portrait and interview by OLIVIER ZAHM
with a portfolio designed by COMME DES GARÇONS
Fifty years ago, as a freelancer for Magnum, René Burri helped change photojournalism. His pictures, such as the iconic portrait of Che Guevara, offer an alternative to the official record of political and historic events. A little luck and an extensive knowledge of art allowed Burri access to some of the most prestigious and important artists of his time, a rarefied list that includes Le Corbusier, Niemeyer, Giacometti, and Picasso, all of whose portraits he took repeatedly over the years.
This season, Comme des Garçons’s creator Rei Kawakubo invited Burri to collaborate on her company’s publications and announcements.
For Purple’s 20th anniversary issue, she designed an original four-page portfolio — published on the following pages — with Burri’s photographs of China.
OLIVIER ZAHM — How did you become an artist?
RENÉ BURRI — From the beginning, I felt like the cuckoo’s egg fallen from the nest. Everybody told me I would be an artist. I started to believe it. Also, I was totally blown away by all French movies. The minute I could, I started sneaking into the cinema. There was a kind of emotion in the movies that I wanted, but there was no place for it in Switzerland. I was on a farm with my cousins. We chased dogs, had horses, the whole thing. Later I went to a photo school, which to me looked like a mini-Hollywood.
OLIVIER ZAHM — In Zurich?
RENÉ BURRI — The things they had — the lights, the cameras. A teacher there said to me, “René, learn first how to take pictures before you touch the camera.” My professor, Hans Finsler, who came from the Bauhaus, in Weimar, wanted to be an architect and had opened the photography school in the ’30s in Zurich. It was absolutely fantastic. He was very rigid, telling us that if you want to make a picture, you clean everything out and come to the point you want to communicate with the picture. I learned to photograph in a sort of Bauhaus style, very severe. German photography at the time was sort of romantic — even Hungarian photography was romantic, shooting through windows. My professor wanted a clean, minimalist picture.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Is this what caused you to be so conscious of geometry and abstraction?
RENÉ BURRI — Absolutely. It gave a base to a profession. But when you finally got out, what do you do? You had to focus on something. By nature I could always see perspective. When we went out with the school I could see it. Others couldn’t see the lines. So with that kind of rigid education, there was a point when I had to loosen up.
OLIVIER ZAHM — It was also black and white photography.
RENÉ BURRI — Yes, only black and white.
OLIVIER ZAHM — How did you get involved in photojournalism?
RENÉ BURRI — At first, I didn’t even know what journalism was. One of the Magnum guys just threw me into the Suez Canal and said, “Swim, Burri!” I learned on the job to stay close during riots, being punched and whatnot. But I was always curious. That’s what got me to all these places. Being in front of the canvas at 17, 18, I didn’t know anything about life. I wanted to travel, to see what was going on.
OLIVIER ZAHM — In your travels, did you eventually return to your original inspiration, film?
RENÉ BURRI — I did quite a few films, for the BBC, for television in Switzerland, for artists, and some in China in ’64 and ’65, before the Cultural Revolution. I spent almost six months with my first wife in China to do a film, because we had sort of a preferential treatment. It was the height of Maoism. All the Chinese were dressed in blue. A French journalist from Le Monde coined a term, “Blue Ants.” All these blue vests, even the generals, they all worked for Mao. But you could see a difference in the cut and the quality of the fabric, and, of course, the way they spoke.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Were the films you were making documentaries?
RENÉ BURRI— Sort of. I tried to capture what I have in my pictures, recording what was going on in front of me. But I started to think about this gangster that I smiled at in order get into the country. I wondered, after a while, who am I? I have to wear different hats and to be a sort of opportunist. But gradually you sort of get molded, but I never wanted to be that close to the guys who always want to convince you of what’s going on. I kept a certain distance. But you have to be there. I strayed from the whole photographer pack, maybe I went on a roof to find a point of view.
OLIVIER ZAHM — How did you find your personal approach to photojournalism?
RENÉ BURRI — I gradually understood how to do my own thing. It was tough at the beginning, but there weren’t many photographers. In those days magazines like Paris Match had 20, 30, 40 photographers working for them. So sometimes, on location, I’d confront them all. I felt like Sancho Panza riding his donkey, tilting against the windmills! When the pictures were sent to Paris, the editors wanted to look at all of them. We survived like church mice, living off the crumbs they found on the church floor. Ronins, wandering samurai.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Magazines like Paris Match sent their own reporters?
RENÉ BURRI — Two, three — one guy with the motorcycle, another one with a driver. We were lonely guys like, wandering.
OLIVIER ZAHM — They sent several photographers to the same event because they wanted more choices, more possibilities for pictures?
RENÉ BURRI — They didn’t know we were there, but then we sent pictures in and all of a sudden, they might pick the picture, and there you’ve got two double pages, despite having their own photographers. That’s how we survived. We always looked for something that was personal or different. They told their photographers exactly what to do. They’d say, well René’s also in Egypt, so let’s give him 200 francs and have a look at his pictures.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you still pursue political events?
RENÉ BURRI — Sometimes. At one of my last events, in Moscow, I’d done a stint at a Swiss magazine as an art director, and an opportunity came up that I really wanted to pursue, but couldn’t pay for myself: it was Gorbachev and Reagan meeting. When I got there 6,000 journalists and photographers were already in position. When I said to them, “René Burri, from Magnum — Swiss Magnum — I ended up in the last group of 10. The oldies were running up the stairs. Some had letters and they were already there. When I got up there, there were two television crews, and, of course, we were chaperoned by their gorillas. I didn’t want to fight for a spot, so I tiptoed around between the two television crews, when all of a sudden one of the gorillas pulled me back. Six thousand people can’t all capture an event, especially when television crews are covering it. The five guys from my same vantage point would all get the same shot. I got something different later, a different context from the guys shaking hands. I’d had a similar sensation in the late ’50s, after covering the independence of Cyprus from the British. I was at a hotel in Athens, rewinding film, writing captions, and all of a sudden, on TV, I saw the pictures I’d shot moving on the screen, from what had happened in Cyprus only two hours earlier. The event was already on TV. That’s when I knew you had to start looking differently at things, because television would gradually take over magazines. Life disappeared, as did most of the news magazines.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You’re famous for your portraits of artists. Is it because you make them comfortable and have a personal interaction? I guess being in front of Picasso or Giacometti might be a formidable experience. Such giants don’t necessarily like to be photographed.
RENÉ BURRI — Some do, some don’t. Picasso and Giacometti were somewhat well-known when I photographed them, but not nearly as famous as they are now. I was interested in such giants. In the case of Picasso, it took me five or six years to be able to photograph him. Sometimes I was in front of his door. Then, once I was sitting with Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler at the same table with Picasso in Zurich, trying to show him a little booklet I made on an exhibition in Milan. He said, okay. I’d made an edition of three and gave him one. Later, when I called him up, he said yes, because he’d liked my little booklet, which he’d lost. It took another year and a half, and by sheer chance it happened.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You were persistent. Was it for a personal project?
RENÉ BURRI — It was my interest. I never said, “Excuse me, sir, can I take your picture?” That’s the worst. You just get closer and then all of a sudden pictures happen. You don’t have to ask. It’s very organic. For Giacometti, I found out only later that he needed photographers around while he was working. Do you know why? You think an artist wants to be alone when he’s creative? No. He said to me, “You know, René, I don’t even like to make sculptures” — while he was doing the things! I thought, what is the guy talking about? He said, “In the morning I dream about women with breasts like Swiss mountains, and I start working and working.” Then he pulled out a little matchbox and opened it up. I’m standing next to him. There’s a tiny little figurine inside, like a match. And he said, “You know, at the end of the day, that’s all that’s left, from all the clay I use.” I was in shock. Then he said, “The next day I start all over again.” I said “Come on, let’s go have a drink,” and so we got drunk in the bar next door. And then I found out that he really meant it. While he was doing sculptures he wanted somebody to talk to. He talked and talked. He wanted to get you involved with him while he was making figures. He wanted to get past the idea of “right now, I’m doing art.” I should have done a film — looking inside at things. He used me! But it’s wonderful usage. You learn on the job.
OLIVIER ZAHM — With Picasso, did you take photos in one day or over the course of many days?
RENÉ BURRI — It was several visits. We even went to bullfights. With Giacometti it was like one long session.
OLIVIER ZAHM — I read that you photographed Luis Barragan, the architect?
RENÉ BURRI — I photographed all the old famous architects, dozens of them.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You like architecture. Is that because of your interest in visual art?
RENÉ BURRI — I love it. Early on, when I met Le Corbusier, I didn’t talk to him, but I photographed him when he built his famous Ronchamp church, which is one of the most accomplished spiritual buildings — his or anyone’s, and whether for Christ or Allah. Magnum distributed the story in America and I got a check, in 1956, for $1000. Can you imagine? I shot Le Corbusier for over 10 years. At the beginning he had a very good photographer who was geared to his architecture. Architects want an empirical picture of their buildings. I always had people or nuns or monks in front of buildings. So, at first, Corbusier almost thought that I was making fun of him. I had to explain how interested I was in his incredible architecture. I was also interested in its interrelation with man and nature and the environment. From then on he let me come closer and closer.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Didn’t you photograph him in front of the church?
RENÉ BURRI — Yeah, like a paparazzo. You know, at an inauguration. I’d been there before, when they first built the church. I read about it. So when the inauguration happened, I photographed him. Later on, in Paris, I went to his studio and did a story. I also went with him to some construction sites. He said he was building a new city in India, called Chandigarh, and that I should come. He said, “It’s beautifully exotic there, including the women.” I thought that sounded almost colonial. But I prepared my cameras, and I was ready when suddenly a telegram came telling me to stay in Zurich, where Corbusier’s coming — from India to Switzerland. He landed with Air India and went directly to the little museum he’d built in Zurich, which was unique. So I never shot him in Chandigarh. I went in the ’70s after he died.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Did you photograph Oscar Niemeyer?
RENÉ BURRI — I did the whole adventure of Brasilia with him — a whole book, over the course of 40 years, from the ’50s to the ’90s! And he’s now 104, and still going to the office. Maybe I’ll go visit him.
OLIVIER ZAHM — How do you approach such personalities as a photographer?
RENÉ BURRI — It’s not easy. Every time you have to figure out how to handle things. You have to make a connection so that the subject sees you differently from the paparazzi.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you ever refuse to take a picture?
RENÉ BURRI — Yes. Nanni Moretti’s, at Cannes. He’s a very talented guy, and I had an appointment. But I found him to be unpleasant. I had to do it for some cinema magazine. They said you must be at one o’clock sharp at the hotel, and I was standing there at one o’clock sharp, when he comes down. But before saying hello, he looks at his watch, and I say, “Excuse me, sir, lei parla francese o inglese?” “Solamente Italiano!” And I said maybe the hotel had a little garden, so on the way out he looked again at his watch. I said, in Italian, poco tempo, si si si.” And then he sat down and was inaccessible. No connection. So I said, you don’t like to be photographed? And he says, “Exactly. I don’t like it.” Again, I said “Signore, uno, due, tre, ciao, grazie.” I took one picture and I left! You need the connection, the spirit. It’s not about me.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Did you find this connection with Che Guevara?
RENÉ BURRI — Che Guevara was completely different. The conspiracy was because I had a journalist there who talked to him for three hours. For me this was the best dance. The journalist has to put himself on the same level as the subject; we photographers have to be like clowns.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So with Che Guevara you were shooting while he was being interviewed?
RENÉ BURRI — Of course. I’m there and I’m not there. For two and a half hours I thought he didn’t even realize I was around. And he was angry and mean and had his cigars and was spitting. Also, already from the beginning we had a kind of a rough shock because the blinds were drawn, and Che just growled at me when I asked to open them up. It was on the eighth floor of the ministry, at one o’clock. I was completely ignored. A woman was there. He lit her cigarette, and sometimes he was angry. I caught all these moments, all those mood changes. After three hours I didn’t have one picture where he’s close, where he looks at me. He treated me like I was nonexistent — which was lucky anyways, because I got my picture.
OLIVIER ZAHM — The black-and-white portrait you took of Che Guevara…
RENÉ BURRI — Yeah, 20 years later I saw it on a wall. I stopped and I photographed it.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Appropriating your own work. Did you photograph Nixon?
RENÉ BURRI — Several times. In Life, in different places. He said, “Oh these fuckers, the young generation.” I watched his prosecution in the ’70s. Fantastic. It’s like yesterday. I shot bomb craters in Cambodia, from American bombs. The way the Americans talked about Communists could give you goose bumps. Americans made these craters — and much more.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Didn’t you photograph Qaddafi?
RENÉ BURRI — Yeah. I was in Egypt, Iraq, in all the Middle Eastern trouble spots. So I met Arafat in Israel and Nasser and Qaddafi, a young charming guy.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Are you frightened in some of these situations?
RENÉ BURRI — Oh, there are scary moments, especially when the driver yells, Stop! And you realize you’re standing in the middle of a minefield. You think you’d better get out.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Did you ever do fashion photography?
RENÉ BURRI — A few times. Even at art school I learned to do some fashion pictures with girls. But I wasn’t tough enough to torture them. I loved them too much! You have to have a certain kind of sadism or something to be good.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Did you photograph Helmut Newton?
RENÉ BURRI — No. But I heard that he liked the way we photographed. He was talented. I met him, and we talked sometimes. I didn’t have his kind of talent, though I did work for Vogue. I did the portraits of high-society people in Lebanon, rich people.
OLIVIER ZAHM — But it’s surprising to me because fashion photography is easier than what you do.
RENÉ BURRI — I don’t go for the easy stuff. I never had it easy!
OLIVIER ZAHM — You like adventure?
RENÉ BURRI — Of course. I’m curious. In the mountains in Switzerland, I was a Boy Scout. I learned practical things like using a compass to get around, being close to nature, survival. Once, I just screamed while standing out in the Libyan desert, coming out of the barracks, and the telegraph lines were disappearing in the horizon. In Switzerland there’s not 100 kilometers of open space where you can see the curve of the earth.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Was traveling in the ’60s and ’70s more difficult, and maybe more interesting, than today?
RENÉ BURRI — Completely — and more innovative. Practically every time I went out I could change the world. I soon realized how much one could do with photography. The beauty of this little camera — which I tried to capture in my films — goes beyond what you expect to see. Picasso said, “Why do something if you already know the outcome?” I was completely adventurous. I’ve been accused, say, by people when I’ve been on juries, of being against conceptual photography. I’m not against it! Let them do their concepts. What I always found to be absolutely magic is that hundredth of a second when you can freeze-frame something, a person, an event. Even now, when I look at some of my pictures, I don’t know how I did them. They just happened in a kind of conspiracy with life itself.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You’ve also said that a good picture has a sort of vibration. What do you mean by that?
RENÉ BURRI — Well, you go to a certain place. Some Greeks are like this, some Germans like that. Life should surprise you. I’ve come to the conclusion that I use my little camera to defend myself against the ferocious moment. Duchamp said the only thing that exists is movement, continuously moving things. But you can’t stop time. So I use it, like fighting against endlessness.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Fighting against time?
RENÉ BURRI — That’s why you don’t become cynical. When you look at the pictures, even of friends or family, they are the only legacy I have: images. In 100 years people can say that’s the way the world really looked.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Well, that’s what happened. Now everyone has a digital camera and shoots all the time.
RENÉ BURRI — Even housewives and children! I think it’s fantastic. Photographers have to think what they really want or would like to do and go after that, behind the wall, behind things.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You’ve just come out with a book with Phaidon, which will come out in spring 2013.
RENÉ BURRI — All color. No reportage, only situations. I worked on the subjects, travel pictures going back to the ’50s. So, like a gold digger I panned through a hundred thousand pictures.
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