René Burri on the Rooftops of São Paulo

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 under Hans Finsler and film-making 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-March 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 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.

Burri captured this image of São Paulo in 1960, during the city’s rapid industrial rise. The dramatic shot captures four silhouetted men on the rooftop of the Edifício do Banco do Brasil, which towers above the Avenida São Paolo below, thronging with trams, cars, and pedestrians. The image is exemplary of Burri’s work, with strong graphic composition created through geometry and architecture. Burri created the vertigo-inducing scene by using a 180mm telephoto lens to shoot downwards from the Banespão building, once the tallest in Brazil.

In an interview in 2012, Burri spoke about his famous photograph taken on the rooftops of Sao Paulo: “Did I know those men were there when I took the photograph? No. I went up there out of curiosity. I remember taking the elevator to the roof. Buildings weren’t guarded in those days; they didn’t have guardians as they have now. It was a question of getting to the top and knocking on the door. And then saying “excuse me”… So I walked out onto the terrace and at that moment those guys came from nowhere and I shot five images.” Burri took the photograph with a telephoto lens. Magnum founder and godfather of modern photojournalism, Henri Cartier-Bresson, was Burri’s mentor at Magnum and was well-known for being evangelical about shooting with a 35mm-90mm lens. When Cartier-Bresson called the photograph “brilliant,” Burri found great mirth in the fact that he had used a 180mm lens. “At that point I broke loose from my mentor,” he said, “I killed my mentor!”

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