I’ve always liked the photographs of René Burri who died last year. Burri came from Switzerland and was a longtime member of the Magnum Agency. He documentary work and his portraits appeared in many of the great news magazines. I finally ordered the major retrospective of his work, simply titled Photographs, recently and I plan to pick up Impossible Reminiscences, a collection of his work in colour.
Photographs is a big book, a career retrospective with more than 400 images. There is also an excellent introductory essay by Hans-Michael Koetzle on Burri’s photographic life. In the course of that introduction Koetzle quotes one critic, Guido Magnaguagno, who gets to the heart of what makes Burri’s images so special:
Burri does not fix his eye on the “event” itself, but circles it and examines its context, its surroundings. He shows how events affect their environment and determine people’s behaviour. The passers-by of history are given a face. What at first appears to be an enigmatic lack of action becomes, once the sequence of images and ideas comes into focus, a profound description of the state of an era.
In this manner Burri was often able to convey the uglier side of humanity without recourse to violent and often exploitative imagery, something that has always been a challenge for photojournalism.
I read a number of obituaries when he passed away and was intrigued by a comment in the one which appeared in The Guardian. Amanda Hopkinson wrote:
A commission might provide him with the means to visit a new region, but then he would extend his stay, to ‘get beneath the surface’. It is almost possible to tell how long Burri stayed in a particular place by how close he got to his subjects: two monks performing deep bows to one another before a temple in Kyoto are in long shot; later shots are taken in close-up, inside the monastery.
I expect great photographers to be the sort of people who can land in a new situation and instinctively comprehend and record that world. The idea that a photographer of Burri’s calibre needed time to find his way under the surface of a new place came as quite a revelation, for this is my situation. For me it takes time, often a long time, to move beyond the general and the sweeping and begin to get closer, to understand a place and a people and try to represent that. It’s good to know I’m in good company. Of course for Burri it may have been not so much that he needed time, but that he took time. Either way, I find it an encouraging thought.
Here is another short video from Phaidon Press shows Burri discussing his colour work at the time of the launch of Impossible Reminiscences.