May 20, 2010 at 6:07 pm EDT | by Joey DiGuglielmo
A life in pictures

Tony Burns with a few of the photo albums he donated to Camp Rehoboth's library. The collection spans 30 years in 70 albums and is comprised of more than 50,000 shots. (Photo by Murray Archibald; courtesy of Camp Rehoboth)

Tony Burns is a documenter and collector.

He has a mammoth music collection representing everything short of MP3s (he doesn’t do computers): 78s, 45s, CDs, 8 tracks and LPs. For 30 years he had two homes, one in Alexandria, Va., and another, where he now lives full-time, in Rehoboth Beach, Del. And there are two climate-controlled storage units.

But this isn’t a pack rat or hoarder-style compulsion — it’s all meticulously organized. It became a running joke with his friends when he downsized to one residence.

“People didn’t think I could do it,” Burns, who’s gay, says. “I took the furniture to a local auction. I mean if you can’t use it, you know. But there are 60 boxes of archives, all labeled, each with an index that went in the storage space, which is essentially the basement I don’t have for life. … And I’ve integrated some things here. I always like to think of myself as a historian and archivist but some might call me a pack rat. It just depends who’s doing the analyzing.”

Burns’ trademark, though, especially in Rehoboth, is his photography. He’s been shooting dinners and dances, protests and brunches — you name it — for 30 years. The Detroit native grew up with seven younger sisters and has spent decades taking shots of his siblings and 31 nieces and nephews. Though he spent his career working in Washington in the Department of Health and Human Services, photography was always his passion.

“All my life I’ve taken energy from interacting with people,” Burns says. “I guess it’s my love of history and archives and taking photographs really captures something that you can look back on and appreciate years later. And also I have found that people like to have remembrances of the different events that they participated in.”

Burns enjoys shocking people he bumps into at random and handing them photos out of a collection of about 600 shots he carts around with him. He always prints duplicates and tries to make sure everyone in his photos eventually gets a copy of his or her own.

“It’s fun surprising people. Almost like bird watching. You may not see somebody for several years and then all of a sudden you do. I don’t have a photographic memory, but I can remember the events people were at and even if I haven’t seen them for four or five years, I can pick out their photograph almost immediately.”

Steve Elkins, Camp Rehoboth’s executive director, says Burns’ memory is staggering.

“He always makes like six copies,” Elkins says. “One for his albums and one for everybody in the photo. And he just carries them around till he sees them. One of my first memories of him was in New York. I ran into him in Manhattan. He says, ‘Wait, I’ll be right back.’ He disappeared and came back with a photograph of me. He’s just got an encyclopedic memory for those things. He remembers everything. So and so lived in this house and he’s been with this person and his mother worked in the Clinton administration. It’s amazing.”

A reception in Burns’ honor will be held Saturday at Camp Rehoboth from 4 to 6 p.m. Burns has donated his vast photo collection — more than 50,000 photos in 70 leather albums — to the library at Camp Rehoboth. He donated money to have the library renovated and feels it’s an appropriate home for his shots, which have also run for years in Letters from Camp Rehoboth, the community center’s publication.

Each album is identified by month and the collection is arranged chronologically. Most of the events are from Washington or Rehoboth, but Burns has also shot in Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York over the years. They’re mostly gay events — Victory Fund brunches, Human Rights Campaign dinners, AIDS benefits and more — but Burns says the gay and straight communities are so merged in Rehoboth, he doesn’t make much of a distinction anymore.

Though he loves the D.C. area, he says Rehoboth is where he’s happiest. He says it’s become much more viable as a year-round community than when he first bought his beach house in 1977.

“It’s really the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow,” he says. “I think it’s the gay destination in the whole country.”

Burns, who’s had boyfriends at various times but is single now, avoided going digital for years but is now glad he did. He still doesn’t have a computer and prints out his digital photos in kiosks. He calls himself a “background person” and says that’s just where he’s happiest. He shuns social networking and had to be cajoled into agreeing to the reception.

“I just like to be in the background,” he says. “During my years in the Department, and I held some rather responsible positions, it just made me feel good to know I was enabling the secretary to look good and it’s just something I’ve always felt strongly about in my life. If you can contribute to somebody who really has talents to communicate with others in a much stronger fashion than you could yourself, I get satisfaction from that. And it’s always fun for there to be perhaps a little mystery. Today with Facebook and Twitter, it’s almost like ‘1984.’ You lose your mystique when your laundry is all there hanging out to dry.”

Reception for Tony Burns
Saturday, 4-6 p.m.
Camp Rehoboth Community Center
37 Baltimore Ave.
Rehoboth Beach, DE

Joey DiGuglielmo is the Features Editor for the Washington Blade.

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