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Guide to the Jessica Burstein Photographs and Memorabilia
1940s-2017 (bulk 1970s-2012)
 PR 361

New-York Historical Society
170 Central Park West
New York, NY 10024
(212) 873-3400


New-York Historical Society

Collection processed by Larry Weimer

This finding aid was produced using ArchivesSpace on March 21, 2019
Finding aid written in English using Describing Archives: A Content Standard

Biographical / Historical

Jessica Burstein, born in Nassau County on Long Island, was educated in Switzerland and New York. From an early age she developed an interest in photography, having a dark room by age 11. She began her career in 1974 as the first female staff photographer for the NBC television network. She remained at NBC for about four years taking pictures of everything from news events, such as the 1976 Democratic National Convention, to television shows and movies, such as "Saturday Night Live" and the miniseries "King," about Martin Luther King, Jr. After leaving NBC, Burstein worked freelance on various projects and commissions.

Burstein is a member of an accomplished family, notably in the field of law. Both of her parents were lawyers; her mother, Beatrice S. Burstein, was a judge in the New York state system, becoming a member of the state Supreme Court in 1972. Burstein had four siblings, some of whom also entered the legal profession; these included her older sister, Karen Burstein, who has held positions in all three branches of New York state's government over the course of her career. So it is perhaps not surprising that, by the early 1990s, Jessica considered a switch to law when her photography career hit a dry spell. However, when she mentioned this to Elaine Kaufman, the owner of Elaine's Restaurant on New York's Upper East Side urged her to stay with photography and gave Burstein permission to take photographs in the restaurant, which Kaufman displayed on a wall there. Burstein continued to do so through the closing of the restaurant in 2011.

Burstein had been a regular at Elaine's since the 1970s as her photography career led her into the celebrity circles that frequented that place. Still, it was only in 1990 when Kaufman attended an exhibition of Burstein's work and acquired a triptych of her Truman Capote photographs that Kaufman began to engage with Burstein as a serious photographer and advocated for her work. It was through this connection with Kaufman and Burstein's exposure at the restaurant, that Dick Wolf, the executive producer of the Law & Order television series, asked Burstein to photograph the crime scenes staged for the show in anticipation of a book he visualized on the subject. Burstein took these pictures over the course of the next decade, which eventually led to the publication of "Law & Order: Crime Scenes" in 2003. Along the way, Burstein's role expanded to become the official photographer for Law & Order and its spin-offs through the 1990s and into the 2000s. Burstein was also the photographer for another Dick Wolf television production, New York Undercover.

Burstein's connection with Kaufman also led her to the commission to document a historic New York event: the construction of the new Yankee Stadium from 2006 to 2009. At Elaine's restaurant, Burstein had met George Steinbrenner, principal owner of the Yankees, and Randy Levine, the organization's president. On Burstein's occasional visits to the Steinbrenner suite, she would take photos that Steinbrenner liked. Consequently, Levine suggested that Burstein submit a proposal to get the commission to photograph the stadium construction project, which Burstein won.

Burstein's career includes other publications, exhibitions, and awards. The above items are emphasized in this note because they are the most relevant to the collection held by New-York Historical Society. In 2017, Burstein left New York to live in Camden, Maine. At that time, she donated to N-YHS that part of her work most related to New York City.

(The above note was based on various sources, including her biography on photoshelter.com; a 2015 interview with Straus Media; Burstein's reminiscences in Amy Philip Penn's "Elaine's: The Rise of One of New York's Most Legendary Restaurants"; a 2017 New York Times article ; and others.)