Documentary

The Life and Times of René Burri

We remember the extraordinary, movie-like life of Magnum photographer René Burri, who has died aged 81

René Burri, who died on the 20 October at the age of 81 after a long battle with cancer, took his first picture – of the triumphant British Prime Minister Winston Churchill – at the age of 13. Tom Seymour reports.

World War II was not yet a year old, and Winston Churchill was on a state visit to Burri’s native Switzerland. His picture of the British prime minister captured him in top hat and tails, standing tall and commanding as he is driven through Zurich in an open-topped car.

Interviewed in BJP seven years ago (#7659), Burri told Colin Pantall: “My father was an amateur photographer. He said, ‘René, there is a very important man coming to town.’ I stood on the corner of the street and snapped as the car went by. The trees in the background are blurred because I panned the camera, as if it was a movie.”

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Much of Burri’s life could be a movie. After studying at the Arts and Crafts school of Zurich, he worked as an assistant cameraman for Walt Disney films in Switzerland before joining Magnum in 1955. Magnum co-founder David Seymour “threw me into assignments like a baby into a swimming pool”, Burri said. He was sent to take photographs of a divided Germany, Turkey, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Italy, France, Spain, Greece, Cuba, Brazil, China and Japan, capturing with detail and intimacy a world that was a lot larger, and a lot more difficult to navigate, than it is today.

His most iconic portraits – of Pablo Picasso, Che Guevara, the Swiss artist Alberto Giacometti and the architect Le Corbusier – were born out of perseverance. “I wasn’t interested in taking photographs, I was interested in the man,” he said of his obsession with Picasso. He took four years to organise a meeting with the artist, one futile attempt blending into another. He eventually located the artist in a hotel in Nîmes southern France after learning he was in town for a bull fight. “He was having dinner in a room with 12 other people; it was like The Last Supper,” Burri said. The resulting photographs show Picasso at his most intimate, paternal and domestic. He is topless, sat by his kitchen table, chest hair resplendent and cigarette in hand, his mantlepiece covered in trinkets and his broken portraits hanging from the walls. He’s lording it over four children, instructing them how best to draw.

But the portrait for which he will be best remembered is of the Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara, fatigues on, cigar in mouth, glaring off to his left. Burri had been in Havana for a week before he was summoned to Che’s office, where he used eight rolls of film. “Che was so fierce and so anti-American,” he told BJP. “I was in his office for three hours. I danced around him and photographed him and not once did he look at the camera. He was like a tiger in a cage.””

Martin Parr, the current President of Magnum, says of Burri: “René had been involved with Magnum since 1955, at the behest of Werner Bischoff, and a member since 1959. Not only was he one of the great post war photographers, he was also one of the most generous people I have had the privilege to meet.”

Perhaps his most famous picture, taken from a Sao Paolo rooftop in 1960s, bears testament to his enquiring nature, and that most elusive skill, essential to photographers of his generation – a canny instinct for a picture, and the wily persistence to get it. “Did I know those men were there when I took that photograph?” he told Phaidon in an interview in 2012. “No. I went up there out of curiosity. I remember taking the elevator to the roof. Buildings weren’t guarded in those days; they didn’t have guardians as they have now. It was a question of getting to the top and knocking on the door. And then saying excuse me’… So I walked out onto the terrace and at that moment those guys came from nowhere and I shot five images.”

London gallerist and curator Zelda Cheatle, a personal friend of Burri’s, told BJP: “He was a gentleman with a quiet voice and a wry sense of perceiving the world through his photography. He was elegant, sparkly-eyed, often with a smile across his face. It is a sad day for the world and Magnum will miss him, so will we all.”

Burri is survived by his second wife and three children, who said in a statement: “The world of photography loses one of its most powerful artists; a true humanist who skilfully documented from behind the scenes the suffering and joy of human kind.”

René Burri left an archive of around 30,000 pictures to the Musee de l’Elysee in Lausanne.

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