With his brown Borsalino leading the way, René Burri comes up the stairs from the gallery’s nether regions where he has just checked the hanging of his pictures. He looks at us over the balustrade, radiating approval over what he has seen downstairs. Wearing a shocking pink shirt, the 78-year old photographer has a Leica dangling from his neck, a key component of his garb. Burri is more likely to forget his shoes at home than his camera.
On the floor next to Burri stands a photograph depicting a nude reflected in a mirror. “Her name was Laurence, I photographed her in Perth in 1970.” That is all he has to say on the subject, although he soon becomes more talkative when asked about the picture of Che Guevara hanging on the wall behind him. “Two years after having stupidly missed the revolution in Cuba because I was away skiing with my family, I received a call from Magnum. They said: Burri, you are going to Cuba. So, on New Year’s Eve, I travelled by train to Prague via Vienna and, from there, flew in a Russian Ilyushin to Cuba.”
“In the taxi on the way to the hotel we were passed on either side by tank convoys heading for the Revolution celebrations.”
Burri had been commissioned by “Look” magazine to shoot the pictures for an interview they were doing with Che Guevara, the number two man of the Cuban revolution. “The blond American reporter Laura and the Comandante played cat and mouse for three whole hours – and I was caught in the middle. During the entire session, Che kept jumping up and down from his seat and pacing around his office. It was three hours of backbreaking work for me.”
One of the photographs made during that session has advanced to iconic status: an arrogant, self-assured Che puffing on a thick Havana cigar. After Che died and became a worldwide hero for antiestablishmentarianism, the image was stolen thousands and thousands of times to be reproduced on posters, flags, T-shirts, as well as watches, coffee mugs, and ashtrays. The brand “Che” became so prevalent that not even the photo agency Magnum was able to stop the pictures from being lifted.
This despite, Magnum – where Burri has been a full member since 1959 – having expressly been set up to prevent such occurrences. Magnum founders Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, George Rodger, and David Seymour had been left empty-handed at the end of WWII, not even owning the copyright to their own images. A change was in order. They wanted to be able to decide for themselves when and where their pictures would be published and so founded Magnum. The agency is a cooperative in which everyone “has their own outfit,” says Burri.
In those days neither photo exhibitions nor photography awards existed. All we had were the magazines that printed our pictures.
With Magnum’s help – as well as the assignments that came in through the agency – the members have, in time, become individual brands themselves. Our next question to René Burri is, therefore, how he would personally define “Burri” as a brand? But the photographer with a working-class background does not really think that he has a style; rather, he believes his work is very difficult to categorize. Half serious, half in jest he adds: “Picasso didn’t have a style either.”
And he should know. After all, the images Burri made of Picasso in the South of France in 1959 belong to his best-known work. Undeniably, Burri's oeuvre is extremely varied. Equally gifted as a photo reporter and a brilliant portraitist, his architectural photography has also set new standards, as can be seen in his book about Le Corbusier (Birkhäuser Verlag 1999) and his newly published work on Brasilia (Scheidegger & Spiess 2011.) René Burri became famous with black-and-white photography, although, in fact, he had already started shooting color pictures for the Swiss cultural magazine “Du” in 1957. After going digital, he stopped doing black-and-white photography altogether.
Burri digital? He offers up his Leica for inspection. Outwardly, the device has hardly changed these past 50 years – aside from the little display at the back.
A digital camera has to be kept in check like a racehorse.
Digital photography tempts you to start snapping away indiscriminately. Back in the old days, Burri often had only two or three rolls of film at his disposal for an entire photo reportage.
“To some extent, the cult surrounding black-and-white photography is based on nostalgia,” he muses. Although at nearly 80 no longer a spring chicken, Burri shows no signs of slowing down. “I’m not a purist,” he says. “I’m a pragmatist.” In retrospect, his career appears to have been a life-long battle again dogmas.
His favorite enemy in this connection is Hans Finsler, his erstwhile photography teacher at the school of applied arts in Zurich. He detested Finsler’s strict formalism so much that even now, after sixty years, the memory of it makes him indignant. All the same, Finsler’s teaching did leave a visible mark on Burri’s work. The fascination of his images is often created by an electrifying tension between formal austerity and chaotic liveliness: Che backed by the slats of his office blinds, men working in blinding light on the roof of a skyscraper in São Paulo, a destroyed Egyptian military convoy on the Sinai peninsula. Despite Burri’s aversion to Finsler’s rigid teachings, they became ingrained into his very being.
Though it may be that Burri does not stand for a distinct style – his technique is unmistakable. With his Leica, Burri, who is quicker at the draw than Kid Colt, composes his images within milliseconds. And yes, he can catch five flies with one hand, he says, confirming an often-heard anecdote. Where is Burri now? He is off again. This time to Moscow.
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