Rene Burri (1933-2014)

René Burri, who died on October 20th, aged 81, was a photographer who was not appreciated as he should have been here in the UK – something which could be said about almost all photographers, but especially true in this case. Wikipedia lists almost 20 major shows of his work, quite a few of which were shown in several cities, but not a single one of them in the UK. I saw his René Burri – Rétrospective 1950-2000 in Paris in 2004 and was surprised at the breadth of his work, with many images that were unknown to me.

Most of us will recognise the six images he talks about in the video on Vimeo, and there are some others that are well-known as well as others that surprised me in another short video, Impossible Reminiscences, which came out for the publication of the book of the same title. But the best place to see his work is probably on his Magnum page, although the material on show there still only scratches at his huge output- he has left his archive of over 30,000 pictures to the Musée de l’Élysee in Lausanne.

The slide-show on Magnum starts with his first picture, Winston Churchill standing up in a car going through Zurich in 1946, when Burri was 13, and he was supremely a man with the great ability to be in the right place at the right time. But he was more than that; for him it was not just ‘f8 and be there’, but the ability to be there and to see things differently.

Of particular personal interest on the Magnum site was his set of over a hundred images of Brasilia, mainly taken around the inauguration in 1960, but also some images from the 1970s. Some of these brought back memories of my own trip there in 2007, though I wasn’t there to take pictures but to show them, and only took a compact camera with me.

I wrote briefly about the 2004 show in Paris as follows:

The queue at the MEP stretched out the length of the garden into the street, but it only took us around fifteen minutes to get in. Inside it was pretty crowded, at times too full to really look at the pictures. The main show was of work by Swiss photographer Rene Burri (1933-) who joined in 1955. Burri was a pupil of Hans Finsler at the School for Arts and Crafts in his hometown of Zurich. It was both an exhaustive and exhausting show that left me feeling that he would have been better served by a significantly more selective editor.

Burri is best known for such iconic works as his portrait of Che Guevara smoking a cigar. By far the strongest of the work on show was from his book on Germany made in the late-1950s (he brought out a revised version including some later pictures more recently.) Burri’s work is more traditional than that of his compatriot Robert Frank and more cerebral than that of Leonard Freed (who also produced a book on Germany.) Burri caught the Germans at a time when their memory of the war and the consequences of defeat were still very evident, and recovery was only beginning to make itself felt.

One image shows two elderly men in Weimar perhaps planning a holiday route, poring over a map spread over the bonnet of a car. The overtones of invasion are only too clear. Another picture of a street in Rheinpfalz on a misty day in 1959 has a man in the centre walking toward the camera. The street looks down-at -heel and the young man is a worker, wearing a hat and muffler. In is arms he holds awkwardly horizontal a baby, whose white bonnet is outlined perfectly against the black coat of an older and more distinguished figure walking away from the photographer. We see the new Germany coming out of its murky past with the hope of a brighter future, while and older generation is left behind in the past.

So far the obituaries I’ve seen have done little more than state brief biographical details together with a few pictures, with the best I’ve seen to date on PDN.  Doubtless more substantial accounts will be forthcoming – and if you come across any before I do, please feel free to add the details in a comment to this post.


2 Responses to “Rene Burri (1933-2014)”

  1. ChrisL says:

    All very low key, even the BJP:

    At least they went to Martin Parr for a quote, not that I suspect they had a great rapport.
    What about the French Press?

  2. I haven’t had time to check the French press yet, things have been rather busy in London this week. I still think his Germany book was his finest work, and that seems to be hardly mentioned anywhere.

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