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Extraordinary Medical Images From The Burns Archive

Extraordinary Medical Images From The Burns Archive - Find out more about the work of Doctor Burns and his extraordinary collection of medical images.

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Professional Interviewed


The Burns Archive is a huge and unique collection of medical and socio-cultural images consisting of over a million photos. Dr Stanley B. Burns is a historian that began collecting the images in 1975 and hopes the collection will prove a useful education and resource tool for anyone interested in historical, artistic and socio-cultural topics. Here we spoke to Dr Burns about the collection and his work. 

Burns Archive

© Stanley B. Burns, MD & The Burns Archive

What led you to start the Burns Archive?

In 1977, two years after I had started collecting photographs, I published my first historic image in a journal. It was the front cover and the response was phenomenal. The editors advised me that my collection was unique and should be organized and made available for publications and the media. I then created The Burns Archive as a stock photograph company offering rare and unusual images to the media and galleries. In 1978, Time-Life came to me and after evaluating my collection featuring it in a Time-Life Book: The Encyclopedia of Collectibles noting, “Few collectibles have gone from trash to treasure as abruptly as old photographs.” After that book was released, my Archive was deluged with requests from the art world and media. Since then, we have been supplying photographs for feature films, television series and documentaries, as well as, print publications and exhibitions.

Burns Archive

© Stanley B. Burns, MD & The Burns Archive

What do you hope your collection will do for others?

Educate specific audiences on historical, artistic and socio-cultural topics.

I pride myself as being a historian, not a collector. I have amassed my one million plus photograph collection as an educational and research tool. I learned long ago that no matter how smart one is, one cannot remember a single sentence they read, no matter how interesting. Yet at the same time, I can show you 100 photographs that you will remember forever. Most of us remember and learn best through visual communication and my photographs provide a way of learning about history and culture that is easily recalled. I have written 45 books and curated about 100 exhibitions all on previously unexplored areas of history, culture or photography. There does not have to be another book on Man-Ray or Stieglitz or Steichen, as there are so many interesting topics and photographers to explore.

Burns Archive

© Stanley B. Burns, MD & The Burns Archive

What was the first image you acquired that started you on this journey and why did it make you want to collect more?

My first image was an 1848 daguerreotype of a South American Indian from Venezuela who had a tumor of the jaw. It was taken by a surgeon Eliseo Acosta, who was the partner physician Jose Vargas, who was at the time was the president of Venezuela. On researching the story behind the image, I found the translated diagnosis of the disease was erroneous. It was a parotid tumor, not a carotid lesion. I recognized that original un-retouched photographs were irrefutable evidence of events. They were historic documents of primary importance, as written accounts of an event do not ever tell the whole picture - but a photograph might. I also recognized that future generations look for aspects of a photograph that were not deemed important at the time, but represent significant social or scientific changes.

Burns Archive

© Stanley B. Burns, MD & The Burns Archive

The collection must be rather large by now, do you have a management system for organizing your images?

We have over a million photographs in the Archive and Collection. They are organized by subject. Our most significant and world-class collections are medicine, crime, forensics, African American, postmortem/memorial, war, and Judaica. In 1999, I created a filing system that emphasizes our holdings. Unfortunately, there are only three of us here producing more exhibitions and books than most photography museums. A topic is fine-tuned when we produce a book or an exhibit. The rest of the time, we simply file photographs in labeled boxes by topic and sort when needed.

Burns Archive

© Stanley B. Burns, MD & The Burns Archive

Are you always looking for images? Where do you find them? Are there particular images that you look for?

I look for images everyday, especially when on holiday. EBay is a favorite for my new topics. And of course, I am constantly asked what subjects I am looking for and I always say… wait for my next book. After collecting and writing for 40 years I have found the quickest way to price myself out of a market is to publish the topic. My books are comprehensive overviews and can’t be replicated because the material is quickly gone and dispersed. Some examples of topics are postmortem photography as well as medical, folk, painted tintypes, and African American.

Burns Archive

© Stanley B. Burns, MD & The Burns Archive

You are a medical advisor for TV series 'The Knick', how does your archive of images help with this role?

The Archive, as a documentary source, helps to provide the visual reference necessary to create the turn-of-the-century series. We have the privilege of working closely with the writers, director and actors, as well as, the art, props, make-up fx and set decorations departments. All of these people and departments utilized photographs from the Archive. In addition to reference, original images were reproduced as photographs and x-rays and used in the show. The Archive, specifically my images of surgery, helped me as medical advisor to accurately reproduce the operations. While training the actors to perform surgery and to understand their roles in the operating room I used the photographs to transform them into turn-of-the-century surgeons and nurses.

Burns on set

Dr Burns on set, assisting the cast of 'The Knick'

Do you have a particular image or indeed collection of shots that you are most happy to have in your collection and if so why?

Tough question, it’s sort of like asking a parent to pick a favorite child. Each topic has it’s own relevance to me, none of which I would give up. I have several collections of images that are unique holdings on subjects that are not well represented in any museum, and whose subject, is to me, an integral part of culture that has been swept under the rug of historical correctness. These include my collections of:

Burns Archive

© Stanley B. Burns, MD & The Burns Archive

1. Private photographs taken by German soldiers in World War II that show the mindset of the Nazis and how the individual soldier perceived his duty.

2. Photographs of lynching and vigilante justice in the United States. Community self-protection was a normal part of American life. How it was expressed in the North, South, East and West varied and has been forgotten.

3. Photographs expressly taken by Germans of the damage and destruction caused by Allied bombings. These photographs were made for presentation to the Allies after the war for expected reparations to Germany.

4. Other unique images will be in upcoming publications.

Burns Archive

Find out more and explore the collection on the Burns Archive website

The Knick Season 1 is now available on Blu-ray, DVD and Digital Download from HBO Home Entertainment.

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