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Meet the artist who captured these timeless portraits of 1980s Seattle

Firefighter by photographer Marsha Burns.
Courtesy of Marsha Burns
Firefighter by photographer Marsha Burns.

In the 1980s Marsha Burns prowled Seattle's streets, looking for people to photograph.

“I was doing pictures of edgy people, people who didn’t fit into the society.” Burns says. “When I would approach them and say, ‘I’d like to make your picture,’ they were thrilled." 

Burns used a large format Polaroid camera, too large to carry with her. If she found somebody who intrigued her, she'd invite them to her studio to sit for a portrait.

Dozens of these portraits now stare down from the walls of Burns' downtown Seattle studio. They're all black and white prints, at least two feet tall and 18 inches across. Transgender women, gay people, street kids all stare out at viewers, almost daring them to look away from the photo.

Burns developed a knack for determining who would be a good subject.

“I’ve seen people that were so delicate, I couldn’t ask them, like two 55-year-old men in grandma dresses, sitting on the bus in separate places, even though they were a couple,” Burns remembers. “I thought, they were so wonderful, but I just couldn’t (ask them), they were so uncomfortable.”

[asset-images[{"caption": "Photographer Marsha Burns was a sophomore when she started taking portraits of people she encountered on the streets of Seattle.", "fid": "133270", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201701/marsha2.jpg", "attribution": "Credit Courtesy of Marsha Burns"}]]Fifty years ago, Burns didn't imagine herself as an artist.

She wanted to be a Supreme Court Justice.

When she started college at the University of Washington, Burns enrolled in pre-law courses. But, Burns says, “I had a wonderful advisor who asked me what else I wanted to take.”

Her answer: Art. Drawing, painting and design.

In her sophomore year, Burns dove into photography; in particular, she was interested in portraiture.

[asset-images[{"caption": "Two 10 year olds posed for Marsha Burns in California in the 1980s.", "fid": "133242", "style": "card_280", "uri": "public://201701/marsha1.jpg", "attribution": "Credit photo by Marsha Burns, courtesy of the photographer"}]]After years of work with street people, Burns began to widen her scope, photographing at rodeos and in gated communities.

Eventually, Burns expanded her photography to include nudes and more abstract portrait. She traveled to New York and to Europe to find subjects, and her work has been shown in galleries and museums around the world.

As popular as they were with art collectors, Burns and her husband Michael, also a photographer, supported themselves through commercial work.

“We always worked just enough to pay for what we wanted to do,” says Burns. “When everything shifted to digital, quite rapidly, we really lost our income.”

She smiles.

“Fortunately, we were on the cusp of becoming eligible for Social Security!”

Burns is now in her 70s, and although she still sees interesting people on Seattle’s streets, she doesn’t often invite them to pose. She admits she’s not as driven as she once was to find people living on the edge of society.

Burns now spends hours at her computer, using digital technology to manipulate photographs into abstract portraits.

At this point in her life, Burns is looking for a library or museum that might want to collect the archives of her long career. In the meantime, she continues to work, ever curious about where photography will lead.

Burns will lead a tour of an exhibition of Northwest artists’ work, part of “A Closer Look: Portraits from the Paul G. Allen Family Collection,” at 2 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 4 at Pivot Art + Culture.

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