martes, 21 de octubre de 2014


The legendary Swiss photographer René Burri has died in Zurich (Switzerland) at the age of 83 years, a sad piece of news for lovers of good photography, because he has been one of the most prominent photojournalists of Magnum Agency since he began working with it in 1955, being only 22 years old and becoming a full member in 1959.

The famous picture of Ernesto Che Guevara made by René Burri in Havana (Cuba) in 1963 and which became an icon of photography.

The Leica M3 camera Number 984743 with Summicron-M 50 mm f/2 Number 1708377, one of the cameras with which René Burri made his well-known photograph of Ernesto Che Guevara.  

After a three years stage as a documentary maker with Bolex H-16 movie camera between 1953 and 1955, his profesional career as a photographer began in mid fifties, travelling between 1956 and 1959 to Germany, Turkey, Egipt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Italy, France, Spain, Greece, Brazil and Japan as a Magnum photojournalist, publishing reportages in the magazines Camera, Du, Life, Look, Paris-Match, Epoca, Sunday Times and the New York Times.

Number of July 1956 of the mythical Swiss magazine of photography Camera. The editorial committee made up by (Mme A. Bucher (Editor), Romeo Martínez (Editor-in-Chief), H. Freytag (Technical Editor) and E.M.Buhrer (Artistic Director) became impressed when watching a choice of René Burri´s black and white pictures on baryta paper and decided to include nothing less than ten pages with images and texts about its emerging photographic yield, something unprecedented in the history of photojournalism, since René Burri was only 23 years old. 

This number of Camera (which also featured a top-notch reportage by Inge Morath titled People of Spain) meant a huge international success that made Romeo Martínez ( a remarkable expert on art and history of photography) decide the creation of three separate editions of the magazine (in English, French and German - it had been a trilingual publication until then - ), inaugurating a new period of even more prosperity for this really reference-class photography illustrated magazine, distributed in 24 countries.

Pages 302 and 303 with two of the seven pictures by René Burri included in the July 1956 number of Camera magazine. They are two images belonging to his famous reportage made at the Zurich-Morgenthal School for Deaf-Mute Children, whose publication in Life magazine a year before with the title Touch of Music for the Deaf opened the doors of Magnum for him. 

                           © René Burri / Magnum Photos

Exhibition of International Architecture Interbau of Berlin in 1957. It can be seen an apparent conceptual influence of the photographic Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) of twenties embodied by Albert Renger-Patzsch, which was conveyed to René Burri by his teacher Hans Finsler, a great specialist in graphic art and the creation of visual relationships and discerning of lines to order the chaos.

A man featuring a solid artistic background, René Burri studied at the School of Applied Arts of Zurich (Switzerland) from 1949 to 1953, being taught by Hans Finsler, Alfred Willimann and Johannes Itten, with whom he broadened his knowledge on painting, lighting and composition, the latter being a side he would progressively foster since 1954, year in which he started to use 35 mm rangefinder Leica cameras (a Leica IIIF, as well as working as Ernst A. Heiniger´s assistant cameraman in a film about Switzerland commisioned by Walt Disney Studios, a stint that would last until the following year), building up his friendship with the genius Werner Bischof, through whom he made contact with Magnum in 1955 (after the publication of a top-notch reportage by Burri on the teaching to deaf-mute people, published in the French magazine Science & Vie), where René Burri´s picture brought about a substantial impact, specially in David Seymour Chim, who quickly realized his immense gift, getting him a lot of assignments during his first year in Magnum in 1956 until his death on November 10, 1956, and from then on, Henri Cartier-Bresson became his main mentor and great teacher, influencing him during the second half of fifties, though Burri developed his own style from early sixties.

The Ching Chung Hwa family having lunch under Mao Zedong´s portrait in the ´ Ma Cheo ´ commune, 40 km from Shanghai (China). Picture made by René Burri in 1964.

Burri´s contact sheets even endured the exacting review by Henri Cartier-Bresson, getting high marks. Such was his photographic eye and proficiency in his trade.

                            © René Burri / Magnum Photos

Kindergarten, Unité d´habitation in Marseille (France), a good instance of René Burri´s versatility as a photographer, not only in the field of portraits and photojournalistic reportages but also in the industrial and architecture realm. Here he masterfully depicted in 1958 Le Corbusier´s building in Marseille, framing it in oustanding synergy with the group of children and their teacher playing by it.

And throughout his career of sixty years as a professional photographer, René Burri has successfully tackled a wide range of subjects and personalities, creating in a consistent and periodic way, week after week, month after month, great images in which aside from his undoubtable talent as a photojournalist, he steadily proved his ability to be in the suitable places at the right moments, an inborn knack for improvisation, a special sense to see the picture (a scope in which he excelled, with an exceptional look able to convey opinion) and get it, which is the most important thing, irrespective of the camera and lens used and the technical aspects of its making.

Road from Abu Dhabi to Dubai at 10 km from Dubai. Picture made by René Burri in 1975.

Burri is a classic of photography, generator of superb portraits like the ones of Ernesto Che Guevara, Pablo Picasso, Le Corbusier, Julio Cortázar, Jean Renoir, Alberto Giacometti, etc, but also author of fabulous reportages like Los Gauchos for Du (the illustrated magazine featuring the highest qualitative level in history along with Life, Camera, Du and Leica World), his series on The Building of Brasilia by the architect Oscar Niemeyer in 1960, Die Deutschen in 1962, Sao Paulo in 1960 (including his famous picture of some men walking on the rooftop of a skyscraper), etc.

                            © René Burri / Magnum Photos

Four men on the rooftop of a skyscraper of Sao Paulo (Brazil). 1960. Referring to this image, Burri said: Maybe in a photographer´s career there are only about two, three or four images that remain, and certainly that´s one of them.

And it all made with indescribable levels of humbleness and enthusiasm, because together with his towering category as a photographer, René Burri was a man of great humanity, kind and approachable, most times smiling and albeit he photographed witnessed many of the Twentieth Century conflicts like the Second Arab-Israeli War in 1956, the Vietnam War in mid sixties, the Six-Day War in 1967, the Cambodian War in early seventies, the Yom Kippur War in 1973, the Lebanon War in 1975 and others, he always oozed generosity and hope.

Airlift of South Vietnamese troops in Mekong Delta, near Tan Hung Dong. Vietnam. Picture made by René Burri in 1963.

After his consolidation as a professional photographer during the second half of fifties, the beginning of the sixties decade meant for Burri a turning point in his life, making different trips to Korea and Japan, Far East countries in which he lived for many months, evolving as a photojournalist and imbibing the Asiatic philosophy and life concept, enhancing an introspection which would reach its ápex with the fabulous reportaje ZEN published by Du magazine in its number of December 1961, with images made by Burri at the Ryoan-ji Temple (Kyoto), the Zen Garden of the Daitoku-ji Temple (Kyoto) and at the Zen School of Waseda University in Tokyo.

Pages 48 and 49 of the extraordinary reportaje ZEN with pictures by René Burri, made by the Swiss magazine Du in its number of December 1961. On the upper area of the right page appears an aquatic plant of the garden of Ryoan-ji Temple (Kyoto), while in the image below can be seen the ancient Chinese characters Shi-Ka for reception to guests, typical in the Chinese Zen temples of The Sung Dynasty of centuries XII and XIII south of the Yangtze river and with Lin´an as a capital.

Pages 54 and 55 of Du magazine of December 1961. In the colour image on the left (Burri used Ektachrome E-2 in 35 mm format since mid fifties) can be seen two bamboo canes, photographed by René Burri at the widest f/2 aperture, putting the focus on the right one tied with strings to a small cane working as a supporting item.

During his long stays in Japan Burri got to know first hand the deep symbology of bamboo in the Country of the Rising Sun as a nature being offering practical lessons for life regarding firmly rooted flexibility, strength of what looks to be weak, steady readiness for action through training and practice, ability to spring back after adversity, aperture to the knowledge and wisdom of both nature and people whose ideas are different to one´s preconceived notions, continuous Kaizen grow by means of sustained effort, usefulness through simplicity, etc.

In the black and white image on the right can be seen an area of the Zen garden of the Daitoku-ji Temple (Kyoto) in which the ondulated profile of the big rock grains on the ground stand for the life with its waves, the large stone appearing on top area refers to the ship of life, and the turtle-shaped small stone visible in the lower zone of the image outlines the memory trying to swim against the tide.

Pages 58 and 59 of Du magazine from December 1961. René Burri could likewise watch live the philosophy inherent to the eastern martial arts, particularly the Kendo, which he photographed at the Zen School of Waseda University in Tokyo (Japan).

In the image on the left can be seen a moment during a Kendo combat with two meter long bamboo swords.

In the image on the right is a Kendo fighter just at the moment of playing the gong, whose sound starts the Kendo training. With great mastery, Burri uses a large diaphragm aperture spotting the focus on Kendo´s pupil face which reveals concentration, rendering the rest of compositive elements out of focus. In the background on the left can be glimpsed another Kendo pupil who has just begun his combat.

Pages 60 and 61 of Du magazine from December 1961. The Buddhist monk Soen Ozeki photographed by René Burri in deep meditation at the Zen Garden of the Daitoku-ji Temple (Kyoto). 

On the other hand, the coverage of the situation in South Korea in 1961, in the areas near Panmunjon, shortly after the seize of power by general Parl-Chung-hee through a coup d´etat was also important in Burri´s evolution as a professional photographer.

                            © René Burri / Magnum Photos

Great photograph of Korean women entertaining American soldiers in Tae Song Dong (South Korea) made by René Burri in 1961 with his Leica M3 and Leitz Canada Summicron-M 35 mm f/2 SAMWO shooting at f/4 and 1/30 sec. A vivid example of a photojournalist highest aspiration: to become invisible in the thick of the action, going unnoticed and getting the picture. It can be clearly seen in the image the great prowess and mental strength of Burri, who is able to cope with the pressure and the risk of being seen, choosing the most suitable diaphragm and speed and above all waiting for the most precise and meaningful moment to press the shutter release button of his 24 x 36 mm camera.

René Burri has been one of the quickest photographers ever when it came to getting pictures, faithful to his usual statement  ´ for me photography is a way of saving something which nobody expected, not even me, but then I was ready just to catch like a fly in the flight ´, to such an extent that rather often he simply let him be surprised.

                                      © Leica Camera AG

René Burri has been one of the diachronic maestros in the use of 35 mm rangefinder Leica cameras, whose very small size, low weight, lack of swivelling mirror enabling a constant vision with no darkening whatsoever at any moment, accuracy of its rangefinder even in dim light conditions, a vast assortment of highly luminous primes, exceedingly short shutter lag (time elapsed between the moment in which the photographer presses the shutter release button and the beginning of the exposure itself) and rubberized silk curtains of the shutter, whose sonority is almost imperceptible, make possible to shoot handheld without any trepidation and with an exceedingly high level of discretion. It all being particularly strengthened by the expertise and talent of this master of photography, who turned the rangefinder Leicas (of which Burri used different models like the analogue IIIF, M2, M3 and MP and the digital M9 and M9-P) into first-rate photographic tools. In the image is shown Rene Burri´s analogue Leica MP manufactured in 2003.

Anyway, during the decade of sixties and early seventies, René Burri also used 35 mm reflex cameras like the Nikon F (with Non-Ai Nikkor-O 2.1 cm f/4, Non-Ai Nikkor-O 35 mm f/2, Non-Ai Nikkor-H 85 mm f/1.8 and Non-Ai 10.5 cm f/2.5 Nikkor-P lenses) and the Pentax Spotmatic (specially with the Takumar 135 mm f/2.5 lens).

Aside from being an exceptional photographer, René Burri was instrumental in the creation of Magnum Films in 1965, thanks to his vast cinematographic experience using Bolex H-16 movie camera and Kern Switar lenses, which he had started using in mid fifties. Here he can be seen during the shooting of the documentary film The Two Faces of China, produced by the BBC and for which Burri had to stay in the big Asiatic country for six months.

Burri had a tremendous passion for cinema along with deep technical knowledge on movie cameras, and from early sixties became an outstanding expert in the use of two 16 mm models: the Bolex H-16 with Kern Switar fixed lenses and the Eclair NPR with Angenieux 12-120 mm T2.2 zoom lens. 

Within time, he became a rather cosmopolitan photojournalist travelling all over Europe, South America, North America, China, Japan, Korea, India and the Middle East.

Inauguration of the city of Brasilia by the president Kubitschek on April 21, 1960. The creation of the new capital of Brazil after 41 months of work enabled René Burri to photograph all the buildings designed by the architect Oscar Niemeyer in their different construction stages, portraits of both Niemeyer himself and the workers with their tools and machinery, pictures of people walking through the streets and squares of the new metropolis, etc.

Burri documented the progressive development of this urban utopia between 1958 and mid eighties, highlighting the huge dimension of the project and the fulfillment in few years of the achievement of managing to fill the city with inhabitants, turning it into a throbbing with life hub.

The Ministry of Health. Río de Janeiro (Brazil). Picture made by René Burri in 1960.

Hans-Michael Koetzle, a remarkable expert in the figure of the great Swiss photographer and author of the excellent book René Burri Photographs published by Phaidon Press Limited and featuring nothing more than 448 pages. Koetzle has been throughout decades one of the main driving forces for the spreading of the knowledge on René Burri photographic production, not only in the editorial domain, but also in the sphere of illustrated magazines like Leica World, of which he was director, and in whose number 1 of January 2004 he included an article on three of his exhibitions.

Cover of the book René Burri Photographs with the famous image of the four men walking on the rooftop of a skyscraper in Sao Paulo (Brazil), made by Burri in 1960 with a Leica M3 camera with Visoflex and Tely-V 20 mm f/4 lens, shooting at 1/500 sec and f/8.

The number of July 1971 of the PHOTO French magazine published a gorgeous 16 page reportaje with pictures by rené Burri titled qu´est-ce qui fait courir un grand reporter on the occasion of the historical exhibition on the Swiss photographer held between June 16th and July 3rd 1971 at the Gallery Rencontre located at the number 40 of rue du Cherche-Midi in Paris.

First two pages of the comprehensive reportage on René Burri published by PHOTO French magazine in its number of July 1971. On the left of the image, in the lower area can be seen the portrait of a young René Burri, who was 38 years old at the moment, while on the right appears one of the photographs belonging to the book The Germans, made by Burri in 1959 and depicting a Bundeswehr officer watching tank manoeuvers in Lüneburg Lande, made with Leica M3 camera and Summicron-M 50 mm f/2 DR, shooting at 1/125 sec and f/11.

Pages 42 and 43 of PHOTO French magazine of July 1971 in which appears as a double page a picture made by rené Burri in Nicosia (Cyprus) in 1959 with Pentax Spotmatic camera and Takumar 135 mm f/2.5 lens, shooting at 1/250 sec and f/5.6

Funfair in Zurich (Switzerland). Picture made by René Burri in 1981.Though from a percentage viewpoint Burri made more photographs in black and white than in colour during his lifetime, from the very beginning of his professional career the Swiss photographer developed what he called a ´double life´, often using two cameras, one with black and white film and the other one with colour film.

René Burri always stood out through his ability to photograph the most meaningful moments, but also because in a simultaneous way his images often captured important historical events.

Among the many awards bestowed to him are the Dr. Erich Salomon Prize of the German Photographic Society (DGPh), the Cultural Prize of Zurich Canton in 1999, the Fellowship of the Royal Photographic Society in 2006 y el Leica Camera Hall of Fame Award in 2013.

The tremendous social upheavals of this technical era which are mirrored even in music, painting, literature and architecture, have impressed a new " face " on our fellow creatures of today. I regard my task as one of finding this, and conveying some ideas and pictures of it. René Burri. Camera magazine, July 7, 1956, page 324

© Text and Indicated Photographs José Manuel Serrano Esparza