Image: René Burri’s iconic image that encapsulated the rapid rise of São Paulo
in Brazil as one of the world’s major industrialised cities, 1960 © René Burri/Magnum Photos
Swiss photographer René Burri has been one of the key members of the elite Magnum photo agency for more than 50 years. His extensive body of work includes portraits, reportage, social documentary and architectural images, and he has used his natural ability for timing and composition to create a compassionate and positive view of the world.
Although influenced by Magnum co-founder Henri Cartier-Bresson, Burri has a distinct place in photojournalism. As photo historian Hans-Michael Koetzle said, ‘What sets René Burri apart is that he has very high formal standards, and an exceptional eye that can organise the world, create associations and discover symmetries, all combined with a very human touch.’
Burri was born in Zurich, Switzerland, in 1933. His father was a cook, but also a keen amateur photographer, and he often lent his camera to his son. When Burri was 13, a year after the end of the Second World War, his father took him to nearby Bürkliplatz, where Winston Churchill was due to give a speech. Burri stood at the roadside as Churchill passed in an open-topped car and he shot one frame of Churchill as he passed by. It was one of his earliest images, but his photographic ability was already apparent.
Three years later, Burri began training to be a photographer at the Zurich School of Arts and Crafts and received his degree in photography in 1953. He then documented life in the Swiss military while doing his national service for the following two years. Afterwards, he began working as a studio assistant and in his spare time began shooting his own documentary projects.
As a young man, Burri felt constricted by the mountainous terrain of his home country and longed to explore the world. ‘Photography,’ he later wrote, ‘was going to be my ticket across the Alps and out of Switzerland.’
His first project was a series documenting the work of music teacher Mimi Scheiblauer at a school for deaf-mute children in Zurich. This became a key project in launching his career, and after a number of images were published in the French magazine Science & Vie in 1955, Burri hitch-hiked to Paris to show them to the co-founder of Magnum Photos, David ‘Chim’ Seymour.
Image: A prostitute standing at the entrance to a brothel frequented by GIs, Saigon, South Vietnam, 1973
© René Burri/Magnum Photos
Seymour was so impressed that he made Burri an associate member of the agency and arranged further assignments for him. They included stories on a Czech armaments factory and the Suez Crisis of 1956. ‘I was really not long out of school and it was just like being a baby thrown into water and told to swim,’ he told Amateur Photographer in 2006. ‘So I had to swim.’
The next few years included assignments in Europe, the Middle East and Latin America. While photographing in São Paulo, Brazil, in 1960, Burri captured one of his most iconic images, showing four silhouetted men on a rooftop against the backdrop of high-rise buildings and a busy street. It was a dramatic, theatrical image that encapsulated São Paulo’s rapid rise as one of the world’s major industrialised cities.
The picture also marked a break with Henri Cartier-Bresson, who had been hugely influential on Burri. ‘In those days, Henri Cartier-Bresson limited [Magnum members] to lenses from 35mm to 90mm,’ Burri said in a recent interview published on the Phaidon website. ‘When I showed him the photos he said, “Brilliant, René!” I went outside and shouted, “Hah!” The lens I used was 18mm – I never told him! At that point I broke loose from my mentor.’
Another of Burri’s iconic images was shot in Cuba in 1963, soon after the Cuban Missile Crisis, while reporting for the magazine Look. While in Cuba, he met the Cuban leader Fidel Castro, and was present during a heated interview between Che Guevara, then part of Castro’s government, and Look journalist Laura Bergquist.
Burri was able to photograph him as he wanted and shot eight rolls of film. The shots he took included one of Guevara leaning back and smoking a large Havana cigar, which, together with Alberto Korda’s picture of Guevara, has become internationally renowned.
Burri went on to co-found Magnum Films and make a documentary in China, to travel widely on assignment for numerous international magazines and to photograph many famous personalities, including Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev when they met in Moscow in 1988.
Image: René Burri photographed in Arles in the south of France, 2002 © Courtesy of Weiner & Berton/ENSLL
Although part of the early generation of Magnum photographers, Burri was a modernising force in the organisation. He argued, often in direct opposition to Cartier-Bresson, on behalf of accepting new and different kinds of photographers into the group. ‘I argued that for a group to stay alive, you need extremes, some challengers to upset the apple cart,’ he later said.
Burri, now 79, divides his time between homes in Switzerland and France. In the recent interview for Phaidon, he offered his advice for today’s photographers.
‘Everybody now has a cell phone and can take snaps, which is great – even children,’ he said. ‘But my advice for young photographers is to go and cover things that nobody else is thinking about. Put your nose into things. Use the third eye of the camera and don’t be completely dependent on Photoshop or the way other people want you to cast the world.
‘Go and discover for yourself, because the fantastic thing about photography is that you are able to freeze a moment that can never come back.’
Books and Websites
Books: René Burri: Photographs, edited by Hans-Michael Koetzle and published by Phaidon in 2007, remains the best career retrospective currently available. It can be bought direct from www.phaidon.com. A new book, Impossible Reminiscences, is due to be published in 2013.
Websites: A broad range of Burri’s photographs can be seen on the Magnum website at www.magnumphotos.com. There are recent interviews with him on www.phaidon.com and he can be seen talking about his work on www.youtube.com (search for ‘René Burri interview’).
- 1933: Born in Zurich, Switzerland, on 9 April. His father worked as a cook
- 1949-53: Studies at the School of Arts and Crafts in Zurich and graduates with a degree in photography
- 1954-55: Undertakes compulsory military service in the Swiss Army
- 1955: Shoots documentary photographs at a school for deaf-mute children in Zurich. He later shows the work to the Magnum photo agency in Paris and it is subsequently published in Life magazine
- 1959: Becomes a full member of Magnum Photos
- 1960: Photographs the growing city of São Paulo in Brazil for German magazine Praline
- 1962: Publication of Burri’s first book, Die Deutschen
- 1963: Travels to Cuba and meets Fidel Castro. Shoots his famous portrait of the revolutionary guerrilla leader Che Guevara
- 1965: Participates in the creation of Magnum Films and spends six months in China making the documentary film The Two Faces of China
- 1968: Travels to South Africa to report on the apartheid system for the magazine Réalités
- 1982: Elected president of Magnum Photos
- 1998: Receives the Erich Salomon Prize for outstanding work in photojournalism
- 2004: Major retrospective exhibition celebrating 50 years in photography is held in Paris