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For more than half a decade, I lied about my photography.

The story I told was a convenient one. Both my hometown of Chicago and my adoptive city of San Francisco are uniquely architectural, lending to my natural interest in the subject.

After accepting an invitation to relocate to the Bay Area for work in 2015, I began wondering aloud how I might present one of the world’s most photographed cities in a new and unique way.

Over the years, I had been intermittently experimenting with a high contrast black and white aesthetic, one that blurs the lines between photography and graphic design. Through my explorations, I found that my emerging style played well with the design details that characterize San Francisco’s eclectic mix of Victorian and modern architecture.

In 2017, to further explore this idea and aesthetic, I launched a 100-day project; that is, creating 100 unique images in as many days. I conjured up a catchy name, and The Shapes of San Francisco was born.

My project received a fair amount of press and attention, affording me the opportunity to describe, in a public forum, my interest in architecture and subsequent desire to present the uniquely beautiful shapes of my photogenic new home.

The only problem was, in each ensuing feature and interview, every word I expressed and story I told about my work was untrue.

In the spring of 2022, I was invited to lecture at an art and design festival in Barcelona. I give a lot of talks, but this one felt more profound than usual, the first in-person event in which I would participate since the pandemic forced us all indoors two years prior.

With this in mind, I felt a responsibility to affect connection and community through honesty and sharing. As I began to craft my lecture, I set out to tell a more deeply personal story than I had typically afforded audiences in the past.

Like so many artists, I’m wildly unorganized. As such, when I’m compiling a story for a lecture, I scroll chronologically through time, reviewing thousands of images in my various photo apps, pulling each, as needed, in support of my talk.

As I was scrolling forward in time collecting photos for my Barcelona lecture, I became more and more anxious as the years and images passed.

2016 was a grueling year of constant travel for me. I was living and working a design job in Lima, Peru, meeting with partner teams in London and New York City, lecturing at festivals, and traveling constantly between Europe, the U.S., and South America.

Watching the cities and countries fly by as I scrolled my images, my chest tightened as I recalled the bleary-eyed daze of endless moving walkways, tarmacs, airplane bottles, and sleeping pills.

Heathrow, LaGuardia, Jorge Chavez, Tocumen International, Madrid–Barajas; a new flight to catch and ocean to traverse every 2-3 days for months on end.

In May of that year, I traveled home from Lima to San Francisco, then to Raleigh-Durham for a festival and workshop, and then back to the Bay Area, where I had only a day and a half to prepare before flying to Barcelona to give a lecture.

As the wheels of the plane touched down in San Francisco, I flipped my phone off airplane mode, and the first three words that appeared on my screen forever changed my life.

“Scotty died today.”

In an instant, whatever shred of autopilot conditioning had been propping me emotionally upright was no more. At just 37 years of age, my oldest friend in the world was gone.

All I remember of the evening was the full moon, blindingly bright through the window during my cab ride home adjacent to the Bay. The details of the days that followed are a blur.

An overnight redeye to Chicago for the service; reading my eulogy; then on to Barcelona, where I spoke my friend’s name on stage for the first of many times. Then to Morocco, Madrid, and San Francisco. And finally, back to Peru for another two months of work.

I spent the next eight weeks in Lima effectively unconscious, anonymously wandering and photographing an unfamiliar city of 11 million people. No one ever saw me; I was always alone.

Scott was more than a brother to me. He had been a lifeline of support while I was traveling for months on end in so many faraway countries; as ever, we spoke every day.

Alone in Lima, I felt his loss so acutely, I didn’t even notice the ways it was immediately changing me.

Now, six years later, I was reliving the chronology of my trauma as I journeyed through my photos.

As I arrived at the loss of my friend, and my images brought me back to Lima, scrolling forward in time, I watched the color uniformly disappear from my once-vibrant photos, the darkness slowly consuming my feed.

Alone in my studio, I shattered.

To learn that I had long been communicating my grief through the images that have come to define me, years after the fact, was more than I could handle.

My loss, my love for my brother, and my pain had become the most visible component of my identity as an artist.

I was never making architectural images. My work had nothing to do with the cities and countries where I have lived or visited. And I was neither expressing the design details nor highlighting the shapes of my subjects.

Rather, I was communicating my loss, and visualizing the starkness of my emotional world, through my art.

My work is my journey of indefinite healing. I will be processing, in post, for as long as I live. And I will forever work to find all the beauty I’m able in the darkness life affords.

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All images © Burton Rast