Witness to many of the major news events and conflicts of the mid-twentieth century, René Burri (1933-2014) photographed the building of the Berlin Wall and the wars in Vietnam, Cambodia and Lebanon. He was in Egypt when the Suez crisis unfolded and photograhed Che Guevara in Cuba. In addition, his iconic photographs of São Paulo and Brasília take centre stage in the history of modern photography.
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René Burri was born in Zurich on 9 April 1933. His career as a photographer began early when, at the age of 13, he photographed Winston Churchill as he drove past in an open top car on a visit to Switzerland. Burri studied photography and film-making under Hans Finsler at the Zurich School of Arts and Crafts. He first took up a Leica camera whilst undertaking national service with the Swiss army. He went on to work as an assistant cameraman, firstly on the set of the Walt Disney film Switzerland (1955).
Burri joined the Magnum Photo Agency in 1955. Shortly after joining, his reportage about deaf-mute children, Touch of Music for the Deaf, received acclaim when it was published in LIFE magazine. He went on to publish in Look, Paris-Match and The Sunday Times but his work was most widely circulated through the Swiss weekly, Du. His work became characterised by an empathetic humanism combined with strong composition through geometry, architecture and form. He would have a long association with Magnum, opening the Magnum Gallery in Paris in 1962 and becoming the chair of Magnum France in 1982.
Witness to many of the major news events and conflicts of the mid twentieth century, Burri photographed the building of the Berlin Wall and the wars in Vietnam, Cambodia and Lebanon. He was in Egypt when the Suez crisis unfolded and met President Gamal Abdel Nassesr whom he would later accompany on a trip along the length of the desert border with Syria in celebration of the United Arab Republic, a brief cooperation between the two countries. Reflecting on his reportage work, Burri said, “every time I walked away after having a gun held to my head, I thought, you’ve been lucky one more time.”
Gaining the scoop that all the press photographers wanted, in 1963 Burri was granted access to photograph Che Guevara in the midst of the Cuban missile crisis. As well as his photojournalism, Burri produced a number of portraits of celebrated figures of the day including artists Pablo Picasso, Alberto Giacometti and Yves Klein, the film director Jean Renoir and the architect Le Corbusier.
Throughout his career Burri published numerous books of his photographic work. Burri’s 1962 book The Germans was created in response to Robert Frank’s The Americans as a tongue-in-cheek study of what he considered to be a particularly German way of life. After spending six months in Argentina Burri published his book Gaucho in 1968, with an introduction by Jorge Luis Borges. The book tells of Burri’s trip to the Argentinian pampas in search of a gang of cowboy outlaws who were presumed to have disappeared generations earlier. Having lost all hope of finding the cowboys, Burri was invited to a barbeque where his host asked him what his favourite colour was. Burri replied ‘blue’ and the next day a blue station wagon arrived to take him on what became a months-long trip with the gauchos.
Exhibitions and Awards
A career retrospective at the Maison Européenne de la Photographie, Paris, accompanied by a catalogue including work covering half a century was mounted in 2014. Burri died on 20 October 2014. He left his archive of 30,000 photographs to the Musée de l’Élysee, Lausanne.