Rene Burri

Some years back I bought a copy of Phaidon’s very large book of Rene Burri’s photographs. This is wonderful. Don’t believe the silly two star review on the Amazon UK site.

Since 1983 I have had on or near my desk of the time a copy of his famous picture of four men on the roof of the skyscraper in Sao Paulo:
Burri men on a rooftop

Four dark men in black suits stroll confidently across the sunny top of a skyscraper in São Paulo. The building on top of which they walk seems to have nothing around it; everything is far away. Below the building top, we can see the distant, gray, meaninglessly crowded streets. We can also see other far away buildings of the city. The towering rooftop in the foreground drains presence from any of the city’s other aspects. The other buildings and small objects below seem expendable, accenting the meaning of the confidently strolling men.
[courtesy Carlos Garcia]

Many of the shots are equally wonderful, but three especially appeal to me:

  • Winston Churchill standing bolt upright in an open car during a parade in Switzerland in 1946, taken by the 13 year old Burri with his father’s camera, which he had picked up just to go down to see the event – he took one shot (this one) and then returned the camera to his father and did not use it again. Most photographers would have considered this a definitive picture in their career, I imagine.

  • Picasso’s Guernica on display in the war-damaged Palazzo Reale in Milan, parked skew-whiff, a few chairs plonked down in front of it and a couple of people staring at the painting, apparently wrapt.

  • A rather winsome portrait of Che Guevara peeking round the end of a wall in some ministry building in Havana, looking rather like an errant schoolboy about to charm the headmaster into not giving him detention.

Burri che wall

I also liked the account of how Burri became a member of Magnum:

In 1955 René Burri travelled to Paris to see Picasso whom the young photographer had long admired. He presented himself at Picasso’s atelier on the rue des Grands Augustins every day for an entire week, only to be turned away by Picasso’s relentless secretary. So, Burri says, he ‘went to the other side of the Seine, to Magnum. There I found a Spanish lady who looked through all of my pictures in only three minutes and then asked me if I had any more. “No,” I said. I only had three contact sheets left with me. When I handed them over to her, she became very nervous, looking intently at them through a magnifier, like a jeweller examining precious stones. She began marking the sheets with a red pen and finally said I should make prints of them and send them back to her.’ The young photographer, disappointed, hitchhiked back to Zurich. ‘I was sure it was just a diversionary tactic. But I did finally send the pictures to Paris. Some time later, an envelope arrived. I opened it and there was a copy of Life inside. “Strange,” I thought, “Magnum has sent me Life magazine.” I leafed through it and found the pictures from my story with “René Burri/Magnum” printed next to them. I had just turned twenty-three and this was my first Magnum story.’

Lovely birthday present.

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