Posts Tagged ‘Swiss art

09
Oct
20

Exhibition: ‘Robert Frank – Memories’ at the Fotostiftung Schweiz, Winterthur, Zürich

Exhibition dates: 12th September 2020 – 10th January 2021

 

Robert Frank (Swiss, 1924-2019) 'White Tower, New York' 1948

 

Robert Frank (Swiss, 1924-2019)
White Tower, New York
1948
Gelatin silver print
© Andrea Frank Foundation; courtesy Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York

 

 

An interesting selection of media images, including some early Swiss and American photographs, which are rarely seen.

Frank’s perceptiveness of human beings and their context of being and becoming is incredible. Look at the faces in Landsgemeinde, Hundwil (1949, below), Paris (1952, below) and the attitude of the bodies, surmounted by the sun (top left), in London (1951, below).

“It is important to see what is invisible to others.”

Dr Marcus Bunyan

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

 

 

The recently deceased Robert Frank is widely regarded as one of the most important photographers of our time. His book The Americans, first published in Paris in 1958 and then in New York the following year, is quite possibly the most influential photo book of the 20th century. As a kind of photographic road movie, it sketches a gloomy social portrait that served as a wake-up call to all of America at the time. And his personal style, alternating between documentary and subjective expression, radically changed post-war photography. But The Americans wasn’t merely a spontaneous stroke of genius. Frank’s early works already feature back stories and side plots that are closely connected to the themes and images of his legendary book. The Fotostiftung Schweiz holds a collection of lesser-known works – many of which were donated by the artist – which illustrate the consolidation of Frank’s subjective style. In addition to essays from Switzerland and Europe, it also includes works from early 1950s America that are on par with the well-known classics, but remained unpublished for editorial reasons. At the heart of the exhibition Robert Frank – Memories is the narrative force of Frank’s visual language, which developed in opposition to all conventions and only received international recognition when Frank had already abandoned photography and turned to the medium of film.

The exhibition is accompanied by a presentation of the books that publisher Gerhard Steidl produced with Robert Frank over a period of more than 15 years.

 

 

Robert Frank (Swiss, 1924-2019) 'New York City' 1948

 

Robert Frank (Swiss, 1924-2019)
New York City
1948
Gelatin silver print
© Andrea Frank Foundation; courtesy Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York

 

Robert Frank (Swiss, 1924-2019) 'Landsgemeinde, Hundwil' 1949

 

Robert Frank (Swiss, 1924-2019)
Landsgemeinde, Hundwil
1949
Gelatin silver print
© Andrea Frank Foundation; courtesy Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York

 

Robert Frank (Swiss, 1924-2019) 'Landsgemeinde, Hundwil' 1949

 

Robert Frank (Swiss, 1924-2019)
Landsgemeinde, Hundwil
1949
Gelatin silver print
© Andrea Frank Foundation; courtesy Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York

 

Robert Frank (Swiss, 1924-2019) 'Landsgemeinde, Hundwil' 1949 (detail)

 

Robert Frank (Swiss, 1924-2019)
Landsgemeinde, Hundwil (detail)
1949
Gelatin silver print
© Andrea Frank Foundation; courtesy Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York

 

Robert Frank (Swiss, 1924-2019) 'Landsgemeinde, Hundwil' 1949 (detail)

 

Robert Frank (Swiss, 1924-2019)
Landsgemeinde, Hundwil (detail)
1949
Gelatin silver print
© Andrea Frank Foundation; courtesy Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York

 

Robert Frank (Swiss, 1924-2019) 'London' 1951

 

Robert Frank (Swiss, 1924-2019)
London
1951
Gelatin silver print
© Andrea Frank Foundation; courtesy Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York

 

Robert Frank (Swiss, 1924-2019) 'Paris' 1952

 

Robert Frank (Swiss, 1924-2019)
Paris
1952
Gelatin silver print
© Andrea Frank Foundation; courtesy Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York

 

Robert Frank (Swiss, 1924-2019) 'New York City' early 1950s

 

Robert Frank (Swiss, 1924-2019)
New York City
early 1950s
Gelatin silver print
© Andrea Frank Foundation; courtesy Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York

 

 

Robert Frank, who was born in Zurich in 1924 and died last year in Canada, is widely regarded as one of the most important photographers of our time. Over the course of decades, he has expanded the boundaries of photography and explored its narrative potential like no other. Robert Frank travelled thousands of miles between the American East and West Coasts in the mid-1950s, going through nearly 700 films in the process. A selection of 83 black-and-white images from this blend of diary, sombre social portrait and photographic road movie would leave its mark on generations of photographers to come. The photobook The Americans was first published in Paris, followed by the US in 1959 – with an introduction by Beat writer Jack Kerouac, no less. Off-kilter compositions, cut-off figures and blurred motion marked a new photographic style teetering between documentation and narration that would have a profound impact on postwar photography.

It is quite possibly the single most influential book in the history of photography; however, rather than being a spontaneous stroke of genius, Frank had worked on his subjective visual language for years. Many of his photographs from Switzerland, Europe and South America, as well as his rarely shown works from the USA in the early 1950s, are on a par with the famous classics from The Americans. The photographer’s early work, which remained unpublished for editorial reasons and is therefore little known to this day, reveals connections to those iconic pictures that still define our image of America, even today.

At the heart of the exhibition Robert Frank – Memories is the narrative force of Robert Frank’s visual language, which developed in opposition to all conventions and only received international recognition after Frank had already abandoned photography and turned to the medium of film. The exhibition mainly features vintage silver gelatin prints from the collection of the Fotostiftung Schweiz, which either come from the former collection of Robert Frank’s long-time friend Werner Zryd (now owned by the Swiss Confederation) or were donated to the Fotostiftung Schweiz by the artist himself. They are complemented by a number of loans from the Fotomuseum Winterthur. A presentation of the books and films that publisher Gerhard Steidl released with Robert Frank over a period of more than 15 years accompanies the exhibition (in the corridor leading to the library and in the seminar room).

 

Early Work

In March 1947, Robert Frank arrived in New York following an adventurous journey on a cargo ship. The young, ambitious photographer had found Switzerland too stifling and he hoped to gain new freedom in America liberated from social and family obligations. The photographer carried a 6×6 Rolleiflex and a small spiral-bound book of 40 photographs taken during his apprentice years from 1941 to 1946. This portfolio included landscapes, portraits, personal photojournalistic works, and meticulously executed still lifes, all of which reveal that the 22-year old was a highly skilled photographer. It is therefore unsurprising that influential Harper’s Bazaar art director Alexey Brodovitch swiftly hired Frank as an assistant photographer after seeing his portfolio and first test photos.

In the magazine’s in-house photo studio, Frank photographed fashion industry products from clinical shots of women’s shoes and every imaginable accessory to laboriously staged fashion shoots and occasionally even photojournalistic assignments offering a little more freedom. Frank was successful and rose through the ranks, but quickly realised that this industry cared only about money, an attitude to which he couldn’t reconcile himself. Only a few months later, he quit his job in order to be able to work wholly free of constraints. He traveled to Peru and Bolivia the following year and often used his 35 mm Leica. Later he recalled: “I was making a kind of diary. I was very free with the camera. I didn’t think of what would be the correct thing to do; I did what I felt good doing. I was like an action painter.”

Frank returned to Europe in spring 1949. He photographed the yearly cantonal assembly in the Swiss canton of Appenzell Ausserrhoden, during which citizens (exclusively men back then) voted by a show of hands. However, he was unsuccessful in placing this story with a major periodical, even though he circulated the images via the acclaimed agency Magnum. Evidently, Frank had focused too little on the actual events. He was more interested in the bystanders’ stances than in the pomp of government officials wearing tailcoats and top hats. His photographs of this assembly prefigure the penetrating and critical gaze he would later level on America’s societal and political landscape. Here as there, his was an outsider’s subjective and inward looking perspective.

 

Black White and Things

In late 1949, the international magazine Camera published a first selection of Robert Frank’s work. The accompanying text described him as a photographer who loved “truth and unvarnished reality”, as someone “whose thirst for experience compelled him to get out and capture life with his camera”. Indeed, Frank worked chiefly in Paris, London, and Spain between 1949 and 1953, frequently traveling between Europe and the US. He reported on a bullfighter in Spain and observed life in London’s financial district. In Paris he took pictures of objects – mostly chairs and flowers – photographs he assembled in an album dedicated to his future wife. In subsequent years, he shook off any sentimental tendencies.

Frank continued his attempts to publish both smaller and more substantial stories and photo essays in glossy magazines such as Life, but with limited success. His reportage on Welsh coal miner Ben James, which appeared in U.S. Camera 1955 annual, was a rare exception. But Frank found himself less and less able to reconcile himself with the conventional view of photography as a universal language accessible to all. Instead, he increasingly distanced himself from print media’s expectations and developed a strong aversion to what he once termed stereotypical “Life stories”, “those goddamned stories with a beginning and an end”.

In autumn 1952, Frank created Black White and Things with his Zurich-based friend Werner Zryd. This handmade book comprising 34 photographs was an attempt to counter these expectations with something new: an intuitively ordered series of photos with neither text nor linear narrative structure, introduced simply by Saint-Exupéry’s famed lines from The Little Prince: “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” Accordingly, Black White and Things is a kind of three-part visual poem: “Black” evokes death, materialism, loneliness, and anonymity; “White” evokes home, love, religion, and camaraderie; and “Things” engages with diametrical oppositions such as friendship and cruelty, and affection and solitude. The order and pairing of the images sparks thoughts, associations, and feelings. Yet Frank’s evocative arrangement is intentionally ambiguous and open: “Something must be left for the onlooker, he must have something to see. It is not all said for him.”

 

America, America

After a further trip to New York – which he assured his mother would be his last – Robert Frank applied for a Guggenheim fellowship in October 1954. His project proposal was for an “observation and record of what one naturalised American finds to see in the United States that signifies the kind of civilisation born here and spreading elsewhere”. The result was to be a book, for which he had already won support from Arnold Kübler, the long-standing editor of the Zurich-based culture magazine Du, and Robert Delpire, a young publisher in Paris. Thanks to help from Alexey Brodovitch, Walker Evans, Edward Steichen and others, Frank was the first European photographer to be awarded this generous fellowship. The award made it possible for him to set off on his now-legendary road trips across the US in spring 1955.

Over almost two years, Frank took more than 20,000 photographs on his travels. He made roughly 1,000 work prints in the autumn and winter of 1956-57, which he pinned to the walls and laid on the floor of his apartment. At the time his home was East Village, New York, where artists including Alfred Leslie and Willem de Kooning also lived. Over many months Frank made countless passes through his photographs, eliminating those images he was unsure of and focusing on specific themes. He constantly rearranged the selection that was gradually coming together until he had a first mocked-up book with just under 90 images and the provisional title America, America. Frank took this book with him when he traveled to Europe in summer 1957, showing it to Delpire and his Swiss photographer friend Gotthard Schuh.

Over the years, the America photographs not included in his final selection disappeared into archives and collections or even got lost altogether. Only recently has it been possible to ascertain that many of the rejected and unpublished photographs were of the same caliber as the 83 book images Frank and Delpire agreed on. Frank’s contact sheets show that these photos were often taken directly before or after the images that have become icons of photographic history. Rather than putting forth a single message, Frank’s dark take on 1950s America contains impressive variations, facets, and excursuses that made a powerful impression on many, including his early supporter, Schuh. Schuh wrote to his young friend: “I don’t know America, but your photographs frighten me because in them you show, with visionary alertness, things that affect us all.”

 

The Americans

Following the first French edition of Les Américains, Robert Frank’s book was published as The Americans in New York in 1959. The English edition dropped the cover illustration and the selection of texts on America (which Delpire had insisted on over Frank’s protests), and added an introduction by Jack Kerouac. Frank had much in common with the Beat poets, though he only met them after his Guggenheim-funded travels. Like Kerouac’s main character in On the Road, Frank crisscrossed the country with apparent aimlessness, working spontaneously. Moreover, his work shares a stylistic consonance with Beat literature: Frank had abandoned all technical conventions and photographed intuitively instead. Many of his photographs are underexposed and grainy; they frame a scene and omit key details; their horizons are slanting and the lighting is often murky. Frank’s focus was the everyday, the fleeting, and the marginal. People are shown turning away from the camera, and his landscapes are desolate and bleak, “really more like Russia”, as Frank once remarked to Kerouac. He flouted the rules he had learned during his early training as a photographer in Switzerland in order to be as true as possible to his subjective experience and to capture unvarnished reality.

Kerouac’s introduction begins with the words: “That crazy feeling in America when the sun is hot on the streets and music comes out of the jukeboxes or from a nearby funeral, that’s what Robert Frank has captured in tremendous photographs taken as he traveled on the road around practically forty-eight states in an old used car (on Guggenheim Fellowship) and with the agility, mystery, genius, sadness and strange secrecy of a shadow photographed scenes that have never been seen before on film …” The Americans is a long, poetic image arc with cross-references, digressions, and associations, but also mental leaps and ambiguities, which provoked many critics. Although most acknowledged that Frank’s photographs were highly powerful, they read his take on Americans as a malicious attack on the country. Frank, a Jewish foreigner, was resented for picking up on the racism, hollow patriotism, commodified cheer, and political corruption lurking behind the façade of American society. Even before his groundbreaking book was published, Robert Frank wrote: “Above all, I know that life for a photographer cannot be a matter of indifference. Opinion often consists of a kind of criticism. But criticism can come out of love. It is important to see what is invisible to others.”

Martin Gasser, Curator

 

Robert Frank (Swiss, 1924-2019) "Los Angeles" 1955

 

Robert Frank (Swiss, 1924-2019)
“Los Angeles”
1955
Gelatin silver print
© Andrea Frank Foundation; courtesy Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York

 

Robert Frank (Swiss, 1924-2019) 'City fathers – Hoboken, New Jersey' 1955

 

Robert Frank (Swiss, 1924-2019)
City fathers – Hoboken, New Jersey
1955
Gelatin silver print
© Andrea Frank Foundation; courtesy Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York

 

Robert Frank (Swiss, 1924-2019) 'Bus-Stop, Detroit' 1955

 

Robert Frank (Swiss, 1924-2019)
Bus-Stop, Detroit
1955
Gelatin silver print
© Andrea Frank Foundation; courtesy Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York

 

Robert Frank (Swiss, 1924-2019) 'Bar – Gallup, New Mexico' 1955

 

Robert Frank (Swiss, 1924-2019)
Bar – Gallup, New Mexico
1955
Gelatin silver print
© Andrea Frank Foundation; courtesy Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York

 

Robert Frank (Swiss, 1924-2019) 'Charity Ball – New York' 1954

 

Robert Frank (Swiss, 1924-2019)
Charity Ball – New York
1954
© Andrea Frank Foundation; courtesy Pace / MacGill Gallery, New York
Collection of the Swiss Photo Foundation

 

Müller + Hess, Wendelin Hess and Jesse Wyss, Basel / Zurich

 

Müller + Hess, Wendelin Hess and Jesse Wyss, Basel / Zurich

 

 

Fotostiftung Schweiz
Grüzenstrasse 45
CH-8400 Winterthur (Zürich)
Phone: +41 52 234 10 30

Opening hours:
Tuesday – Sunday 11am – 6pm
Wednesday 11am – 8pm
Closed on Mondays

Fotostiftung Schweiz website

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09
May
18

Exhibition: ‘Balthasar Burkhard’ at Fotomuseum Winterthur and Fotostiftung Schweiz, Winterthur, Zurich

Exhibition dates: 10th February – 21st May 2018

 

Balthasar Burkhard

Balthasar Burkhard

 

 

As is so often the case with an artist, it is the early work that shines brightest in this posting.

The works from On the Alp possess an essential power; the daring capture of actions and performances by the international avant-garde of the day make you wish you had been there; and the installation photograph of ‘The Knie’, Kunsthalle Basel in 1983 (below) makes me want to see more of his 1980s installations, with their shift in scale and repetitive nature. There are no more examples online, but a couple of photographs can be seen in the first installation photograph below.

I can leave the underwhelming aerial, cloud and landscape work well alone. There are many people in the history of photography who have taken better photographs of such subject matter. His life-sized photographs of animals again do nothing for me. They possess a reductive minimalism riffing on the canvas backgrounds of Avedon blown up to enormous size (as in most contemporary photography, as if by making something large the photograph gains aura and importance) but they lead nowhere. Perhaps in their actual presence (the physicality of the print) I might be transported to another place, but in reproduction they are a one-dimensional non sequitur.

From the energy of the earlier work emerges “a beauty contest between animals in a photo-shoot”, scrupulous studio photos that demand to be taken seriously, but mean very little. Here, passion has lost out to rigorous and deathly control.

Marcus

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Many thankx to Fotomuseum Winterthur and Fotostiftung Schweiz for allowing me to publish the photographs in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.

 

Together, Fotomuseum Winterthur and Fotostiftung Schweiz will showcase the oeuvre of Swiss artist Balthasar Burkhard (1944-2010) in a major retrospective. Burkhard’s work spans half a century: from his early days as a trainee photographer with Kurt Blum to his seminal role in chronicling the art of his time, eventually becoming a photographic artist in his own right who brought photography into the realms of contemporary art in the form of the monumental tableau. More than 150 works and groups of works chart not only the progress of his own photographic career, but also the emergence of photography as an art form in the second half of the twentieth century. An exhibition in collaboration with Museum Folkwang, Essen, and Museo d’arte della Svizzera italiana, Lugano.

 

 

Balthasar Burkhard (1944-2010) from 'On the Alp' 1963

 

Balthasar Burkhard (1944-2010)
from On the Alp
1963
© Estate Balthasar Burkhard

 

Balthasar Burkhard (1944-2010) 'oT (Urs Luthi, Balthasar Burkhard, Jean-Frederic Schnyder), Amsterdam' 1969

 

Balthasar Burkhard (1944-2010)
oT (Urs Luthi, Balthasar Burkhard, Jean-Frederic Schnyder), Amsterdam
1969
© Estate Balthasar Burkhard

 

Balthasar Burkhard (1944-2010) 'Untitled (Jean-Christophe Ammann at Andy Warhol's Factory), New York' 1972

 

Balthasar Burkhard (1944-2010)
Untitled (Jean-Christophe Ammann at Andy Warhol’s Factory), New York
1972
© Estate Balthasar Burkhard

 

Jean-Christophe Ammann. 'oT (Balthasar Burkhard), USA' 1972

 

Jean-Christophe Ammann
oT (Balthasar Burkhard), USA
Venice, 1972
© Estate Balthasar Burkhard

 

 

Together, Fotomuseum Winterthur and Fotostiftung Schweiz have launched a major retrospective exhibition dedicated to the lifetime achievement of Swiss artist Balthasar Burkhard (1944-2010). His oeuvre is almost unparalleled in the way it reflects not only the self-invention of a photographer but also the emancipation of photography as an artistic medium in its own right during the second half of the twentieth century.

The exhibition charts the many facets of Burkhard’s career, step by step, from his apprenticeship with Kurt Blum – in which he adhered closely to the traditional reportage and illustrative photography of the 1960s, and undertook his first independent photographic projects – to his role alongside legendary curator Harald Szeemann, and his documentation of Bern’s bohemian scene in the 1960s and 1970s. Balthasar Burkhard is the author of many iconic images of such groundbreaking exhibitions as When Attitudes Become Form at Kunsthalle Bern in 1969 and the 1972 documenta 5, capturing radical and frequently ephemeral works, actions and performances by the international avant-garde of the day.

Meanwhile, Burkhard endeavoured to make his mark both as a photographer and as an artist, developing his first large-scale photographic canvases in collaboration with his friend and colleague Markus Raetz, trying out his skills as an actor in the USA, and ultimately being invited to hold his own highly influential exhibitions at Kunsthalle Basel and Musée Rath in Geneva in 1983 and 1984. These enabled him to liberate photography from its purely documentary role by creating monumental tableaux in which he developed the motif of the body into sculptural human landscapes and site-specific architectures.

Throughout the course of his career, Burkhard turned time and again to portraiture. Whereas his early photographs tended to show artists in action within their own setting, his later portraits adopted an increasingly formalised approach. During the 1990s, he transposed this stylistic reduction to a wide-ranging series of animal portraits reminiscent of the encyclopaedic style of nineteenth century photography.

Another milestone of Burkhard’s oeuvre can be found in his vast aerial photographs of major mega cities such as Tokyo and Mexico City. These images, shot from an aircraft, like his images of the earth’s deserts, were destined to become a personal passion. Balthasar Burkhard’s quest for a morphology, for a formula that could encapsulate both nature and culture, is particularly evident in his later work, which ranges from pictures of waves and clouds, Swiss mountains and rivers, to the delicate fragility of plants. His interest was always focused on the materiality of the image. Alongside the highly idosyncratic and somewhat darkly sombre tonality of his prints, Burkhard constantly sought to explore every aspect of photography’s aesthetic and technical potential.

Encompassing half a century of creativity, the joint exhibition by Fotomuseum and Fotostiftung not only shows individual works, but also reflects on Balthasar Burkhard’s own view of how his photographs should be presented, underpinned by a wealth of documents from the archives of the artist. The exhibition is divided in two parts and shown in parallel in the exhibition spaces of Fotomuseum and Fotostiftung.

Press release

 

Balthasar Burkhard (1944-2010) / Markus Raetz. 'The Bed' 1969/70

 

Balthasar Burkhard (1944-2010) / Markus Raetz
The Bed
1969/70
© Estate Balthasar Burkhard

 

Balthasar Burkhard (1944-2010) 'oT (Michael Heizer, Berne Depression), Berne' 1969

 

Balthasar Burkhard (1944-2010)
oT (Michael Heizer, Berne Depression), Berne
1969
© J. Paul Getty Trust. Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles

 

Balthasar Burkhard (1944-2010) 'Untitled (Richard Serra, Splash Piece), Berne' 1969

 

Balthasar Burkhard (1944-2010)
Untitled (Richard Serra, Splash Piece), Berne
1969
© J. Paul Getty Trust. Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles

 

Balthasar Burkhard (1944-2010) 'oT (Harald Szeemann, the last day of documenta 5), Kassel' 1972

 

Balthasar Burkhard (1944-2010)
oT (Harald Szeemann, the last day of documenta 5), Kassel
1972
© Estate Balthasar Burkhard

 

 

With this major retrospective, Fotomuseum Winterthur and Fotostiftung Schweiz pay homage to the Swiss artist Balthasar Burkhard (1944-2010). His oeuvre is almost unparalleled in the way it reflects not only the self-invention of a photographer, but also the emancipation of photography as an artistic medium in its own right during the second half of the twentieth century.

Together, the two institutions chart the many and varied facets of Burkhard’s career, step by step. Fotostiftung presents early works from the days of his apprenticeship with Kurt Blum and his first independent documentary photographs. The exhibition also traces Burkhard’s role as a photographer alongside the curator Harald Szeemann and capturing images of Bern’s bohemian scene in the 1960s and 1970s. During that time, Burkhard carved his niche as a photographer and artist, developing his first large-scale photographic canvases in collaboration with his friend Markus Raetz and eventually breaking away from the European art world in search of both himself and new inspiration in the USA.

The second part of the exhibition at Fotomuseum shows the work created by Burkhard after his return to Europe, and his exploration of the photographic tableau. It was during this phase that he largely succeeded in emancipating photography from its purely documentary function. Using monumental formats, he translated the motif of the human body into sculptural landscapes and site-specific architectures. He went on to apply his stylistic device of formal reduction to portraits and landscapes. This marked the beginning of a series of experiments in the handling of photographic techniques. From long-distance aerial photographs of mega-cities such as Mexico City and Tokyo to close-up studies of flowers and plants, Burkhard seemed to be constantly seeking a formula that would embrace both nature and culture, encapsulating a sensory and sensual grasp of visible reality.

Encompassing half a century of creativity, the exhibition not only shows individual works, but is also underpinned by applied projects, films and many documents from the archives of the artist. This wealth of material allows a reflection both on Balthasar Burkhard’s own view of how his photographs should be presented in the exhibition space as well as his constant weighing-up of other media.

 

Part I (Fotostiftung Schweiz)

Early photographs

Balthasar Burkhard was just eight years old when his father gave him a camera to take along on a school excursion. Burkhard himself describes this early experience with the camera as the starting point of his career. It was also his father who suggested an apprenticeship with Kurt Blum, one of Switzerland’s foremost photographers, ranking along-side Paul Senn, Jakob Tuggener and Gotthard Schuh. Blum taught the young Balz, as he was nicknamed, all the finer points of darkroom technique as well as the art of large-format photography. The earliest work from Burkhard’s apprentice years is a reportage of the school, in the form of a book, while his documentation of the Distelzwang Society’s historic guildhall in the old quarter of Bern was clearly a lesson in architectural photography. Yet, no sooner had he completed his apprenticeship than Burkhard was already embarking on his very own independent projects inspired by post-war humanist photography, such as Auf der Alp, a study of rural Alpine life, for which he was awarded the Swiss Federal Grant for Applied Arts in 1964.

 

Chronicler of Bohemian Life in Bern

Even during his apprenticeship, Burkhard moved in the Bernese art circles to which his teacher Kurt Blum also belonged. In 1962, he created a first portrait, in book form, of painter and writer Urs Dickerhof. Shortly after that, he became friends with his near-contemporary Markus Raetz, and started taking photographs for the charismatic curator Harald Szeemann, who was director of Kunsthalle Bern from 1961 to 1969. Burkhard immersed himself in the vibrantly dynamic Swiss art scene, documenting the often controversial exhibitions of conceptual art at the Kunsthalle, and capturing the lives of Bern’s bohemian set with his 35mm camera. These visual mementos would later be collated in a kind of photographic journal. Initial collaborative projects with artists included a 1966 artists’ book about the village of Curogna (Ticino) and a window display for the Loeb department store in Bern featuring photographic portraits of the Bernese artist Esther Altorfer, devised in collaboration with Markus Raetz and his later wife, fashion designer Monika Raetz-Müller.

 

Landscapes 1969

Inspired by his friend Raetz, Burkhard photographed bleak and rugged snow-covered landscapes in the Bernese Seeland region. Heaps of earth piled up along the wayside reminded him of Robert Smithson’s Earthworks, which had just emerged in contemporary art. As Burkhard would later explain, “I wanted to leave out everything relating to myself, so that I could truly relate to what remained. I distanced myself from my subject-matter. I succeeded in stepping back both from myself and from my work.”

A close-up of bare agricultural soil, vaguely reminiscent of a lunar landscape, forms the basis for an object with a neon tube created in 1969 for the legendary exhibition When Attitudes Become Form in collaboration with Harald Szeemann, Markus Raetz and Jean-Frédéric Schnyder. In 1969, Burkhard’s brown-toned landscapes were included in the 1969 exhibition photo actuelle suisse in Sion. They were subsequently published as his first independent portfolio by Allan Porter in the May issue of Camera magazine, which was dedicated to avant-garde European photography and its affinity with contemporary art.

 

The Amsterdam Canvases 1969-70

When Markus Raetz took a studio in Amsterdam in 1969, he and Burkhard continued to work on joint projects. Photographs of everyday motifs were enlarged, practically life-sized, onto canvas, and caused a sensation in the spring 1970 exhibition Visualisierte Denkprozesse (Visualised thought processes) at Kunstmuseum Luzern, curated by Jean-Christophe Ammann, who wrote: “On huge canvases, they [Raetz and Burkhard] showed, among other things, a spartan studio space, a bedroom, a kitchen, a curtain. They relativised the purely object-like character by hanging the canvases on clips. The resulting folds enriched the images by adding a new dimension.” In other words, the folds in the canvas created a “quasi ironic and disillusioning barrier.” Burkhard’s large-format works foreshadowed the monumental photographic tableaux that would eventually herald the ultimate march of photography into the museum space some ten years later.

 

Documentarist of the International Art Scene

By the end of the 1960s, Harald Szeemann and his polarising, controversial exhibitions were drawing increasing attention far beyond the boundaries of Switzerland. In particular, his (in)famous 1969 show When Attitudes Become Form unleashed heated debates that ultimately led to Szeemann’s resignation as director of Kunsthalle Bern. Then, in 1970, he shocked the members and visitors of the Kunstverein in Cologne with an exhibition dedicated to Happening & Fluxus. Here, too, Burkhard was on hand with his camera. Jean-Christophe Ammann, with whom Burkhard undertook a research trip to the USA in 1972, photographing many artists’ studios, proved no less controversial a figure. Moreover, Burkhard also photographed artists, actions and installations at the 1972 documenta 5 in Kassel, which was headed by none other than Szeemann himself. Given the expanded concept of art that prevailed at the time, which strengthened the role of performance art and installation works alike, photography, too, gained a newfound core significance. Indeed, it was only through photography that many of these innovative works were preserved for posterity.

 

Chicago and the Self-Invention of the Artist

Following a relatively unproductive period in the wake of documenta 5, during which he worked, among other things, on an unfinished documentary project about the small Swiss town of Zofingen, Burkhard spent the years between 1975 and 1978 in Chicago, where he taught photography at the University of Illinois. It was while he was there that he once again reprised the series of photo canvases he had been working on in Amsterdam between 1969 and 1970. This led to new large-format works portraying everyday scenes such as the back seat of an automobile or the interior of a home with a TV, as well as three now lost photographs of roller skaters and a very androgynous back-view nude study of a young man. In 1977 the Zolla/Lieberman Gallery in Chicago presented these canvases together with a selection of the Amsterdam works in what was Burkhard’s first solo exhibition. Critics were impressed by his “soft photographs”. The Chicago Tribune, for instance, enthused: “‘European’ grace is wedded to ‘American’ strength in a supreme artistic fiction that suggests the wide-screen format of film.”

 

Self-Portraits

In Chicago, Burkhard rekindled his friendship with performance and conceptual artist Thomas Kovachevic, whom he had first met at documenta 5 and who now introduced him to the local art scene. At the same time, Burkhard toyed with the notion of trying his chances as a film actor in Hollywood. With Kovachevich’s help, he produced a series of self-portraits, both Polaroids and slides, which he presented in a small snakeskin-covered box as his application portfolio. He approached Alfred Hitchcock and Joshua Shelley of Columbia Pictures, albeit unsuccessfully. His only film role was in Urs Egger’s 1978 Eiskalte Vögel (Icebound; screened in seminar room I). Burkhard later transformed some of his self-portraits into large-scale canvases, through which he asserted his newfound sense of identity as an artist, making himself the subject-matter of his own artistic work. One of these was also shown in the Photo Canvases exhibition at Zolla/Lieberman Gallery.

 

Balthasar Burkhard (1944-2010) 'feet 2' 1980

 

Balthasar Burkhard (1944-2010)
feet 2
1980
© Estate Balthasar Burkhard

 

Balthasar Burkhard (1944-2010) 'The Knie', Kunsthalle Basel (installation view) 1983

 

Balthasar Burkhard (1944-2010)
‘The Knie’, Kunsthalle Basel 
(installation view)
1983
© Estate Balthasar Burkhard

 

Balthasar Burkhard (1944-2010) 'Study of The Head' c. 1983

 

Balthasar Burkhard (1944-2010)
Study of The Head
c. 1983
© Estate Balthasar Burkhard

 

Balthasar Burkhard (1944-2010) 'Design for Body II' c. 1983

 

Balthasar Burkhard (1944-2010)
Design for Body II
c. 1983
© Estate Balthasar Burkhard

 

 

 

Part II (Fotomuseum Winterthur)

Body and Sculpture

The 1980s heralded the advent of a particularly productive period for Balthasar Burkhard in which he adopted a more sculptural approach to photography, treating his prints as an integral part of the exhibition architecture. Just as he himself had witnessed how the generation of artists before him had called the classic exhibition space into question, so too did his own latest works now begin to take control of that space. Burkhard became one of the foremost proponents of large-scale photographic tableaux, as evidenced by his groundbreaking exhibitions at Kunsthalle Basel in 1983 and Museé Rath, Geneva, in 1984.

It was in the photo canvases he made in Chicago during the late 1970s that Burkhard first turned towards the motif of the body as a sculptural form with which he would continue to experiment over the coming years. Such an overtly sculptural approach to the body and to the nude as landscape soon began to demand a larger format than Burkhard had previously been using. An arm, almost four metres long, framed by heavy steel, or the multipart installation Das Knie (Knee), reflect the very core of his creative oeuvre in all its many facets: monumentality, fragmentation and the breaking of genre boundaries by transposing two-dimensional images into spatially commanding installations.

 

Portraits: Types and Individuals

The increasing formal reduction of Balthasar Burkhard’s images continued in the field of portraiture. He invited fellow artists such as Lawrence Weiner and Christian Boltanski to sit for him. With this series, it seemed that he had finally put behind him his days as a chronicler of the art scene, reliant on the techniques of applied photography.

Portraits of a rather different kind are his profiles of animals, in an equally reduced setting, against the backdrop of a tarpaulin. Redolent of Renaissance drawings or nineteenth century animal photography, his images of sheep, wolves and lions come across as representing ideal and typical examples of their species without anthropomorphising them, while at the same time wrenching them out of their natural environment. These images reached a broad audience through the popular 1997 children’s book “Click!”, said the Camera, which was republished in its second edition in 2017.

 

Architectural Photography

Given his increasing success in the art world, Burkhard could well afford to be selective about his choice of commissioned works. He had already been taking photographs for architects connected with the Bern-based firm Atelier 5 back in the 1960s, and was still accepting commissions in this field in the 1990s. Burkhard’s photographic essay on the Ricola building designed by Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron indicates just how thoroughly his own distinctive artistic syntax permeates his commissioned and architectural photography, right through to the details of fragments and materials. These photographs were shown in the Swiss Pavilion at the Venice Biennale of Architecture in 1991, having been explicitly designed for this particular exhibition space. As in his artistic oeuvre, Burkhard operates here with spatially commanding installations, skilfully dovetailing the architectural motif with the presentational form.

 

Aerial Photography

In the 1990s, before the art world had even begun to turn its attention to the subject of megacities, Burkhard was already taking a keen interest in the world’s major conurbations. Following in the footsteps of his father, who had been a Swiss airforce pilot, he took bird’s-eye-view photographs from a plane. His panoramic shots of cities such as London, Mexico City and Los Angeles were preceded by small-format studies of clouds: the so-called Nuages series. Having incorporated a study of rural Switzerland into his formative training in 1963 with the series Auf der Alp (On the Alp), he returned once more to focus on the landscape of his homeland in the early 2000s with an entire series of aerial photographs of the Bernina mountain range.

 

Landscape and Flora

In the last two decades of his life, Burkhard concentrated primarily on landscape and flora, turning to historical precedents both in his techniques and in his choice of motif. The desert formations of Namibia, in which all sense of proportion is lost amid the remote and untouched wilderness, set a counterpoint to the sprawling urban expanses of Mexico City and London. The diptych Welle (Wave), by contrast, pays homage to the work of French artist Gustave Courbet, with Burkhard making a pilgrimage to the tide swept shores where the father of Realism had painted in 1870.

In another series, Burkhard adapts the aesthetics of botanical plant studies, which were as widely used around the turn of the twentieth century as the complex photographic process of heliography, and transposes these to larger-than-life formats. Whereas Burkhard, as a young photographer, had captured the exuberant art scene of the 1960s and 1970s, snapshot-style, he later went on, as an artist-photographer, to explore the potential of the photographic tableau, diligently researching near-forgotten techniques and the sensual details of the visible world.

 

Artwork and Commissioned Work

The site-specific installations of his photographs and Burkhard’s own dedicated approach to museum spaces warrant an excursion into the archives of the artist, paying particular attention to four exemplary exhibitions.

One spectacular and iconic show was the Fotowerke (Photo works) exhibition at Kunsthalle Basel in 1983. Curated by artist Rémy Zaugg, the installations can be reconstructed thanks to the catalogue and copious documentation. Contact prints and studies, for instance, help to give an insight into the no longer extant thirteen metre work Körper I (Body I) as well as shedding light on the choice of motif for further body fragments.

A 1984 solo exhibition at the Le Consortium in Dijon, on the other hand, shows how Burkhard responded with his group of works Das Knie (Knee) to an entirely different installation context within the given space. Similarly, at the Musée Rath in Geneva that same year, Burkhard, together with his friend Niele Toroni, instigated a radical juxtaposition of photography and painting based on the pillars of the exhibition venue.

At Grand-Hornu in the Belgian town of Mons, by contrast, his life-sized photographs of animals were mounted at eye level. While Burkhard chose a large format for the exhibition venue, the images in his children’s book “Click!”, said the Camera tell of a beauty contest between animals in a photo-shoot. This apparent discrepancy between artwork and commissioned work never seemed to be relevant to Burkhard. The sheer volume of his studio photos, alone, indicates just how scrupulously precise he was about the way he wanted to be perceived as a serious photographer.

Wall text from the exhibition

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Balthasar Burkhard' at Fotomuseum Winterthur and Fotostiftung Schweiz, Winterthur, Zurich February - May 2018

Installation view of the exhibition 'Balthasar Burkhard' at Fotomuseum Winterthur and Fotostiftung Schweiz, Winterthur, Zurich February - May 2018

Installation view of the exhibition 'Balthasar Burkhard' at Fotomuseum Winterthur and Fotostiftung Schweiz, Winterthur, Zurich February - May 2018

Installation view of the exhibition 'Balthasar Burkhard' at Fotomuseum Winterthur and Fotostiftung Schweiz, Winterthur, Zurich February - May 2018

Installation view of the exhibition 'Balthasar Burkhard' at Fotomuseum Winterthur and Fotostiftung Schweiz, Winterthur, Zurich February - May 2018

 

Installation views of the exhibition Balthasar Burkhard at Fotomuseum Winterthur and Fotostiftung Schweiz, Winterthur, Zurich February – May 2018

 

Balthasar Burkhard (1944-2010) 'Balthasar Burkhard in his studio' 1995

 

Balthasar Burkhard (1944-2010)
Balthasar Burkhard in his studio
1995
© Estate Balthasar Burkhard

 

Balthasar Burkhard (1944-2010) 'Camel' 1997

 

Balthasar Burkhard (1944-2010)
Camel
1997
© Estate Balthasar Burkhard

 

Balthasar Burkhard (1944-2010) 'Bull' 1996

 

Balthasar Burkhard (1944-2010)
Bull
1996
© Estate Balthasar Burkhard

 

Balthasar Burkhard (1944-2010) 'The Reindeer' 1996

 

Balthasar Burkhard (1944-2010)
The Reindeer
1996
© Estate Balthasar Burkhard

 

Balthasar Burkhard (1944-2010) 'Mexico City' 1999

 

Balthasar Burkhard (1944-2010)
Mexico City
1999
© Estate Balthasar Burkhard

 

Balthasar Burkhard (1944-2010) 'Mexico City' 1999

 

Balthasar Burkhard (1944-2010)
Mexico City
1999
© Estate Balthasar Burkhard

 

Balthasar Burkhard (1944-2010) 'Nuages ​​8' 1999

 

Balthasar Burkhard (1944-2010)
Nuages ​​8
1999
© Estate Balthasar Burkhard

 

Balthasar Burkhard (1944-2010) 'Ecosse' (Scotland) 2000

 

Balthasar Burkhard (1944-2010)
Ecosse (Scotland)
2000
© Estate Balthasar Burkhard

 

Balthasar Burkhard (1944-2010) 'Bernina' 2003

 

Balthasar Burkhard (1944-2010)
Bernina
2003
© Estate Balthasar Burkhard

 

Balthasar Burkhard (1944-2010) 'Silberen' 2004

 

Balthasar Burkhard (1944-2010)
Silberen
2004
© Estate Balthasar Burkhard

 

Balthasar Burkhard (1944-2010) 'Rio Negro' 2002

 

Balthasar Burkhard (1944-2010)
Rio Negro
2002
© Estate Balthasar Burkhard

 

 

Fotostiftung Schweiz
Grüzenstrasse 45
CH-8400 Winterthur (Zürich)
Tel: +41 52 234 10 30

Opening hours:
Daily 11 am – 6 pm
Wednesday 11 am – 8 pm
Closed on Mondays

Fotostiftung Schweiz website

Fotomuseum Winterthur
Grüzenstrasse 44 + 45
CH-8400
Winterthur (Zürich)

Opening hours:
Tuesday to Sunday 11 am – 6 pm
Wednesday 11 am – 8 pm
Closed on Mondays

Fotomuseum Winterthur website

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08
Aug
12

Exhibition: ‘Light Sensitive: Photo Art from the Collection’ at Aargauer Kunsthaus, Aarau, Switzerland

Exhibition dates: 12th May – 12th August 2012

 

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

 

 

Art Ringger.
 'Eastbourne' 1996


 

Art Ringger

Eastbourne
1996
Black-and-white photograph on aluminium, embossed
20.3 x 30.3cm
Aargauer Kunsthaus Aarau / deposited by the Andreas Züst Collection

 

Art Ringger
. 'Quimperlé' 1997

 

Art Ringger

Quimperlé
1997
Black-and-white photograph on aluminium, embossed
19.9 x 29.7cm
Aargauer Kunsthaus Aarau / deposited by the Andreas Züst Collection

 

Hannah Villiger
. 'Arbeit' 1979

 

Hannah Villiger
 (Swiss 1951-1997)
Arbeit
1979
Black-and-white photograph on baryte paper, matt
125 x 189.5cm
Aargauer Kunsthaus Aarau / deposited by a private collection

 

Claudia Böhm.
 'Leda' 1991


 

Claudia Böhm

Leda
1991
Black-and-white photograph with retouching colour on paper
40 x 56cm
Aargauer Kunsthaus Aarau / deposited by the Andreas Züst Collection

 

Exhibition view '
Light Sensitive - Photo Art from the Collection'

 

Exhibition view 
Light Sensitive – Photo Art from the Collection

Aargauer Kunsthaus, Aarau
Photo: Dominic Büttner, Zurich

 

 

The exhibition Light Sensitive presents works from the rich photography holdings of the Aargauer Kunsthaus. In addition, it shows photographs of urban spaces by Andreas Tschersich and works by Bianca Dugaro.

Light Sensitive is a presentation of works from the collection of the Aargauer Kunsthaus that focuses on the medium of photography. The exhibition delves into the museum’s rich and quite substantial holdings of over 800 photographic works, sounding out core themes. In the process, two thematic focus areas come to the fore: on the one hand an exploration of the human body and on the other an examination of abstract, architectural or public space.

The 20th century has seen a major shift in the status of photography as an artistic medium, a change reflected by the holdings of the Aargauer Kunsthaus. Starting out with rather small-scale works of a documentary nature, photography graduated to photo art and today naturally takes its place among the wide range of artistic media. The exhibition Light Sensitive takes us on a journey of discovery through the collection, contrasting big names with unexpected work. A series of large-scale cityscapes by Berlin-based Swiss artist Andreas Tschersich as well as works by Swiss artist Bianca Dugaro complement the presentation.

Included in the exhibition are works by, among others Claudia Böhm, Balthasar Burkhard, Marie-Antoinette Chiarenza / Daniel Hauser, Hans Danuser, Silvie Defraoui, Achim Duchow, Olivia Etter, Nicolas Faure, Marc-Antoine Fehr, Peter Fischli / David Weiss, Katrin Freisager, Max Grüter / Patrick Rohner, Simone Hopferwieser, Markus Käch, Heiner Kielholz, Fred Knecht Engelbert, Rudolf Lichtsteiner, Urs Lüthi, Max Matter, Billy Eduard Albert Meier, Claudio Moser, Marianne Müller, Anita Niesz, Guido Nussbaum, Sigmar Polke, Markus Raetz, Ursina Rösch, Annelies Štrba, Beat Streuli, Hannah Villiger.

Press release from the Aargauer Kunsthaus website

 

Andreas Tschersich.
 'Peripher 1903 (Detroit)' 2011


 

Andreas Tschersich
 (Swiss, b. 1971)
Peripher 1903 (Detroit)
2011
C-Print / Diasec
198 x 167cm

 

Andreas Tschersich.
 'Peripher 130 (Berlin)' 2004


 

Andreas Tschersich
 (Swiss, b. 1971)
Peripher 130 (Berlin)
2004
C-Print / acrylic glass
219 x 170cm

 

Billy Eduard Albert Meier
. 'Ohne Titel' 1975


 

Billy Eduard Albert Meier
 (Swiss, b. 1937)
Ohne Titel
1975
Photograph on paper, 8 parts
18 x 26.5cm
Aargauer Kunsthaus Aarau / deposited by the Andreas Züst Collection

 

Nicolas Faure.
 'Silvaplana (GR), Juli' 1988


 

Nicolas Faure

Silvaplana (GR), Juli
1988
Colour photograph on aluminium
63 x 80cm
Aargauer Kunsthaus Aarau

 

Nicolas Faure.
 'Saas-Fee (VS), Juli' 1989


 

Nicolas Faure

Saas-Fee (VS), Juli
1989
Colour photograph on aluminium
63 x 80cm
Aargauer Kunsthaus Aarau

 

Nicolas Faure.
 'Le Lac Bleu. Val d’Arolla (VS), August' 1997


 

Nicolas Faure

Le Lac Bleu. Val d’Arolla (VS), August
1997
Colour photograph on aluminium
63 x 80cm
Aargauer Kunsthaus Aarau

 

Nicolas Faure.
 'Château d’Oex (VD), Januar' 1989

 

Nicolas Faure

Château d’Oex (VD), Januar
1989
Colour photograph on aluminium
63 x 80cm
Aargauer Kunsthaus Aarau

 

 

Aargauer Kunsthaus
Aargauerplatz
CH-5001 Aarau
Switzerland
Phone: +41 (0) 62 835 23 30

Opening hours:
Tuesday – Sunday 10am – 5pm
Thursday 10am – 8pm
Closed Mondays

Aargauer Kunsthaus website

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10
Jan
10

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.

Marcus

 

 

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

 

Rene Burri (Swiss, 1933-2014)
Tae Soe Dong, Sud Korea
1961
Gelatin silver print

 

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

 

Rene Burri (Swiss, 1933-2014)
Bilbao, Spain
1957
Gelatin silver print

 

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

 

Rene Burri (Swiss, 1933-2014)
Training, Fort Lauderdale, Florida
1966
Gelatin silver print

 

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

 

Rene Burri (Swiss, 1933-2014)
Two Monks, Kyoto, Japan
1961
Gelatin silver print

 

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

 

Rene Burri (Swiss, 1933-2014)
Che Guevara, Havana
1963
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
1960
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 – 6pm
Saturday 11 – 3pm

Flo Peters Gallery website

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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, a photographic archive and form of cultural memory, which posts mainly photography exhibitions from around the world. He holds a Dr 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.

Marcus Bunyan black and white archive: ‘Dogs, chickens, cattle’ 1994-95

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