21st May 2004, 10:32 AM
NYTimes article on René Burri: A Globe-Trotting Photographer Looks Back
Interesting article. His photos...WOW...
May 20, 2004
A Globe-Trotting Photographer Looks Back
By RANDY KENNEDY (New York Times)
In his wide-brimmed black fedora, with a long white scarf looped around his neck, René Burri looks a little like a character sprung to life from a Graham Greene novel. He often talks like one, too.
"Put out your hand," he said the other day to a waiter, who reluctantly complied. Mr. Burri sprinkled salt from a shaker into the open palm, then closed the man's hand. "For good luck," he said.
"Is it an Italian thing?" the waiter asked, scanning Mr. Burri's face for some sign of national origin or maybe insanity.
"No," Mr. Burri said. "It's Chinese."
The waiter walked off, and Mr. Burri (BOO-ree) smiled delightedly. "Now he doesn't know what to think," he said.
It is a common feeling around Mr. Burri, a dean of the globe-trotting photographers who forged the reputation of Magnum Photo, the cooperative that Henri Cartier-Bresson, Mr. Burri's mentor, helped found.
In a conversation with Mr. Burri, you must pay close attention to figure out which decade you are in, which continent you are on and which nefarious intelligence agency may be trying to confiscate your film. One anecdote (" 'Burri, you must go to Cairo! Nasser just took the canal.' ") will bump suddenly into one from another hemisphere ("I missed the Cuban revolution. Can you believe it? I was skiing.") and in seconds, another ("And I said, `My God, it's because of Franco that I finally met Picasso!' "). More on this last anecdote later.
A collection of Mr. Burri's best pictures, from Vietnam, Brazil, Cuba, Africa and dozens of other countries, have just been published in the United States by Phaidon Press, and many of the pictures are on display through June 5, along with one of his battered Leicas, at the gallery at Hermčs, at Madison Avenue and 62nd Street. A show of the photographs in Paris earlier this year was unexpectedly mobbed, drawing more than 40,000 visitors.
This has been particularly gratifying for the Swiss-born Mr. Burri, 70, who is mostly retired and has settled in Paris after a life of relentless wandering. While he is not nearly so well known as his elders at Magnum — Mr. Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa and even Werner Bischof, whose widow Mr. Burri married after Bischof was killed in Peru in 1954 — many of his striking images helped define the agency during its heyday in the 1950's and 60's.
His 1963 shot of Che Guevara, dressed in fatigues, with a cigar jutting magisterially from his mouth, has become one of the most familiar images of Guevara that Mr. Burri finds himself looking at it, mostly uncredited, everywhere he goes. After lunch the other day he pulled out a pack of cigarette rolling papers he had just bought in SoHo, the cover adorned with his Guevara picture. "I've seen it on T-shirts, condom packages even," he said, shrugging. "I don't have enough money to send the lawyers out after these guys."
Mr. Burri worked hard to establish himself as an artist. Some of his best work has been of architecture — Oscar Niemeyer's Brasilia and Le Corbusier's chapel at Ronchamps, France — and of artists like Giacometti and Yves Klein. And so he has never been comfortable with his reputation as a kind of photojournalist's photojournalist: a Swiss writer recently called him "the epitome of the restless reporter."
But for better or worse his career has been defined by its vast geographical sweep and by the list of world events at which he has been present, snapping away, from the Suez Canal crisis to the early years of the Vietnam War to Tiananmen Square. His first picture, taken at the age of 13 with his father's camera, is an amazingly assured panning shot of Churchill, standing up in his convertible limousine on his way to deliver a speech in Zurich.
While Cartier-Bresson was wealthy and could afford the luxury of hating to work by assignment, Mr. Burri always needed the money. But he explained that once he became more mature in his work, he often enraged magazine editors because he would use his assignments only to get the images he wanted.
None of the photos from Vietnam in the book, for example, show corpses or battles, though one is a powerful image of men on crutches, many of them amputees, crossing a street in a row. Mr. Burri said he came to feel that photographing the atrocities of war in any conventional way was ineffective artistically and as a means of conveying the truth.
"There were a lot of dead people lying around, and I could have made super compositions of it," he said. "But I found it absolutely — I was helpless. What do I do?"
"Very often I walked away," he continued. "Life magazine had an assignment, and I didn't shoot, and they got very angry, and I just couldn't do it, you know?"
Peter Killer, a Swiss writer about art and architecture, said, "Those who see his photographs from 30 years of reporting will never accuse Burri of masking the truth to make it more palatable.
"Nevertheless," he added, "even when they tell of war and death, Burri's photographs have something deeply human about them. There is not one image in Burri's oeuvre that denies the hope of a more civilized world."
Mr. Burri said he considered himself lucky because "from the beginning, I knew almost more of what I didn't want that what I did want."
It also meant that on the occasions when he did know what he wanted, he was very hard to dissuade.
In 1953 in Milan he first saw Picasso's "Guernica" and decided that he had to meet the artist. He tried in Paris, hanging out in front of Picasso's studio for a week but was never allowed inside.
Then in 1957, ready to leave San Sebastián, Spain, after an assignment, he heard that Franco was coming through town, so he ran with a crowd to try to photograph him. But when he got close, Franco's special police knocked him down and bloodied his nose. While nursing his injury, he read in a newspaper that Picasso was coming to Nîmes, nearby in France, to watch a bullfight.
He drove to Nîmes and almost accidentally became a member of a party of revelers that Picasso had installed in a hotel. (In one case he was commanded to the table at a dinner party with Picasso because there were 13 people present and the drunken diners were demanding a 14th, for luck, before they would eat. "Picasso looks at me and said, `Sit down and eat!' ")
The pictures that resulted from the trip are among the most famous of Picasso, then 75, who never seemed to figure out who Mr. Burri was or why he was there.
But Mr. Burri said it was often this kind of lucky accident, brought about mostly through persistence, that resulted in his most memorable photographs: the Churchill picture, the visa foul-up that resulted in his being sent to shoot Guevara instead of the assigned photographer, the time he was crammed into an elevator with Gamal Abdel Nasser and took a shot of him grinning like a boy as his bodyguard looked on menacingly.
Over the course of his career, though, there were many times when Mr. Burri considered himself too lucky, and he would refuse to take a shot that he considered too sensationalistic, too cruel or too facile. He returned to Cuba several years ago and said he once had a shot framed in his Leica viewfinder of Fidel Castro with the exit sign of a hotel positioned perfectly above his head. But he told himself, "You are not going to take this photo." And he did not. Once, in New York, he saw Greta Garbo walking down the street, hidden behind her sunglasses, but somehow could not bring himself to raise his camera.
"One of these days," he said, "I'm going to publish a book of all the pictures I did not take. It is going to be a huge hit."