Richard Burniston Interview: Capturing Ruined Settlements at the Edge of Civilization

Richard Burniston

When you imagine light in its various colors and weights, it’s easy to picture the moonish blue of twilight, or the purplish red of sunset. What’s harder to admire — or work with — is the harsh, direct light of midday. The light is unforgiving. It seems to enjoy overpowering shadow and detail, oppressing color and flattening distance, making pretty look pretty bad. Obviously, it’s not a favorite to work with among photographers.

Yet it is precisely this light that makes British landscape/portrait photographer Richard Burniston’s Wonder Valley images even more impressive. Taming it has allowed Burniston to showcase his vivid backdrops of ruin. Capturing the desert at its most stark, his images stay true what a desert announces. The colors will pop, the shadows solidify, and the mountains steady, like they do in real-life, as deep-chested calls to appreciate the simplicity of nearing oblivion.

In this interview, Burniston talks about how he got his start in photography, explains his approach to working with midday light, and reveals why he’s drawn to desert landscapes.

Capturing Ruined Settlements at the Edge of Civilization

I really like your desert landscapes and focus on ruined settlements. How did you get your start in photography?

Thanks, Freddy. I was too immersed in career and family to take the step into becoming a full time practitioner. Luckily, I had the opportunity at the start of this year to make the transition full time and get cracking. It was liberating, I haven’t looked back, and I should say that my local photography club, Brighton and Hove Camera Club, has been a source of friendship, support and inspiration throughout, as has my wife Kristin.

desert landscapes

How would you describe your work?

Evolving! I feel I’m somewhat literal with the camera, but I’ve recognised that my approach and affinities have changed over the year and will, doubtless, continue to grow. I’m an admirer of Anastasia Taylor-Linde and Wolfgang Suschitsky and do have a soft spot for the Bechers. They all inspire me, too. Anastasia is a remarkable artist, fearless, and Wolfgang is just so flat-out incredible and versatile it beggars belief, and a perfect gent too. I would dearly love to meet Hilla Becher one day.

Anastasia is a remarkable artist

You say your photography reflects a passion you have for how places or people change with time. This passion can be seen in all of your projects. Could you explain why you’re drawn to photographing the effects of time?

I’m a Londoner, born and bred, and as a city boy I was tuned-in to the pulse of change that animates a city over the years. I lived for ten years in the shadow of St Paul’s Cathedral and my walk to work took me past 2,000 years of human endeavour, from Roman walls, markets, “greasy spoon” cafes and high-tech skyscrapers, all side by side. See them every day and you become sensitized to noticing their little details and changes, like the lines on a friend’s face, and you love them all the more for that – you appreciate that no matter what we build and make, it quickly passes out of its pristine state and is transformed. It’s the transformation I’m searching for. It helps tell the story, it’s part of the narrative. The Wonder Valley project took that idea into a landscape setting and a bigger scale, although I consider the shots of the cabins as more like portraits than, say, architectural or landscape work, although they are squarely part of a documentary project. With people I’m drawn these days to moments of self-absorption, but my entry point was my father. He died recently, but for the last year or so of his life he allowed me to take his portrait whenever I visited him. He was 90, a kind and gentle man, worked hard all his life, and it was a comfort to be there toward the end of his remarkable time and be permitted to document those years and experiences etched into his face. I’m not sure if those pictures will ever see the light of day, but the experience gave me the courage to get out there and photograph people on the streets, often up close.

photography reflects a passion

Your landscapes are mostly shot in desert environments. Many of them are taken during hard, midday light. Why do you like using this light? What tips could you share about working with this light?

That hard light is such an intrinsic fact of everyday existence in the desert, you just have to knuckle under and work with it. I wanted to represent the homesteads in that way, as true as possible to how they would appear most of the time to you or I, or the people who chose to live there. The sun is also one of the agents of transformation in the desert, warming, dessicating and bleaching, I wanted it to be present as a character in this narrative. The hard light seems to agree with the cabins, accentuates better the myriad little details in features like the siding and seems to make the colours pop better. A higher light also gives me more options for shooting around and within a structure than if the sun was much lower in the sky, casting a warmer light and those super- long desert shadows. I like magic hour shooting as much as the next person but it just doesn’t fit with what I was looking for in Welcome To Wonder Valley, I wanted something starkly demonstrative, not romantic. Plus from a practical perspective I was covering a lot of miles in 8 days. If I only shot at magic hour I would have had to stay for 3 months! Tips? Polarize with care! Bracket freely. Pack light as the days are long and tiring and you never know when you might have to run from feral dogs. Seriously. The harsh light flattens your compositions thereby making non-native colors stand out brilliantly. It gives a sincere tone to your images.

desert environments

Could you explain your approach to making these sparse landscapes visually interesting?

The desert is ever-present in these images and it could easily have overwhelmed the project and made a cliché out of it – lots of lonely little huts in the big bad landscape. The cabins have a tremendous amount of variety visually, and each bears the imprint of those who created them, so I screwed my courage to the mast and made them dominate many of the shots. The pay back is we can appreciate that smorgasbord of texture and colour, get closer to the unique human narrative and still be aware of the location and its subtle colours and shapes. After a while you kind of stop thinking of them as just structures, you start to appreciate them as homes, part of someone’s life, domestic, it becomes quite intimate.

variety visually

When photographing these abandoned structures, what are you trying to communicate with the viewer? How do you make sure what you feel is translatable to your audience?

We are connecting with lives. These were homes. They are all modest places, too, no abandoned ballrooms or empty pools here, just busted couches and broken windows. I would like to think I’m helping form a connection and an understanding of the people who took a shot at living there, a somewhat forbidding place, you won’t find sprinklers or green lawns in Wonder Valley. However they self-identify – homesteaders or otherwise – these people are all part of the same story of settlement and abandonment that has marked this place since the Small Tract Act of 1938 gave the first impetus to homesteading in the region. The work is also about appreciating the transformation of a built environment as it gradually reverts back to nature. That part of the story – the actions of nature, time and vandalism – is ongoing and continuous, overlays the original story of all the homes and extends it onward until there’s nothing left but a bare concrete foundation. I’m freezing a moment in that progression. The detail shots of individual items or groups were a response to my own reflection that the connection we form through this project could and should continue to a more personal and intimate scale.

concrete foundation

The 6th photo in Spaces, Places is one of my favorites. Could you explain how this photo was made from start to finish?

To understand this photo you first have to know that in the UK we celebrate Guy Fawkes Night every 5th November. Fawkes took the rap for a Catholic plot to blow up Parliament in 1605 and ever since our nation has gleefully celebrated the anniversary with huge firework displays and massive bonfires! Where I live, in Sussex, people take this very seriously and many of our towns and villages have bonfire societies dedicated to creating the best annual fires and displays. I love the vivid and unpredictable nature of these huge fires and I love the human face, so it became a natural urge to seek out faces silhouetted against the flames. Getting the shot then just takes time and patience.

gleefully celebrated

Many of the images in that project are vibrant. Unlike Lost Dreams or Wonder Valley, many of them are colorful and funny. What were your aims with this project?

My first encounters with the Valley were always hurried, I was heading someplace else like Joshua Tree, I never went further than a superficial and pessimistic appreciation of the. This year was totally different. I had the time to plan, reflect and research plus my own recent life experience meant my outlook was rather different too, more optimistic but less sentimental, more open-minded. I sold some things to pay for the trip, camped to keep the budget down and spent all day, every day in the Valley, calmly connecting with these lives through my camera. It’s heartening to know this comes across. Thank you.

Who Sat In That Chair

If you had to choose one image that could function as the epitome of your work, which one would it be? Could you talk about that image?

It’s the shot of the blue room with the torn up armchair in the corner. I often call it “Who Sat In That Chair”? as it’s so evocative of the human narrative of the place. I love the panoramic feel of seeing the landscape through two sides of windows, as the armchair’s owner could have done, and if you look carefully you can see their old washing line just outside. We are also connected with nature via the hole in the roof where you can see the sky. I spent a while in that place, just admiring how the light fell across the floor and appreciating the calm blue vibe of the room.

human narrative

What are the greatest lessons photography has taught you about your own life?

Looking isn’t seeing. Persistence pays. Always think of “what next”. Appreciate everyone.

Persistence pays

Be sure to check out all of Richard’s work on his website!