Ever since Burson developed her aging software and her subsequent profile in People magazine in 1982, her work has appealed to popular and scientific audiences as well as the more rarified contemporary art world.
Burson's work has accomplished what many artists only dream about—it has literally changed peoples' lives. Most notably, her revolutionary computer program to produce images of how people will look as they age (which she patented in 1981) has enabled the FBI and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children to help locate kidnap victims, and is still used today. Employing both traditional photography and cutting-edge computer technologies, her art illuminates how our current preoccupations with genetics and race—as well as expectations about beauty and normality— impact the notion of who we are.
Burson poses provocative questions about the nature of perception at a time when digital technologies and advances in genetic engineering have triggered grave concerns. In all her work, she asks: "How do you get people to change their way of seeing?" Drawing attention to interactions between consciousness and culture, she challenges assumptions about physical well-being and social identity. While her early compositions enable us literally to imagine other identities, her recent unaltered photographs of faces scarred by disease, and those of hands-on healers, challenge our perceptions of difference and ask us to look anew at alternative therapeutic practices.
From 1979 to 1991, Burson developed the projects for which she is best known, the experiments with new technologies that earned her a place in the standard photography surveys. This work includes facial composites combining portraits of two or more media images and a series of disturbing yet strangely evocative digitally altered faces. These are among the earliest photographs composed entirely through the manipulation of computer pixels.
More recently, Burson has often photographed without computer or digital enhancements. Using crude plastic cameras, she creates delicate, slightly burred black-and-white photographs of "special faces": children with facial abnormalities resulting from disease, injury, and congenital disorders. In her series of adults with facial anomalies, Burson employs a large-format Polaroid camera to produce color portraits of quiet dignity. Appropriating Baroque portrait conventions, Burson places her sitters in shadowed interiors where their faces seem to emit an inner glow or radiance. Never voyeuristic or dispassionate, the artist pays tribute to people society often overlooks, people she herself admires for their inner strength.