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HomeContents > People > Photographers > Burton Pritzker

Dates:  1941, 28 June -
Born:  US, IL, Chicago
Active:  US
American contemporary photographer. 
Artist statement: 
At the core of my photography lies the belief that “Everything is also something else”. When I look at anything through a camera, I sense another world, another reality beyond what I see. If the photograph I take is successful, that 'other world’ comes into being almost by magic, a kind of alchemy. My aim is not to record something, it is to reveal a something else.
An acorn is also a planet in space, a wall in an architectural landscape is also the sky, an avocado seed is also a human organ. A Professor of Biology once told me that I had mislabeled an image “Avocado Seed” - it couldn’t possibly be that. He was shocked when I told him that I had eaten the avocado, dried the seed, then photographed it. Viewing an image from my series TEXAS RANGELAND, a woman said it looked like a giant wave in the ocean. She was incredulous when I told her it was the face of a Brahma bull. Another person was astounded to learn that light emanating from a fissure in a dome was not a birthing scene.
My work has always been about the experience I have when I look through the camera. My focus is on the form and composition of the subject, its placement in the frame and the light that defines it. Sometimes it is the quality of the light itself or the absence of it, such as a shadow, that seizes me. The focus may also be on the emotional quality of the form and light in their abstract manifestations.
Forms can take me beyond what they seem, to something that strikes a deep chord in me. It is as if the form were a portal into a realm where “Everything is also something else”. When the form, light and composition are synchronous, in phase, there is always a palpable feeling that tells me I am on to something, at which point I strive to simplify, to strip away unnecessary elements that distract from the essence of the experience. I am called upon to tell a story and convey a feeling with an economy of means. Economy is power and I am in its grip.
Painting, printmaking and other art forms have influenced me. I am inspired, for example, by such 18th century Japanese artists as Hakuin, Jiun and Sengai. Their ink drawings are awesome in their simplicity. The spontaneity and power of their execution manifests a force and energy that moves me, as do the 15th Century rock gardens of the Ryoanji Monastery in Kyoto, Japan. What is readily apparent on the surface is only one aspect of something. A brushstroke is not just paint, a rock garden is not just gravel and boulders. There is something else, another story. Within an object, be it a bird or merely a shadow of a bird, there lies something hidden and I try to bring the hidden to light, to make manifest the inner essence of something.
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour

William Blake
“Auguries of Innocence”

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Scot Hill
Portrait of Burton Pritzker 
2004, July
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Burton Pritzker

In the late sixties I was working two jobs as an architect in San Francisco. Twelve-hour workdays in a city that was the center of those radical tumultuous times. I lived a few blocks from Haight-Ashbury and my landlord and neighbor was the road manager for Country Joe and the Fish and later Bill Graham's assistant. Which meant lots of free passes to the Fillmore.
In contrast, a friend lived in the mountains just east of Santa Cruz and I spent every weekend that I could visiting him. He had been working on a masters degree at Berkeley until an artist friend of his encouraged him to follow his desire to pursue art. So he dropped out and moved to an isolated cabin. His life was very simple. He would gather giant hunks of redwood from the surrounding forest and carve them into beautiful mythical birds. He grew a long beard and wore a loin cloth, cooked simple vegetarian meals and at night he would read and draw. When he needed money he would do odd jobs for the carpenter down the road.
I admired his life tremendously because there was a devotional quality to it. Mine was so totally different. I wasn't happy but didn't know why. One day when I was visiting him I picked up a pad and pencil for some unknown reason and started drawing. Later I started experimenting with my father's old camera. In the same way his friend encouraged him, my friend encouraged me to draw, sculpt, do photography, as well as go deeper into architecture. I haven't been the same since.
In the beginning I investigated all these disciplines as a means to delve into myself further. I was looking for something and art felt like the path to find it. After a short period of time I quit my two jobs and moved to the Redwood country of Northern California to begin my quest in earnest. No longer was architecture just a job or a career. It became an art form to me. I started a small private practice in hopes of carrying out my vision. Little did I know how difficult it would be.
I was inspired by Katsura, the 17th century royal palace in Kyoto, Japan, the rock gardens in Zen Buddhist temples, Rembrandt's paintings, Goya's drawings, the sculpture of Leonard Baskin, the architecture of Barragan and Scarpa, the photography of Ralph Eugene Meatyard and the late work of photographer Wyn Bullock. I also immersed myself in music. Everything from the Doors to Eric Dolphy and John Coltrane, Bartok and Beethoven. I was like a sponge, soaking up everything, looking for something. That is, until Pathfinder #14. Well, it wasn't titled that at the time. It was just a photograph that came up in my developer very late one night as a record of part of a house, a staircase, I had designed and built for a client. I knew what I was striving for in the design of the house, which was an experience of light. But here it was, taken even further, in the photograph. Suddenly, it became clear-that photography was THE path to investigate light. That realization gave me an incredible sense of freedom. Drawing, sculpture and architecture hadn't done that because photography, to me, was ONLY about light. Light seemed to be my motivator. This became a major turning point in my life. The thought of becoming a full time artist scared me and liberated me at the same time. Here was the perfect opportunity to devote myself full time to an art form.
Since that day, I've been exploring with the camera, which I see as a key to a lock in a door, not as a tool to record the physical world.
Bachelor of Architecture, University of California at Berkeley, 1965
Solo Exhibitions
2006 Old Jail Art Center, Albany, Texas
2005 Museum of the Southwest, Midland, Texas
2004 The Grace Museum, Abilene, Texas
2004 Tucson Museum of Art, Tucson, Arizona
2004 Roswell Museum of Art, Roswell, New Mexico
2004 De Santos Gallery Houston, Texas
2004 El Paso Museum of Art, El Paso, Texas
2003 Houston Center for Photography, Houston, Texas
2002 Flatbed Galleries, Austin, Texas
2000 Galveston Arts Center, Galveston, Texas
2000 Flatbed Galleries, Austin, Texas
1984 Cityscape Photo Gallery, Pasadena, California
1983 Fresno Arts Center, Fresno, Calfornia
1982 Sonoma State University Art Gallery, Rohnert Park, California
1982 San Jose Museum of Art, San Jose, California
1979 University of Maine Art Gallery, Orono, Maine
Group Exhibitions
2004 De Santos Gallery, Houston, Texas
2004 Scott Nichols Gallery, San Francisco, California
2003 Lumina Gallery, San Diego, California
2002 Houston Center for Photography (Juried Membership Exhibition, Juror - Anne Tucker, Curator of Photography, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas) Houston, Texas
2001 Rosenberg + Kaufman Fine Art, New York, New York
2001 Afterimage Gallery, Thirtieth Anniversary Show, Dallas, Texas
2001 Houston Center for Photography(Juried Membership Exhibition, Juror - Clint Willour / Director and Curator, Galveston Arts Center) Houston, Texas
2001 Davis Gallery, Four Person Winter Group Exhibition, Austin, Texas
2000 Davis Gallery, Inaugural Group Exhibition, Austin, Texas
2000 Houston Center for Photography (Juried Membership Exhibition, Juror - Ellen Handy, Curator of Collections, International Center of Photography, New York City) Houston, Texas
1986 Photographic Resource Center, Boston University, Boston, Massachusetts
1985 American Institute of Architects Gallery, San Francisco
1981 Los Angeles Muncipal Art Gallery, Los Angeles, California
El Paso Musem of Art, El Paso, Texas
Albuquerque Museum of Art, Albuquerque, New Mexico
Wittliff Collection, Texas State University
Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas
American Airlines, Dallas, Texas
IBM, Atlanta, Georgia
San Jose Museum of Art, San Jose, California

The Poetics of Burton Pritzker
Winter / Spring 2004, Vol. XXII, Number 1
Houston Center for Photography
Houston, Texas
September 5–October 26, 2003
Ileana Marcoulesco
In common parlance, "artifact" means any man-made object that may become, at some point, an object of cult or display. In a more specialized context, such as experimental-observational biology, an artifact is a specific structure that appears as a result of the interference between the observing device (such as a microscope) and the object observed, made more visible when "enhanced" with dye, a process that masks its original color and shape. The result makes an "objective" observation impossible.
Pritzker's 10 silver-gelatin prints expand the very notion of artifact through an exquisite staging of organic microcosms enhanced from behind a subjective camera lens. His questioning eye, heart, and mind move banal organic objects in a metaphysical direction. The result is a powerful metamorphosis of seeds, fruit, and decaying flowers from scientific specimen to artistic artifact.
Pritzker never looks at the beauty of things through a naturalistic lens. No doubt that nature, in his mind, is the repository of all beauty and signification. But to remain prisoner to a classic vision of nature through a so-called photographic eye, even with the added embellishing light effects, would be trite and boring. It is not modernistic fashion or snobbery that drives this photographer to seek hidden angles, recesses, and abstruse meanings in everyday objects. Rather, it is a philosophical impulse to live in a world animated by secret significations - not an empty, neutral, predictable world of objects.
Avocado Seed, depicting a seed once moist with oils and juices, appears to be reflected in a concave mirror that invites the eye to tour and taste a distorted world. The bulging kernel, where a new plant would later sprout, seduces the attentive eye to discover a potential, vital universe.
Similarly, Magnolia Petal #1, a barely sketched petal emerging in a curve of light, and Magnolia Seed Pod #1, propel the viewer into a fantastic landscape full of traps and accidents. Pritzker’s mysterious and provocative images intensify even the most conventional subject. Isn't that precisely the intent and technique of modernism, to act on our senses and intellect, not through a sum total of descriptive details, but through one or a few significant ones which stand for the whole?
Turning to the most original work in this exhibition - both in Pritzker's choice of content and mysteriousness of form - Midge Gall #I and #2 portray the swelling (or gall) induced by the sting of a female gnat-like insect (a midge) that will nest in this swollen vegetal tissue.
Calla Lilies #2 alludes to Zen Buddhist calligraphy. Black sepals emerge through a sensitive tracing or path of light carved into the negative. In this work, Pritzker combines the everyday object and allusions to a refined Oriental culture to extraordinary effect.
Pritzker's masterful ability to highlight minute voids, in otherwise opaque organic matter, is in part a combination of subtle lighting, observation, and a unique penchant for puzzling metaphors pitting the microscopic against the huge. For example, Acorn Cups #1 leads the viewer through natural caverns and openings. Two shells, one obscured in shadow, the other, pierced with light, invite the viewer to enter spheres of the imaginary. Pritzker unites things and their contraries in cryptic disproportion (shall I say Taoist?); between cause and effect; between the microscopic midge and the massive gall. There are a lot of dark corners and meanings in these images, which lead the viewer as far away from the known as from convention.
In his artist statement, Pritzker freely quotes from William Blake and Walt Whitman, whose cosmic view synthesizes the human, animal, and vegetal. Such poetry ignites this photographer's inspiration in signs, forms, and destinies. Yet, it is obvious Pritzker translates poetry into artistic matter; a physical reaction to a metaphysical space where Blake once spun myths, narrative, resounding rhetoric, and maximal poetic noise. Pritzker's photography swims in understatement, gnomic aphorism, cryptic Zen-like notation. When the practice of his poetics reaches a perceptible sublime, however, it is expressed not in theological discourse or in effusive epic, but in a striking haiku-style economy of means.
To the question Pritzker has repeatedly asked himself – is a romantic view of things, their elusive, sometimes messy volumes, shadows, and meanings compatible with a modernist view of form as severe harmony, high resolution, self-and other-transcendence, lead to another level of perception? The answer is emphatically, yes.
Ileana Marcoulesco is a Houston-based philosopher and writer who has contributed to ARTLies, ART PAPERS, Sculpture, and SPOT. She is working on a fictitious, tragic-comic memoir, La Femme Dada.
(This article is reproduced with permission from SPOT magazine, winter/spring 2004. Copyright Houston Center for Photography, 2007)
Burton Pritzker
October, 2003 - Issue 27
David Best
Who can say what motivates a photographer to take on some new revelatory creative project. For Texan photographer Burton Pritzker, it was a chance turn down a lonely highway near Big Bend, in 1995. A solitary Brahma bull stood patiently by the roadside, almost as if waiting for Pritzker to drive by. Instinctively he pulled over and unpacked his camera bags. That first picture inspired his latest body of work, which he has assembled in his new book: "Texas Rangeland."
Pritzker was a busy architect in the late sixties, living in the center of the countercultural revolution, in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury. He was inspired by friends to give up the twelve-hour workdays and explore his creative side. Not as talented as he had hoped with his drawing and sculpting, Pritzker discovered photography.
"Architecture is such a demanding profession," he says. "You can work on a project for years and nothing will come of it. There was something refreshing about being able to take a photograph and see your results right away. And there are so many levels of meaning that go deeper than what appears on the surface of a photograph.
"I've always tried to take things away in my pictures, to strip things down to their essentials. It goes back to the saying, "Less is More," which is the famous adage of Mies van der Rohe. I was never inspired by his designs, but I love what he said. I'm trained as an architect and that always informs my vision. It's not that my work is about architecture, but I love the simplicity of the architectural designs of people like Carlo Scarpa and Luis Barragan.
"There Is a Latin term: Horror Vacui - which means, 'fear of vacant space.' I don't have that fear. To me vacant space is never vacant. Vacant space is full of kinetic energy - implied energy. It's like a coiled spring, waiting to be released. I look at vacant space - emptiness - as full, like a circle. If you start at one point and come to the end, you're right at the beginning again.
"Someone who has inspired me tremendously was a calligrapher in Japan - maybe from the 1750's-- named Jiun. He did a calligraphic drawing of the Chinese character for 'Man'. He expressed this in just two powerful strokes on rice paper. If you are at all familiar with calligraphy, it is all about the preparation for the execution, because it happens in a split second, much like photography. It has to be done in a second because if you linger, the paper takes all the ink and everything is gone. It is this stripping away of the unnecessary which I try to incorporate in my work.
"My 'Rangeland' pictures are not photographs of cattle. I'm not an editorial photographer, or a reporter. I'm not out in the world photographing reality. I'm more interested in the emotional quality of light and form. What drew me to the cattle was essentially their architectural form. It was the topography of flesh that attracted me.
"The bull is such an incredible, iconic shape, just like other shapes we see everywhere: planes and automobiles and clouds, architecture, shadows, walls - they all have form. When I look through my camera I look for a certain emotional response. The bull is something that evokes vague memories; some kind of primal universal thing that maybe I've brought from other lives, or maybe it's something we all shared at some moment in our collective past.
"Then there is the humanity of the cattle. I get this certain feeling from them that reflect elements of my own personality. There is something rather tough and raw about a solitary bull, and I have this in my own character. There's bravado about some of them, and a soft vulnerability in others. You can see it. Some of them are standing there tough as nails, or they are fighting like two guys in a bar fight, and then the next moment they are nuzzling with their little calves, and protecting them. I saw all of these human qualities in them, which I suppose all animals have, if you look."
(Republished with permission)
Book review: TEXAS RANGELAND by Burton Pritzker and Renee Pritzker
(University of Texas Press, Austin: 2002)

ARTLIES MAGAZINE,br> Winter, 2002-2003
Reviewed by Ileana Marcoulesco
There are two ways in which one may represent animals, both wild and domestic, in the visual arts; both come from loving observation and unchecked admiration for these creatures we are genetically bound to - but still consider as outsiders to the human realm. One is the realistic (not necessarily flat) style enlivened by humor and currents of tenderness, with minimal deviations from "absolute resemblance" to the grace of motion, awesome intelligence and instinct. Here the contours of a recognizable beast, in all its frailty or strength, are safeguarded. The other style - diametrically opposed - looks at animals with eyes enamored with "form," who relish not the faithful iconicity of the Image, but aim at the intentional object, that which, mysteriously, takes all of us out of the realm of habitual perception into: "what it is that I like in the shapes of this longhorn, what it is that moves me to ecstasy, makes me cry for joy, and how is this intangible, essential thing both present and absent in the viewed object?"
Not an easy question; only the artist can answer it in highly subjective, variable modes. In philosophical terms, this latter group seeks, and is bent upon, the intentional object as opposed to the naturalistic one: not the cow, the steer or the bull, not cattle in themselves, not in their materiality, but in a highly distilled perceptual essence.
Burton Pritzker is a modernist from head to toe. His ideal of beauty is that of pure lines or volumes of a geometry barely suggested - and then, I daresay, of the non-Euclidean kind. His best images are ones that read like an unmarked Richard Serra sculpture or a rock (save that it is the result of manipulated light and camera angles). There are many "parts of animals" represented here - undauntedly reduced to formalistic bits and pieces. Not that the "humanity" or non-bestiality of the cattle is suspended; yet it happens that the stark light of abstraction brings them nearer to us.
The artist had the will and courage to come up close and look the animal right in the eye, straight in the nostrils. Here are "pure" noses, and eyes - mere black holes camped amidst white, barely speckled backdrops.
One shot, not abstract at all, shows an old wrinkled cow, in an incredible feat of contortion, scratching her ear under the horn with the left hind leg. She looks exasperated and fatigued, like an old Japanese lady, nearing her death, nude, in the "indecent exposure" caught on film by the Japanese photographer Manabu Yamanaka.
Nothing equals the "humanity" of the very young calves caught in a penumbra where the viewer is drawn into their smelly, warm, animal breath.
The accompanying text, by Renee Walker Pritzker is deeply Southern, both in scope and inflexion. Connoisseur of local dialects, poet, and passionate lover of the Texas dreamlands, Renee indulges in individual portraits of animals from their habitat - name, brand, provenance, color, morphology, and psychology. It is as if we were introduced, in chanting prose, to an extended royal family whose pedigrees of nobility are not to be doubted.
Texas Rangeland, eloquently shows that the American sublime, far from confined to dramatic and grandiose landscapes, may humbly emerge from the volumetric analysis of livestock, their architectonic splendor built within the camera's versatile quest.
A frisson of the sublime may also be sensed in the flea-infested ear of Bull #6, Marfa, Texas, with a glistening Cambodian statuette or in the outstanding image of the backs of black cattle, lumped together, indomitable and opaque like the rocky spines of Hamalayan Mountains.
To achieve this pinnacle of abstraction - a blend of organic and constructivist aesthetics - the University of Texas Press heeded the awareness of two exceptionally endowed Texas artists. Texas Rangeland is the result of their unique collaboration.
(Republished with permission)  
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