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Christopher Burkett Biography


Born in 1951, Burkett was severely nearsighted as a child. In the first grade, however, he was given glasses, and the doors of his perception were cleansed. He was astonished to discover that his heretofore unfocused world of fuzzy blobs and blurred shapes was charged with "incredible, miraculous details everywhere.  " He writes of this early revelation: "My eyes were opened and I could see, really see, the physical world and all of its exceedingly fine, exceedingly important details."

At 19, Burkett entered an Orthodox Christian religious order in which, for seven years, he served as a brother. During this time he came to comprehend, as Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote, that the "Earth's crammed with heaven and every common bush afire with God." He would later write: "Once again, my eyes were opened and I could really see--but now I could see and sense a much greater world of light and peace."
It is in nature that Burkett sees God's grandeur shining through most brightly. Sharing John Muir's view that "every natural object is a conductor of Divinity," he writes: The world untouched and undefiled by man is one of indescribable beauty and wonder. All of our world, each living cell, every stone and drop of water, even the air and light around us, reflects and mirrors the glory and presence of the Creator and calls us to respond with wonder and praise.  The purpose of my photography is to provide a brief, if somewhat veiled glimpse into that clear and brilliant world of light and power.

Since it was light that Burkett wanted to capture, he knew that there had to be some way to photograph it. To pursue his photography Burkett left the religious order in 1979. In that same year he married his wife, Ruth.
One way, of course, to photograph light is to use color film. After all, as an ad for the earliest Toshiba color television sets queries, "Who ever heard of a black and white sunset?" The great photographers, however (including Ansel Adams, whose zone system Burkett studied), avoided working in color, at least in part because it meant a complete loss of control of the development process. Basically, color technology was so complex that these artists were unable to print their own pictures.

What sets Burkett apart is that he learned to print his own pictures by thoroughly learning the offset printing process. For 10 years, he earned a living running 40-inch, four-color, sheet-fed printing presses. After that, for about five years, he operated high-end laser scanners, making color separations. All the while, of course, he continued honing his picture-taking talents.

For more than 20 years, two months each year, he and his wife have journeyed and camped over much of North America. Burkett avoids national parks and other overly familiar locales. Consequently, his pursuit of pristine settings often necessitates a certain amount of heavy-equipment lugging--including, most notably, his old-fashioned 8x10 Calumet C-1 metal flat-bed view camera.

One finds no humans or animals in Burkett's prints. Trees, however, hold a special fascination for him and appear in two-thirds of the book's 73 photographs. Remembering his childhood before he got glasses, he wrote, "I never knew there were leaves on trees, I could only see if they had fallen." Of his Pink and White Dogwoods, he remarks, "To me, the image brings up deep, powerful feelings of life-giving regeneration and healing--perhaps a hint of the feelings associated with the legendary Tree of Life."

Despite the advantages of large-format cameras a greater range of tonal values, for example, and a lack of apparent graininess in enlargements, technical difficulties abound--one of which is caused by the wind. In describing his Yellow Maple at Twilight, he writes: Wind is the bane of every large-format photographer. Most exposures are in the one to twenty second range, and even the slightest motion of leaves and branches can destroy sharpness and the crisp definition of details.

The exposure for Burkett's Twilight, Virgin River and Zion Canyon, for example, took seven long minutes. It then took him years, he says, "to be able to make a print which conveyed what I saw and felt at the moment of exposure." Burkett's perfectionism is the stuff of legend. Though he ordinarily requires only one exposure, his magnificent Sunrise and Autumn Blueberries, for instance, took three days and about 50 sheets of 8x10 film before he considered the results successful.

Burkett's work schedule has rightly been referred to as "monastic." During the 10 months each year when he's not traveling and taking pictures, he spends 14 hours a day, six days a week, in his darkroom meticulously hand-printing his 8x10 transparencies and turning them into dazzling, light-infused 20x24-inch and 30x40-inch Cibachrome (Ilfochrome Classic Deluxe) fine prints. A traditionalist by nature, Burkett uses no filters, and nothing is ever cropped, digitally manipulated, or enhanced in any way. "Without everything in absolutely perfect balance," he writes, "the image loses the glow--the glow which is everything."

Burkett's light-filled landscapes are extraordinary works of art. Indeed, as more and more museums and judicious private collectors continue to recognize, many of them are masterpieces. Words, of course, cannot adequately convey their excellence--especially the magnificent richness of the stunning colors that he succeeds in capturing.
As the Zen adage reminds us, "The instant you speak about a thing, you miss the mark." These works must be seen to be appreciated.

Selected Permanent Collections:

Center for Creative Photography, Tucson, Arizona ~ Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts
Center of Photography, Tokyo Institute of Polytechnics, Japan ~ American Embassy, Ottowa, Canada
American Embassy, Moscow, Russia ~ American Embassy, Bagdad, Iraq
Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut ~ Stanford Univaersity Medical Center, Palo Alto, California
Marin Cancer Institute, Greenbrae, California ~ Portland Art Museum, Portland, Oregon
University of Oregon Museum of Art, Eugene, Oregon ~ Office of the Governor, Salem Oregon
Bernheim Foundation Photographic Collection, KY ~ University of Louisville Photographic Archives, KY
Hasselbad Corporation, Sweden ~ Carl Zeiss Optics, Germany ~ Chase Manhattan Bank, New York
Cox Communications PCS, L.P. ~ Hewlett-Packard Corporation ~ Mobil Oil Corporation