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PIC ID: 3187

Shirley Carter Burden

American, 1908-1989


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Shirley Carter Burden was born on December 9, 1908, in New York City. The youngest of three children, he was the son of William Armistead Moale Burden and Florence Vanderbilt Burden (Twombly), and through his maternal descendance was a great-great-grandson of the famous nineteenth-century entrepreneur Cornelius Vanderbilt. Raised in Manhattan, Burden was educated at the Browning School in New York City up to 1926. He did not attend college after his high school graduation. In 1924 Courtland Smith, the president of Pathé News, gave Burden his first job as a contact man for this newsreel company. His duties included minor news coverage and varied technical arrangements for the photographer and sound man at Pathé. Two years later he assisted his cousin, Douglas Burden, in producing The Silent Enemy, a motion picture which documented the life of an Indian tribe in Ontario, Canada. In 1927, Burden also accepted a job as an errand boy from Walter Wanger at Paramount Studios in Astoria, Queens. It was in 1929, before Burden realized his passion for still photography, that he met Edward Steichen, a monumental photographic artist himself, while having portraits made of himself for his mother at Steichen's studio in New York. While only a brief encounter, Burden would later again meet up with Steichen who, as the young Burden's mentor, acted as an influential catalyst in his future as a still photographer. Finding no enthusiasm nor a possibility for advancement within his previous work, Burden decided to venture to Hollywood where his desire for motion picture directing might be better fulfilled. In 1929 he left for California as an assistant to Merian C. Cooper, whom he met while doing production work on The Silent Enemy. Cooper at the time was producing for RKO. From 1929 to 1934 Burden also worked as associate producer on several films for RKO. His most prominent production work came with the filming of She, which was based on the book by Rider Haggard, and its cast included Helen Gahagan Douglas, Randolph Scott, and Nigel Bruce. While not a huge box-office success, She did managed to garner an Academy Award nomination. Burden continued his associate production work on films written by Robert Benchley and Philip MacDonald. From 1934 to 1941 Burden's life focused on more familial matters. In 1934 he married Flobelle Fairbanks, a niece of Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. Two years later their first child was born, a daughter named Margaret Florencel; their first son was born in 1941 and was named Shirley Carter Burden, Jr. In 1942 Burden formed his own commercial motion picture company which he named Tradefilms, Incorporated. With Tradefilms, Burden established a lucrative business producing motion picture training films, which were in high demand during the war years by the United States Navy, the United States Office of Education, and Lockheed Aircraft. After the conclusion of the war in 1945, all government contracts were cancelled and Tradefilms was all but defunct. Having been forced to close down Tradefilms due to the lack of post-war business, Burden teamed up with a former Tradefilms photographer and friend, Todd Walker, and opened a photography studio in Beverly Hills, California in 1946. The two initially specialized in still 4 photography for both advertising and architectural clientele such as Arts and Architecture, Architectural Forum, House and Garden magazines. Once again, Burden was unsatisfied with his work and wanted his photography to be more personal. By 1950, Burden had abandoned his photography business and became solely interested in photography as a fine art. It was also in this year that Burden converted to Catholicism, a decision which influenced much of the ideology behind his later photographic work. In 1952 Burden met Minor White, an already established fine arts photographer, and began a lifelong friendship and association as a patron with Aperture, Inc., in Millerton, New York, which was a publisher of photographic books and the avant garde photography magazine, Aperture. Further involvement in the photography world came when "Captain" Edward Steichen requested Burden's assistance in collecting photographs from the Los Angeles area for the "Family of Man' exhibition Steichen was preparing in 1955. At this time, Steichen also introduced Burden to Dorothea Lange who was also collecting similar photographs for Steichen's "Family of Man" exhibit from the San Francisco area. Lange would play an influential role throughout Burden's life both in and out of the photography world. In 1956 Grace Mayer, who was the Curator of Prints and Photography at the Museum of the City of New York, allowed Burden to exhibit a pictorial essay he had photographed on Ellis Island a year earlier. Later that same year Burden submitted some of his other photographic work to his mentor, Edward Steichen, who was at this time the head of the Photographic Department of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and these photographs were exhibited in Steichen's "Diogenes With a Camera IV". Burden's notoriety continued thanks to Steichen who, now as Curator of Photography, exhibited Burden's photographic essay on the Weehawken ferry at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1958. From this time on Burden's photographic works were displayed in museums and art exhibits, too large a list to name here, both in the United States and abroad. In 1959, upon Steichen's suggestion, Burden photographed the life of the Trappist monks at the abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani near Louisville, Kentucky. A year later this work was made into a book, Burden's first, God Is My Life, published by Renal and Company in New York with an introduction by Thomas Merton, a friend of Burden and a Trappist monk himself. After hearing the inspiring lectures made by Winifred Feely in 1960 on Saint Bernadette and the town she lived in, Lourdes, France, Burden and his wife decided to visit Lourdes. While Flobelle, who was a friend of Winifred Feely, worked in a local hospital for a month in Lourdes, Burden and his camera were busy photographing the town and landscape. By the end of their visit Burden had produced enough pictures for a photographic essay on Lourdes and its saintly aura. Behold Thy Mother was later published by Double Day in 1965, two years after their return to the United States. In 1963, he photographed I Wonder Why, a pictorial story of a young black girl's encounters with racial prejudice. This book was highly publicized and garnered much acclaim for Burden and his work, both his pictures and his words. A television version of I Wonder Why appeared on both the Red Skelton Show and The Tonight Show. A German edition, Ich Frage Mich, was also published in 1964. 5 After continued success as a fine arts photographer, Burden's life was severely disturbed upon the death of his wife Flobelle on January 5th, 1969. In order to quell his grief, Burden traveled to Japan with his brother William and did extensive photographic work while touring the country. Two years later, on January 23rd, 1971, Burden married Julietta V. Lyon. After his second marriage, Burden, while not abandoning his photographic projects, became profoundly involved with several important photography and fine art committees and programs throughout the United States. In 1974 he joined the board of trustees of the Friends of Photography based in Carmel, California. In 1975 he was appointed the chairman of the Photography Committee at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and was also a trustee. In 1976 he became a member of the advisory panel of the Santa Barbara Museum of Art in California. From 1978 to 1981 he assisted his friend, Don Wier, in teaching a course entitled "Point of View" at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. While his works were being exhibited in museums across the country, by the Los Angeles Art Association in 1976 and the Witkin Gallery in New York in 1977 to name just two, Burden was also compiling more photographs for other pictorial essays. Presence was published in 1981 as was The Vanderbilts in My Life which was a photographic tribute to his historically popular American ancestors. In 1985, now a chairman of Aperture, Inc.'s board of trustees, Burden was responsible for the organization's relocation to New York and as a sign of appreciation for his life-long support of Aperture and of photography as a fine art, Aperture opened the Burden Gallery in New York in his honor. Chairs, Burden's final photographic essay, was also published in 1985. His work on photographic essays never ceased and Aperture, Inc. was to have posthumously published two of his finals projects, The Mary I Love and Ellis Island: Echoes from a Nation's Past. Burden died of Lou Gehrig's disease on June 3, 1989, while in an airplane en route from Los Angeles to New York. Shirley Carter Burden was 80 years old. [NYPL Finding Aid to the Shirley Carter Burden papers]

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Shirley Carter Burden has 2 locations.

Birth (December 9, 1908)

New York, NY

Death (June 3, 1989)

Teteroboro, NJ