“Growing up in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, I was the best artist in my school. If anyone needed anything drawn, I was the guy to do it,” he explained. “It was obvious early on that I wasn’t going to be an engineer or a doctor, but my parents bought into the idea of studying art at Pitt or Penn State. Very late in the game, I discovered there was such a thing as art school.”
So instead of a state university, Burger applied to MICA and was accepted based on the strength of his drawing portfolio. But fairly early in the game of art school, he discovered that his thing wasn’t illustration at all. Instead, his life took “a left-hand turn” after taking a basic photography course taught by faculty member Richard Kirstel.
“I would have been an ok illustrator. But I fell in love with photography,” he said, noting that MICA enabled him to pursue his new craft with a passion. “I left the College polished in a way that I wouldn’t have been had I gone to a university, where you have to study so many things you aren’t interested in.”
He added, “Also remember, the MICA at that time had no housing or meal plan. The campus was small. You made your way in the city right off the bat. When I graduated, I was very street smart, so it was good that I went into newspapering.”
“Newspapering,” as he calls it, is a tepid description of Burger’s career as a photojournalist. Working first for the Baltimore City Paper and later for the Baltimore Sun, Burger chronicled almost two decades of a city going through tremendous change.
As a senior at MICA, he spent a year with the Baltimore City Fire Department, and one of his first assignments at the City Paper was documenting the closing of the historic Baltimore Fish Market. He later turned an assignment for the Sun — taking a portrait of a local
breast cancer survivor — into a groundbreaking photo essay published in Woman’s Day magazine. Burger has seen almost everything and everyone the city has to offer, and has a deep love for his adopted hometown. “I documented a changing city. I’ve seen neighborhoods rise and fall, and some rise again. But we live very well here, and I’m very hopeful about the city,” he said. “I think everyone in the world should live in Baltimore.”
Burger credits his time at MICA as a large reason for his success, and as a way of giving back, he established the Jim Burger ’82 Photography Scholarship to help photography majors pursue their senior thesis.
MY SENIOR THESIS SET ME ON A PATH OF DOCUMENTARY PHOTOGRAPHY THAT I'M STILL ON TO THIS DAY
“This school made me. If I don’t owe the Maryland Institute, I don’t know who I owe,” he noted. “My senior thesis — that year with the fire department — set me on a path of documentary photography that I’m still on to this day. That thesis became a show at City Hall Gallery, and then a book, which catapulted me to my newspaper career. So when I set up the scholarship, I did so to help someone work on his or her thesis the way I worked on mine.”
He is currently working with the College to establish a second scholarship, this one in honor of his wife, who he met while they were both students at MICA. “It will be the Suzanne Hart Burger Graphic Design Scholarship,” he explained. “We met on the first day I got here, and she’s my oldest friend in Baltimore. She’s worked every day of her adult life, even before she left MICA, in her field. She’s had an amazing career. She’s my hero.”
Burger, who is a member of the Alumni Council, retired from the Baltimore Sun in 1999, taking an early retirement offer as the paper made changes due to a changing newsprint landscape. He has worked as a freelance photographer since, and continues to add to the wide range of friends he accumulated over his years as a photojournalist.
This past fall, a retrospective of his 35-year career, called A Charmed Life, was on show at Baltimore’s Creative Alliance. The show’s opening drew a standing-room-only crowd, a testament to the esteem Burger is held in throughout the Baltimore region.
“People came that I hadn’t seen in years. Most importantly, my family — my brother and sisters — were there,” he said. “The name of the show, A Charmed Life, was really appropriate, because I’ve led one.”