Exhibition: ‘René Burri: A Retrospective’ at Flo Peters Gallery, Hamburg

Exhibition dates: 4th November 2009 – 15th January 2010


Many thankx to the Flo Peters Gallery for allowing me to publish the photographs in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.

Dr Marcus Bunyan



Rene Burri (Swiss, 1933-2014) 'Tae Soe Dong, Sud Korea' 1961


Rene Burri (Swiss, 1933-2014)
Tae Soe Dong, Sud Korea
Gelatin silver print


Rene Burri (Swiss, 1933-2014) 'Bilbao, Spain' 1957


Rene Burri (Swiss, 1933-2014)
Bilbao, Spain
Gelatin silver print


Rene Burri (Swiss, 1933-2014) 'Training, Fort Lauderdale, Florida' 1966


Rene Burri (Swiss, 1933-2014)
Training, Fort Lauderdale, Florida
Gelatin silver print


Rene Burri (Swiss, 1933-2014) 'Two Monks, Kyoto, Japan' 1961


Rene Burri (Swiss, 1933-2014)
Two Monks, Kyoto, Japan
Gelatin silver print


Rene Burri (Swiss, 1933-2014) 'Che Guevara, Havana' 1963


Rene Burri (Swiss, 1933-2014)
Che Guevara, Havana
Gelatin silver print


Rene Burri (Swiss, 1933-2014) 'Men On A Rooftop, Sao Paulo' 1960


Rene Burri (Swiss, 1933-2014)
Men On A Rooftop, Sao Paulo
Gelatin silver print



René Burri likes to see his career as a series of happy accidents, which is often just another way of editing out all the downtime and boring bits, the months of no work. But you have to admit it did start with a bang. There he was, 24 years old, mooching around in northern Spain, when he read in a newspaper that Picasso was expected at a bullfight in Nimes the next day. He drove through the night, checked into a hotel early the next morning – and to his surprise was ushered straight into Picasso’s bedroom.

A party was in full swing, and the artist was sitting up in bed, directing a small group of musicians and friends. He nodded at Burri – yes, he could take pictures – and the result is a wonderfully vivid sequence of portraits, Picasso laughing and clapping and betraying not the tiniest sign that a private party has just been interrupted. Burri, of course, took it as a sign from God: with luck like this, he was a born photographer.

So, right from the start, he has had a knack for being in the right place at the right time – and for not making a nuisance of himself once he gets there. He photographed Che Guevara in Havana in 1963, just a few months before the revolutionary disappeared from public life. He got stuck in a lift with President Nasser of Egypt, and took a funny picture of him laughing while a bodyguard looks on murderously.

Of course, for every picture Burri took, there was another he didn’t. He is now 71 and semi-retired (photographers never stop), and says that you could fill volumes with the stories he didn’t get, the places he didn’t go.

The first time he was commissioned to go to Cuba, in 1958 at the height of the revolution, he got drunk the night before he was due to fly, cried off, and went skiing at home in Switzerland instead. He once saw Greta Garbo coming down the road towards him in New York, wearing dark glasses, and at the very last moment put away his camera; she was just too forbidding. In the desert in Egypt, he saw the blackened hand of a corpse reaching up through the sand, and he didn’t take that picture, either. Burri believes in a notion of tact, or what he calls dignity.

Other people might call it cowardice, but he feels strongly that there are some lines you just don’t cross. “I have incredible respect for [war photographers] Don McCullin and Larry Burrows, but you pay a price. What does Don photograph now? Landscapes, pictures of flowers.” This is partly a moral position – photographers can get addicted to war, he says, and he met a lot of them in Vietnam – but it is also a simple instinct for self-preservation. Three of Burri’s great mentors at Magnum – Robert Capa, Werner Bischof, Chim (David Seymour) – lived dangerously and died young, and he always felt it was a tremendous waste of their talent.

For all that, Burri has seen a lot of war. Since joining Magnum in 1959, he has covered conflicts in Cambodia, Korea, Vietnam, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and China. He says he prefers to photograph the build-up to war, or its aftermath, rather than the violence itself. One of the first big projects he undertook was a portrait of postwar Germany, starting in the bleak mid-1950s and published in book form in 1962.

Of all his photographs, those that most nearly capture the atmosphere of combat are, in fact, of a training exercise in the Swiss Jura. Burri undertook compulsory military service in the 1950s, while still at art school, but with the permission of his training officer ended up shooting more film than anything else; he developed the pictures in his bath tub at the end of the day. At the age of 21, he came to see the camera as a way of removing himself from actual conflict; it also, he says, forced him to look for metaphors about battle, rather than relying on the action picture. (This is a rule of his – don’t be too literal. He once saw Castro standing in a doorway underneath a big exit sign, which was tempting for a second, but then just too obvious.)

Burri’s most powerful war pictures are the ones with no one in them. During the Six Day War between Egypt and Israel in 1967, he took a series of stark, graphic photographs, many of them from the air, which said something about the conflict that any single explosion or corpse might not have. In one, the wreckage of an Egyptian helicopter lies sprawled on a concrete landing pad, looking like a bug squashed on patio paving; in another, a burned-out convoy snakes through the desert like a collection of children’s toys left out in a sand pit.

A third photograph, an extreme close-up of a helmeted soldier with helicopters swarming at his shoulder like mosquitoes, taken in 1974, after the Yom Kippur war, has someone in it, it’s true, but he is silhouetted and faceless – an emblematic soldier, not a real one. In person, Burri is not a man given to big political statements, but on film he has captured the futility of war, the mess and wastefulness of human aggression.

Burri now lives in Paris, which is currently honouring him with a retrospective, and on the opening weekend he rushes around the gallery with his publisher, a TV director, several friends, his wife and 11-year-old son in tow. (He has grown-up children from his first marriage to Rosellina Bischof, who died in 1986.) He is every inch the European photojournalist – battered black fedora, cravat, a thick cloud of cigar smoke; when we move to a cafe to talk and the Americans at the next table complain about the cigar, he points out, in a very genial way, that the pollution is marginally worse outside.

At art school in Zurich, Burri was initially more interested in film. He had a rather off-putting photography teacher who started class with gymnastics and breathing exercises, and was a keen proponent of the “new objectivity” – there was an emphasis on still lifes and form, and what Burri refers to as “coffee cups in light.”

The American photographer Edward Steichen once came to the school looking for work he might include in an exhibition, The Family Of Man, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York – where were the pictures of people, he wanted to know, and left disappointed. It wasn’t until after he graduated that Burri felt free to pursue the more spontaneous, subjective kind of photography that Steichen had come looking for. “I suddenly had to chase after my pictures … Pictures are like taxis during rush hour – if you’re not fast enough, someone else will get there first.”

He started in Paris, as everyone did in the 1950s. Henri Cartier-Bresson had just published his influential book The Decisive Moment, and Robert Doisneau and Willy Ronis were photographing the city’s streets and cafes. At Magnum, they took an interest in a story Burri had published about a school for deaf-mute children, selling it on to Life magazine. He was in – Cartier-Bresson approved, Capa was enthusiastic, so Burri became a part of the greatest photographers’ cooperative in the world.

For the next two decades, he travelled almost incessantly, working on commissions for the New York Times, Vogue, Paris-Match, Time, Der Stern. He has kept every boarding card and press pass; a cabinet in the Paris exhibition is full of them. But although Burri worked constantly throughout the 1950s and 1960s, his photographs were always considered the lesser part of a story; as far as magazine editors were concerned, it was the words that mattered. After Burri accompanied an American journalist on a two-hour interview with Che Guevara, Look magazine ran pages of dense text, cropping his extraordinary portraits and running them very small at the bottom of the page.

One of the chief pleasures of this retrospective stage in life, says Burri, is being able to go back through all that work and decide for himself what was important and what was not. In Phaidon’s new monograph of his work, the portrait of Che is not 2in square but blown up across two pages. He has hung magazine stories in the new exhibition, signing the uncredited ones in red crayon. And as well as the reportage, there are hundreds of portraits of artists and writers and architects – Patricia Highsmith, Alberto Giacometti, Le Corbusier – and of cities: Tokyo, Havana, New York in a blackout, Rio de Janeiro, São Paolo, Brasilia.

Burri fell in love with modern architecture as a student and went on to form close friendships with Le Corbusier, Luis Barragan and Oscar Niemeyer. Some of his best work draws on this innate feel for the form and volume of a building, and of a person’s place within it. A photograph called In The Ministry Of Health, Rio de Janeiro 1960, is so full of light and shadow, it looks at first like a street scene, two young women striding through thick bars of sunlight; in fact, the photograph was taken indoors, in the lobby of a building designed by two of Burri’s favourite architects, Niemeyer and Le Corbusier. Burri’s best known photograph, of four suited men crossing a rooftop in São Paolo, captures all the drama, glamour and vertigo of life in a giant city: the flat roof floats high above the street, dotted with tiny, improbable people.

When Burri left Zurich in the 1950s, he set out to discover the world and some sense of man’s smallness within it. Switzerland was landlocked, bordered by mountains; a camera was a way out. Even then, he worried about what he could do that was new – “when shutters rattle from morning to night in every corner of the world … when every continent is lit with the flash of cameras.” His job, he believes, has been to “trace the enormous social changes taking place in our age, conveying my thoughts and images of them.” And, more poetically, “to put the intensity that you yourself have experienced into the picture – otherwise it is just a document.” He retired from reporting once that intensity, that sense of the bigness of the world, was gone. In 1989, he went to Moscow to photograph Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, but so did 6,500 others, and in the scrum it seemed impossible to take a meaningful picture. He now prefers to paint and take pictures of his wife and son. Of course, he’d start all over again if the world ever became less crowded – if you could walk into Picasso’s bedroom at six in the morning, and be welcome.

Saturday February 7, 2004
The Guardian
Text on the Art Daily website [Online] Cited 19/05/2019


Rene Burri (Swiss, 1933-2014) 'Blackout New York' November 9, 1965

Rene Burri (Swiss, 1933-2014) 'Blackout New York' November 9, 1965

Rene Burri (Swiss, 1933-2014) 'Blackout New York' November 9, 1965

Rene Burri (Swiss, 1933-2014) 'Blackout New York' November 9, 1965


Rene Burri (Swiss, 1933-2014)
Four photographs from the series Blackout New York
November 9, 1965
Gelatin silver print



Flo Peters Gallery
Burchardstraße 13
Chilehaus C
20095 Hamburg, Germany

Gallery hours:
Tuesday – Friday 12 – 4pm
Saturday 11 – 3pm

Flo Peters Gallery website


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3 Responses to “Exhibition: ‘René Burri: A Retrospective’ at Flo Peters Gallery, Hamburg”

  1. 1 Nadia Huppertz, Amsterdam
    May 12, 2010 at 8:15 am

    Wonderfull ans exeptionall work! Thank you

  2. January 11, 2010 at 4:26 am

    thank you so much – what spectacular work! only wish I could be in Hamburg to see it…

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Dr Marcus Bunyan

Dr Marcus Bunyan is an Australian artist and writer. His art work explores the boundaries of identity and place. He writes Art Blart, an art and cultural memory archive, which posts mainly photography exhibitions from around the world. He holds a Doctor of Philosophy from RMIT University, Melbourne, a Master of Arts (Fine Art Photography) from RMIT University, and a Master of Art Curatorship from the University of Melbourne.

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