big one is probably the weight issue. I’ve given it a lot of thought.
I’ve had a couple women that I know, call me out on it. They have thought that all the women that I photograph are abnormally skinny. I don’t necessarily think that’s the case. I do shoot some curvier women, but the reality is that if these women are out there making a living as models they’re going to be on the thinner side.
I’ve worked with some thin models but none that I thought were unhealthy. A lot of them are just naturally thin. There’s not a whole lot they can do about it.
Of course there are some women who do diet, but that sort of comes along with the job. It’s interesting because for the most part it’s considered pretty inappropriate to make fun of someone for being overweight, but people will make cracks a lot about women who are thin.
You know I grew up in the 70’s. My first encounter with sexy images of a woman were things like the 1970’s playboys. For most of my youth that sort of look served as a template for my ideal women physically.
There’s no question that through the years the perception of weight and beauty has changed. There are a lot of women that I know that are angry about it, and rightfully so. But I think the models are the wrong people to take that out on.
I think in general, I probably tend to shoot with women who are on the curvier side, at least for models. Some of the art models, they can get away with that more than a fashion model could. I don’t think of them as thin at all. But, you know, the average women and the average model, there’s obviously quite a bit of difference.
But then there are a some aspiring models who are just out of touch with reality. There’s a lot of five foot two women who want to be on the runway and it’s just not going to happen. I’ve shot with Jennifer Sullins a couple times. She actually got signed by a fashion agency not too long ago. She is such an exception to the rule. I think she’s five foot three, but she just has such an amazing face and is really great in front of the camera. The problem is a lot of women will look up to those exceptions and say, well this person did it and so I can too.
The art models that I work with, there’s a level of commitment that comes from the fact that it is their life. That’s what they’ve chosen to do, is to make art. It’s really, there are some of those models that I really do think of more as artists than models. They really do bring, a very high level of collaboration to the table.
I shot with this women, this last year named, Katlyn Lacoste, who is just fantastic. She gets in her car and she drives all over. That’s her life. Making images. Nettie Harris, she’s the same exact way.
My initial communication with Nettie was probably the most interesting that I’ve ever had. She sent me this huge list of different kinds of things that she’s interested in. The kinds of things she likes to shoot. It wasn’t about forcing her ideas, but collaborating. She asked me a lot of questions about myself, about my background, and what I was trying to express in my art. Just really thoughtful, interesting messages. That’s pretty rare.
Those kind of people are you know, are again, are usually the people who are a little more invested in really creating something. And they’re usually a pleasure to work with.
Photography has been great for me. It’s gone better than I could have imagined. The amount of people who appreciate my work and the really cool people who I’ve gotten to work with and meet has been amazing. I’ve met some really amazing creative models, photographers, and lately I’ve even started connecting with some painters.
One of the things I’ve been thinking about is starting a whole new Polaroid series. I’ve spent so long doing that minimalistic work. I like it but I kind of want to do some other things. I’m getting to the point right now where I feel I’ve kind of done it to death. I really want to start a new Polaroid series where I shoot on location more. Do maybe some more conceptual things.
One thing I’d like to do is actually incorporate more of my sense of humor into some of the work. I’m someone who is constantly cracking jokes. And if you look at my work it’s generally kind of serious and somber. I’ve heard some go so far as say it’s lonely. And I think there’s a part of that in me, but there’s also a lot of humor.
I’m kind of thinking at this point that I’ll do this series on The Impossible Project film. I’ve messed around with some of it on a couple of different shoots.
I love the quality and the look of the film. I actually shot a little editorial piece with Nettie on it. The images are really cool looking.