NEWWORK 6: In the Moment with Rene Burri

For the last 50 years, it seems as though photographer Rene Burri has been everywhere.  Growing up in the shade of the halcyon Swiss Alps, Burri’s camera was his passport and ticket that allowed him to take off and satiate his endless curiosity, his desire to see the rest of the world.  His travels led to a decades- long career filled with the dangers of war, those subtle changes in politics that have led to spirited wins and great losses, and the quiet disclosures that have shaped contemporary art and culture.

His adventure began close to home.  The photographer began his artistic education at the Zurich School of Arts and Crafts, where he learned the technical aspects of photojournalism under instructor Hans Finsler, and completed a three- year- long course in typography led by famed typographer Alfred Willimann.  Burri’s intensive typography experience has remained evident throughout his career: his austere aesthetic has led him to focus on dramatic contrasts of everyday scenes, and his interest in architecture and modern cityscapes demonstrate his strong graphic sensibility.

It is this sensitivity to composition, to cropping each photo just so, to adjusting camera angles and lighting in harmony with the scene that has made for Rene Burri’s most interesting work.  The studiousness and dedication Burri has devoted to these photos have elevated his casual snapshots to photos that one can hardly believe it hasn’t been staged or elaborately lit.

Leaving Zurich at a young age, he quickly established himself as an insightful news photographer, becoming a full member of the Paris- based Magnum Photo Agency while still in his mid- twenties.  Much of his professional career can be tracked through Magnum; the agency, started by Henri Cartier- Bresson, was the premier agency for photojournalists worldwide.  The agency’s simultaneous support and freedom granted to its members set a new standard for news photography, and admission was predictably competitive.  Burri later co- founded Magnum Films and Magnum Gallery.  His dedication to Magnum has paid off: he has seen his work published in many of the 20th century’s leading publications, including Life Magazine, the New York Times, and Paris Match, as well as a monograph published by Phaidon.

Rene Burri took a great interest in documenting political history.  As one of the few photographers granted entry into Cuba during the early 1960s, his portraits of a young Fidel Castro and Minister of Industry Ernesto “Che” Guevara both in public and in private are rare, truthful insights into the Cuban dictator’s personality and influence that were available to the rest of the world.  Burri’s fortuitous snapshots of Che have been reproduced on countless book covers, postcards, and history books.  Burri’s quick wits have also granted him access to a number of otherwise elusive political figures, including Presidents Eisenhower and Nixon, Josip Broz Tito, and entry into Adolf Eichmann’s bunker in Argentina.

His photos of Vietnam suggest the dense variety of life lived while the war was taking place, the mundane details that war photography had previously excluded from the evening news and the front pages of newspapers.  Burri reminded us that daily routines and simple pleasures in life are often the last victims of war, as photos revealed lost young soldiers exploring Vietnamese villages, flirting with prostitutes, and the bounty of lush wildlife in the country in addition to showing us the detritus of war.

Near the beginning of his career, he published Die Deutschen, (The Germans), a photo essay on the contemporary state of Berlin.  The book was published in 1962, one year after the Berlin Wall was erected.  The devastated state of the city first left many critics to question whether Berlin was a worthwhile subject of such an artistic endeavor, as the grey photos did little to uplift the image and spirit of modern day Germany.  However, the book has stood the test of time, and has subsequently been reissued several times.  It is considered the most cohesive body of work of Burri’s long career.

Burri’s camera has also led him to investigate the optimism of growing economies and opportunities in countries such as China, Brazil, and Argentina.  His provincial scenes of Argentina carry on long after the country has undergone economic modernization, and provide a sharp contrast to the transformations he’s chronicled in Brazil, changing from exotic paradise to sharp urban metropolis, resembling midtown Manhattan in the early 1960s.

Burri’s interest in Brazil is closely tied to his interest in architecture.  His photographs of high-rise buildings explore not only modernization, but the quotidian excitements of modern life.  His photos from Brazil capture figures in sharp suits breezing through the halls of architectural masterpieces by Oscar Niemeyer, declarations a new spirit of globalization and success in South America.

It is this global unity, this commonality in cultures, that Burri has been most interested in, which is all the more evident in one of his later books, One World.   Even his commercial projects served to illuminate the photographer’s interest in the growing world.  An assignment for Pakistan International Airways was a perfect excuse for Burri to explore every possible corner of Pakistan and East Bengal.  The commercial images never ignored the region’s growing pains: the realities of multi- ethnic communities and frustrations, and poverty, but also portrayed Pakistan as not only a point of departure, but a destination.

Rene Burri has also built an impressive portfolio of artists’ portraits, gaining access to many of the most reclusive artists. Ingmar Bergman, Le Corbusier, Alberto Giacometti, Yves Klein, Robert Oppenheimer, and Pablo Picasso all opened doors to their studios, homes, and family lives for Rene Burri’s camera.  His photos showed the reclusive artists to be as nervous and self- aware as any of their subjects have been.

However, just as important as his photos that are left for us to sort through are the decades of photos never taken: the exploitative, the degrading, and the advantageous.  The missing images, the untaken photos are those that illustrate Burri’s ethics, principles, and taste.  The distant photos of hunger, famine, poverty, distress throughout Africa and Asia relate Burri’s sympathy and respect for his subjects, his purposeful avoidance of a sensational image.  Perhaps it is an example of the photographer’s essentially Swiss character, but more likely it is that Burri’s wealth of experience and exposure has taught him to be curious about those in the world without compromising diplomacy and empathy.  Throughout his career and personal artistic practice, Rene Burri has captured so many important moments in political and cultural history; it seems almost impossible that one person has taken them all.

NEWWORK What first sparked your interest in photography?

René: Drawing from life in the spirit of a classical academic education was an essential part of the curriculum at the Zurich School of Arts and Crafts.  I took the photo, “Reclining Nude Model”, secretly during class one day.

NEWWORK Who or what are your major influences in photography?

René: I’ve always been inspired by “Spanish Village”, a photo essay by Eugene Smith published in LIFE magazine in 1951.

NEWWORK Could you select one of your photographs from our selections and tell the story behind it?

René: “Construction worker, Brasilia”, 1960.

A construction worker is showing his family around the new construction in the capital; the Congress and other government buildings are in the background.  The city was built in only four years by workers from the Sertao and Mato Grosso regions, most of whom lived in humble houses in the so-called cidades libres.

NEWWORK What is your favorite motto or quote as a photographer?

René: “Keep on trucking.”

NEWWORK What are you currently working on?

René: Throwing thousands of bad pictures away.


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