Burke, Bill: I WANT TO TAKE PICTURE. Atlanta: Nexus Press, 1987. First Edition [limited to 1,000 copies].

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Bill Burke

Bill Burke: I WANT TO TAKE PICTURE. Atlanta: Nexus Press, 1987.  First Edition [Limited to 1,000 copies]. Small Folio. Photo-illustrated laminated boards. [60 pp] Printed endpapers. Numerous color and black-and-white reproductions (duotone and halftone separations also by Burke). Unobtrusive gift inscription to blank front free endpaper. Spine heel and crown gently pushed. Boards with faintest hints of rubbing. A nearly fine copy of this elaborate Roth 101 title.

11.5 x 15.25 hardcover artist's book combining disturbing black and white pictures of Southeast Asia with outtakes from Burke's travel diary, and peppered with color reproductions of cultural detritus, like the bottle caps of energy drinks used by Lao truckers. One of the most important and influential photobooks of the 80s. (Parr & Badger, Volume 2, 40-41; Roth, The Book of 101 Books 258-250, Open Book 334-335; Auer 674).

Bill Burke grew up—like so many young boys—groomed for war. With the aid of movies, magazines, and TV, he envisioned himself somehow, somewhere, as being in combat. Yet when he was of military age he became terrified of it, and was relieved when he failed his draft physical. In 1982 Burke decided to go to Thailand and Cambodia to give himself the Southeast Asia experience that he managed to escape in the sixties.

“In 1982, years after Viet Nam, I decided to give myself my own Southeast Asia experience. I wanted to make pictures in a place where I didn't know the rules, where I'd be off balance. Friends who had been there recommended Thailand; nice people, easy transportation, good food. Another friend told me that as long as I was going to Thailand I should go see the refugees coming out of Cambodia. He set me up with The International Rescue Committee, which was working at the Thai-Cambodian border.”

Burke has become known for his large-format portraits shot on Polaroid Land film, which have the formality and feel of nineteenth-century photographs whilst remaining acutely modern in their sensibilities. In I Want to Take Picture, this technique is entirely appropriate, since it records his personal pilgrimage to southeast Asia, duplicating the enterprise of the old colonialist photographers but adding a contemporary twist. Although the pictures have a nineteenth-century feel, the book is also a diary that records a twentieth-century experience. Burke not only uses his photographs, but also employs documents—reproductions of ephemera like money and bus tickets—and collages them with handwritten captions. The result is a kaleidoscopic impression of his journeys, taking the book out of the documentary realm and into that of the personal road trip. However, this particular sojourn does not merely connate the search for self that occupies so much of late twentieth-century American photography. It also represents a moving attempt to come to terms with some of the events that haunted his generation.