(Above: The Choice is Yours, a photograph by C.A. Burns)

By Paul Carter

It took years for him to make up his mind to do it, but Eugene photographer C.A. Burns finally will have a gallery retrospective of his career work.

The show is scheduled to open May 11. Sadly, Burns will not be there to see how the work is received. He died alone in his apartment on March 19. He was 71 and had suffered for years with several chronic ailments.

Un-named, a photograph by C.A. Burns, printed by Walt O’Brien; a retrospective of Burns’ work is opening at the O’Brien Photo Gallery on May 11

Examples of his black-and-white and color fine art photography will be hung at The O’Brien Photo Gallery at 2833-B Willamette St. That’s fitting, because the work was printed by Walt O’Brien, a master printer, photographer and friend of Burns. The memorial show is a collaboration by O’Brien and Photography at Oregon which is donating some materials.

Over the years that he lived in Eugene, Burns paid O’Brien to print dozens of his images. Almost all the pictures have been expertly matted and framed. And these are not typical exhibition prints. The pictures are very large, many of them up to 24 by 36 inches. The quality is astonishing for work originating on 35mm film. (See my 2018 Eugene Scene On Photography profile of C.A. Burns at https://bit.ly/2H1WGRG) .

But only one of these large images will be in the show, one that was left at the frame shop.

Here’s the rub: The big prints are under lock and key in Burns’ downtown Eugene apartment in Patterson Tower. Because he left no will or instructions, his possessions are now classified as “abandoned property” and subject to Oregon laws of intestate succession, according to a spokesperson for the apartment management company. It may take months to settle the issue of what will happen to the artwork. There could be as many as 100 of his prints in the apartment.

To mount the show, O’Brien has worked from his archived digital files to reprint Burns’ work at smaller sizes. Over the years, O’Brien printed nearly 50 images for Burns. This show will consist of 14 pictures; none will be offered for sale. The prints ultimately will be donated to the estate.

Street Hands, by C.A. Burns

O’Brien first met Burns in 1992 at PhotoZone, the Eugene photography collective. He started printing Burns’ pictures eight years ago. “It was a very intense process,” O’Brien recalled in a recent interview. The photographer often sat at the computer with O’Brien and gave instructions — usually to make the prints darker. “He knew what he wanted and he was extremely particular,” O’Brien said.

The printmaker was further challenged by the photographer’s penchant for very large prints. “Make it as big as you can make it,” Burns often instructed, and “I suspect if I had owned a bigger printer he would have wanted bigger prints,” O’Brien said.

Burns’ favorite subject was natural light portraits. He achieved his most striking images with nothing more than a good subject, a sympathetic approach, and the light of a single window.

And yet he was, by all accounts, a difficult man. Everyone interviewed for this story agreed he had a complicated and often contentious personality.

“He wanted friends, but he pushed people away,” said Sylvia Hart Wright, a neighbor at Patterson Tower.

Wright got to know Burns during “long, rambling conversations” as they sat together occasionally in the apartment building’s lobby. Eventually, he showed her some of his work and she became a fan. “I could see he was an artist,” she said.

She visited Burns’ apartment only once or twice, Wright said, so she saw few of his pictures. Nevertheless, Burns wanted her to see his work. Wright explained that more than once Burns quietly slipped one of his small prints under her door. “He wanted to clarify to me that he was a talented artist,” she said. She still has the pictures.

Wright could see that her neighbor’s health was failing, but she thought he would make it to his show. “It’s so heartbreaking.” she said.

She recalls that Burns was enthusiastic about his upcoming show. He even talked to her about the food he wanted served for the opening.

And what of those initials, C.A.? Burns was always cagey about that. “What does C.A. stand for?” Wright once asked him. “It’s for C.A.,” he snapped.

We now know, as his death notice revealed, that he was Charles Adams Burns.

C.A. Burns Photography, The Innovative Eye,in memoriam

When: May 11 through July 11; opening reception 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. on May 11

Where: O’Brien Photo Gallery in O’Brien Photo Imaging, 2833-B Willamette St., Eugene

Gallery hours: Weekdays; call 541-729-3572 to verify

Information: waltobrien1945@gmail.com or waltobrien.net
Walt O’Brien shows a large print of a photograph by C.A. Burns at his Eugene gallery. Burns worked in virtual anonymity during his years living in Eugene and was preparing to show his work at The O’Brien Photo Gallery when he died in March 2019. (Paul Carter/eugenescene.org)