Longtime Reno photographer Dean Burton has built a career on seeing ordinary things in extraordinary ways, creating photo opportunities rather than happening upon them.
Burton credits his upbringing in Maine, in a community that valued art and made it available early and often to children, for starting him on this career path. While he was in a grade school art class, a fellow student’s dad paid a visit to show the students how to develop film and print photos. Later, in his high school’s art program, he often took portraits of friends and, thanks to flexible teachers, was allowed to develop the photos at school during class time.
He went on to earn a Bachelor of Arts at the University of Arizona’s Center for Creative Photography and a Master of Fine Arts at San Jose State University, before moving to Reno in 1998. Perhaps it was the inspiration his own education offered that led him to teaching; he’s worked as a photography instructor at Truckee Meadows Community College for the last two decades.
As an art photographer, his emphasis tends to be on perspective and how being extremely close or far away can affect our understanding of a subject. When viewed closely enough and in black and white, flower petals become faces, otherworldly creatures; the pages of a phone book or stereo buttons are made beautiful as abstract series of colored lines and squares; a blossoming sage could easily be a piece of popcorn or a cauliflower floret.
In his newest series, Black Diamonds, he’s taken that idea to the next level, playing not just with the distance and color, but also with what we think is up, down, left, or right, and how limiting the view can be just as important as showing it.
The series originated, as they often do, through experimentation and chance. Forays into black and white photos, old-school roll film, and square formatting, all while exploring Nevada landscapes, led him to an exciting discovery.
“Square is one of my favorite formats … and the thing with square that I like is that the composition rules are all different,” he says. “It was 2018, and I was shooting out toward Pyramid Lake, and I was doing a close-up on the side of a hill, and it was kind of at a weird angle. And I’m like, ‘Why don’t I just straighten out the hillside and make it connect the corners of the frame?’ And when I got home and developed the film, I realized I’d done this before, right when I first moved here. It was also at Pyramid, a sand dune, and I had connected the little wavy lines in the sand across the frame.”
Simply turning the square 45 degrees to create the diamond shape, with the horizontal lines of the landscape running from corner to corner, was an epiphany. It became a theme that held infinite possibilities for him. Giving himself a timeline of two years, he began shooting voraciously, mostly within a 100-mile radius of Reno, save for a few one-offs taken on the California coast during vacations. There were setbacks, including six months of fires that reduced visibility and a pandemic, but in spite of them, Burton wound up with a collection of roughly 200 diamond-shaped, black-and-white photos, 34 of which are currently on display at Sierra Arts Gallery.
The square shape provides a porthole feeling that gives horizon lines, rock outcroppings, trees, and mountains new notice, making them focal points rather than backdrops. Because we can’t see what surrounds them or how they fit into the broader landscape, they become wholly other objects, with the lack of color creating striking contrasts where they otherwise might go unnoticed. It was the form that inspired him, not the content or any overriding social theme.
“It didn’t matter where I shot the pictures. I could have done it anywhere,” he says. “It would still be largely about the horizon line connecting the two corners of the frame. With the sky comprising the top half of the shots, I spent a lot of time just working on making the sky look good.”
Mistakes, he says, often turned into gems or opportunities for further exploration. “For instance,” he explains, “something that didn’t make it into the show was this valley … I put the peaks of the mountains in the corners and then got a V shape in the middle, which was kinda cool. So if I go on with this, that’s where I’ll start from.”