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Remembering Jessica Burstein Share This on LinkedIn   Tweet This   Forward This

21 April 2023

Jessica Burstein, who documented three New York City institutions with her camera, died from lung cancer on April 11 at her home in Manhattan. She was 76.

Born April 7, 1947, on Long Island, she grew up in Lawrence, N.Y. Her mother, Beatrice was among the first women to serve as a justice of the New York State Supreme Court. Her father Herbert was an international lawyer.

When she was eight she had surgery to correct a wandering right eye. To aid her recovery, she was given a Brownie camera and quickly became enamored with photography. She set up her own darkroom and switched to a Nikon 35mm camera.

After graduating from New York University with a bachelor's degree in 1968, she spent six years working as an assistant to the commercial photographer Bert Stern. In 1974, she was hired as a staff photographer at NBC, the first woman in that job.

She made quite an impression at NBC, photographing news events Saturday Night Live and the 1978 mini-series King.

She also freelanced for various publications including The New York Times, The Washington Post, TV Guide, Rolling Stone, People, Time and Vanity Fair.

But she will be remembered for documenting three institutions of the city of New York.

In 1992, Burstein became the official photographer at Elaine's, the Upper East Side night spot favored by celebrities and overseen by the imperious Elaine Kaufman. She had been a regular since the 1970s there when she started taking candids of the customers. Burstein snapped away and Kaufman hung the photos but never paid for them.

Still she was the one who stopped Burstein from quitting photography for law school. "Quit? Kid, you're better than Avedon," she told Burstein, inviting her to shoot at Elaine's whenever she felt like it.

In 1993 at Elaine's, she met Dick Wolf, the creator of Law & Order. He hired her to shoot the crime scenes for the original series. Her crime scene photographs were compared to Weggee, the famous N.Y. photographer of the 1930s and 1940s. She became the show's photographer in 1994 and remained on the job until 2010 when it was canceled.

In 2006, she became the exclusive photographer of the construction of the new Yankee Stadium, which would open three years later. Her work on that project has been compared to Margaret Bourke-White's in 1930 documentation of the construction of the Chrysler Building.

The images, used in a commemorative book for Yankee premium season ticket holders and exhibited at the stadium, were donated to the New York Historical Society in 2017.

Her work can be seen in several galleries at her PhotoShelter site. It is also included in the New York Historical Society Museum & Library.

She is survived by her sisters Patricia Burstein and Karen Burstein and two brothers, Judd and John.

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