Jessica Burstein: Her Camera Captured New York

From a New York Times obit by Richard Sandomir headlined “Jessica Burstein, Whose Camera Captured New York, Dies at 76”:

Jessica Burstein, a photographer who in extended assignments captured three quintessentially New York institutions — the “Law & Order” television franchise, the new Yankee Stadium as it was being built and the restaurant and celebrity hangout Elaine’s — died at her home in Manhattan.

In 1992, Ms. Burstein became the official photographer at Elaine’s, the night spot on the Upper East Side of Manhattan where writers, athletes, actors, politicians and filmmakers gathered in a salon overseen by the imperious owner, Elaine Kaufman.

Ms. Burstein came as she pleased, with her only tangible reward the display of her framed pictures on a restaurant wall (Ms. Kaufman did not pay her). Over the next 19 years, until it closed, she photographed scenes from the haunt: Ms. Kaufman counting cash; Joan Rivers resting her head on Ms. Kaufman’s shoulder; a tired-looking Andy Rooney, the CBS commentator, with a drink in hand; a party to celebrate the 100th episode of “Law & Order”; and Christo, the epic-scale fabric artist, in a romantic moment with his wife and collaborator, Jeanne-Claude. She also crafted striking tableside portraits of luminaries like Liza Minnelli and William Styron.

In 2002, Ms. Burstein shot a wild bit of revelry featuring Candace Bushnell, the author of the book “Sex and the City” (1996), which inspired the long-running HBO series of the same title. Ms. Bushnell had her right leg extended and her left leg bent, while one man kissed her ankle and another man held her. In the background, the writer Gay Talese, a longtime Elaine’s patron, was in deep conversation with a woman.

“Candace was a few sheets to the wind,” Ms. Burstein told the journalism blogger Jim Fitzpatrick in 2010. “She would admit that.” Ms. Bushnell had made eye contact with Ms. Burstein, apparently hoping that she would photograph the scene.

In a phone interview, Mr. Talese described the relationship between Ms. Burstein and Ms. Kaufman.

“I think what was significant about Jessica, in addition to her good photography, she was one of the few women that Elaine welcomed and liked,” he said. “She was very engaging, and she wasn’t threatening.”

Ms. Burstein met Dick Wolf, the creator of the “Law & Order” franchise, at Elaine’s in 1993. He soon hired her to photograph the crime scenes that were conceived weekly for the original “Law & Order” series.

She became the show’s photographer in 1994 and stayed until 2010, when it was canceled. (It was revived last year.) She was also the photographer for the spinoffs “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” until 2007, and “Law & Order: Criminal Intent,” through 2011.

Mr. Wolf praised Ms. Burstein for “her ability to capture real human emotion in the artificiality of a film set.”

Ms. Burstein and Mr. Wolf collaborated on a 2003 book, “Law & Order: Crime Scenes,” which led to an exhibition of the same name at the George Eastman House in Rochester, N.Y., in 2005.

Jennifer Curtis, who helped design the exhibition, said in a phone interview that Ms. Burstein’s “crime scene photos were similar to Weegee’s,” referring to the celebrated New York City tabloid photographer of the 1930s and ’40s.

Jessica May Burstein was born in Mineola, N.Y., on Long Island, and grew up in nearby Lawrence. Her mother, Beatrice (Sobel) Burstein, was one of the first women to serve as a justice of the New York State Supreme Court. Her father, Herbert, was an international lawyer.

After surgery when she was 8 to correct a condition that caused her right eye to wander, Jessica received a Brownie camera as a therapeutic device. Not long after, she set up a darkroom and began to use a Nikon.

She graduated from New York University with a bachelor’s degree in 1968, then worked for six years as an assistant to the prominent commercial photographer Bert Stern. In 1974, she was hired as a staff photographer at NBC; she is believed to have been the first woman in that job.

“At that time, the reality is, they needed to hire what they considered to be a minority, someone of color or a woman,” she told the newspaper Our Town in 2015.

Ms. Burstein photographed news events and the set of “Saturday Night Live,” and she documented the making of the 1978 mini-series “King,” about the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Bud Rukeyser, a former corporate spokesman for NBC, recalled in an email, “She was a star as an NBC photographer and was clearly on her way to a bigger and better career.”

But she told Newsday in 1978 that she had been fired after being pulled off an assignment to photograph Frank Sinatra for a network interview show because Sinatra’s wife didn’t want attractive women near him. Mr. Rukeyser said at the time that she had been laid off with 300 other employees; in his email, he said that he did not recall the Sinatra story.

She freelanced over the years for newspapers like The New York Times and The Washington Post and magazines like TV Guide, Rolling Stone, People, Time and Vanity Fair.

In 2006, she signed on as the exclusive photographer of the construction of the new Yankee Stadium, which would open in April 2009. “There was no competition for the job; we knew Jessie from some work she had already done for us,” Randy Levine, the Yankees’ president, said in a phone interview. “She was a world-class photographer.”

Her photos were used in a commemorative book for holders of Yankee premium season tickets and were exhibited at the stadium.

Ms. Curtis, who continued to work on projects with Ms. Burstein through an exhibition of her photos at the Venice Biennale last year, compared her Yankee Stadium photography to the project Margaret Bourke-White undertook in 1930 to depict the construction of the Chrysler Building.

“Like Bourke-White,” Ms. Curtis said, “Jessica scaled the structure with the support of the men and women who built the stadium to get ‘the shot.’”

Ms. Burstein donated her photo collection to the New-York Historical Society in 2017.

In addition to her sister Patricia, she is survived by another sister, Karen Burstein, a former New York State senator, and two brothers, Judd and John. Jessica and Patricia Burstein worked together on “The Grandmother Book: A Celebration of Family” (2000).

A longtime customer of Elaine’s, Ms. Burstein began her tenure as the restaurant’s photographer when she confided in Ms. Kaufman that her business was slow and that she was thinking of giving it up for law school.

“‘Are you nuts?’ she yelled at me,” Ms. Burstein wrote in an essay in “Elaine’s: The Rise of One of New York’s Most Legendary Restaurants From Those Who Were There” (2015), by Amy Phillips Penn. “‘Quit? Kid, you’re better than Avedon.’”

Ms. Kaufman added, she recalled, “You got no place to shoot, then come here to do it.”

But, Ms. Burstein noted, “Between the cost of film, processing, paper and printing, shooting at Elaine’s was to be the most expensive job I ever had.”

Richard Sandomir is a Times obituaries writer. He previously wrote about sports media and sports business. He is also the author of several books, including “The Pride of the Yankees: Lou Gehrig, Gary Cooper and the Making of a Classic.”

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