Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Rene Burri: The Third Eye

Rene Burri’s crisp 1960 shot of four men on a Sao Paolo rooftop was such a perfect fit for the title panel of this blog that the Swiss photographer’s enviable portfolio seemed the natural place to start.

As a student at the School of Applied Arts in Zurich, Burri had tried his hand at documentary making whilst also developing a taste for the visual arts. Photography helped him combine those interests and by 1959 he was invited to join the Magnum agency. He has spent the subsequent half-century criss-crossing the globe in search of fresh subject matter, capturing portraits of the likes of Picasso, Giacometti, Le Corbusier and Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara.
Burri’s image of the Cuban leader may not be the one immortalised on thousands of t-shirts but that meeting is nevertheless instructive. Che’s brooding confidence is there for all to see but his almost absent-minded glance to the left is indication of a comfort he felt around few other photographers.

I was lucky enough to interview Burri a few years ago and he explained how his humble Leica had acted as a passport to people and locations that would otherwise have been off limits. “The camera was a magic little tool, the third eye [that] just permitted me to poke my nose into things that normally you don't have free access to."
Take Picasso. With PR companies and superstar egos complicating interviews with much lesser talents, it is heartwarming to discover that Burri had simply walked up to the artist’s door and knocked on. This thirst for first-hand experience characterises his best images.

Burri wasn’t just able to capture intimate compositions either. Two of his finest images were shot from distance: that rooftop capture and another from the same year, shot from high, in which reflections and shadows slalom across the floor of Rio’s Ministry of Health. Like many classic Magnum photographs, they favour form and content over technical refinement, with their geometry and contrast making full use of the black-and-white format.

When I spoke to Burri, a college graduate had recently written a thesis on his work, which suggested he was the “antithesis” of a war photographer. When I pressed him on this, he was obviously flattered by her interest but clearly felt that she was doubting his conviction or commitment. "I wasn't afraid [of war] but I sort of backed off," he explained. "I was interested in situations before and after. Despite all of this, I haven't become a cynic and I'm an incurable believer, not in humanity and such a great thing, but in people. They are still the greatest and the worst.”

All images (c) Rene Burri/Magnum Photos