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Born in Seattle, Washington in 1945, Marsha Burns began as a painter, studying at the University of Washington (1963-65), where she met her husband, artist Michael Burns, and then at the University of Massachusetts (1967-69) after the couple moved to Amherst. Burns began to work with photography in 1972 while living in Texas, and initially used the medium to experiment with sequential imagery. After relocating to Seattle, however, she began to focus on creating enigmatic figure studies and nudes in her studio, which explore the relationship between form and emotion. Burns had her models, mostly friends and acquaintances with an androgynous quality, pose in the mostly empty setting in various states of undress, accompanied by different objects. She states, “Each subject was approached as one formal element among a complement of others—glass, mirrors, changing light.”

In the following decades Burns continued to photograph in her studio, but she began to introduce more overt social content into her work. Inspired by a visit to Berlin in 1984, Burns started making portraits of young adults who chose to set themselves apart from the mainstream, first in her native Seattle and later in other cities. “The people I choose to photograph are often those for whom negative or tragically simple attitudes have been formed by the majority of society,” she writes. “In an age of technology and urbanization I am drawn to the boundaries, to people whose existence is self-defined.” In the 1990s, continuing in this vein, she photographed varied subjects, such as Native Americans in traditional dress, as in the image Tyson, Warm Springs, 1991.