Photographs – René Burri

BOOK REVIEW:  René Burri – Photographs

There are some photographers you really ought to know better, but don’t. They go quietly about their work, unassuming, not wanting to do the obvious or offend their subjects. René Burri is that photographer. A man not afraid to talk about the untaken photographs; the images missed because he chose to miss them. His is a considered approach, one that has resulted in many iconic images and a deserved reputation among his colleagues as one of the giants of twentieth century photodocumentary.

A Magnum veteran, it is unsurprising that he should have sought to publish a major retrospective of his work, and still less surprising that he should do so through Phaidon, masters of the photographic monologue who have published over 15 books by Burri’s Magnum colleagues.

Born in Zurich in 1933, Burri came into photography almost by accident. From childhood he was unquestionably artistically inclined, his mother saved wrappers to help feed her son’s demand for drawing paper, and his attendance at Zurich’s well regarded art school was almost inevitable. Burri, however, was initially turned off photography by the pungent smells associated with the darkroom, and it was only when he saw the lighting rigs of the studio, and their inherent Hollywood glamour that his thoughts turned to the possibilities photography might offer.

A naturally inquisitive man, Burri found Switzerland claustrophobic: the mountains obscured his view of the world beyond. Furthermore, the methodical order and neutrality so often associated with Switzerland, and ingrained in Burri during his training by the esteemed formalist, Hans Finsler, became something Burri wrestled with all his life. The struggle though, was not to break free from its strictures, but to harness its potential as a tool to be used so effectively in his work.

This retrospective is a celebration of Burri’s personal work. In common with many photographers he disliked the restrictions associated with commissioned work, and continues to see the camera primarily as a means of personal expression. Nevertheless he took such assignments based on his need to pay the bills, and naturally they provided many of the opportunities to further his quest for personal satisfaction, and importantly led to long associations with a number of publications, in particular the Swiss periodical Du. Indeed, the closing chapters of the book detail Burri’s many exhibitions and publications, and tantalisingly reproduce a handful of magazine spreads – the only colour reproductions included.

The book is cleverly designed, having the feel of a catalogue, but the permanence of something more special. It is a testament to Burri’s remarkable and unassuagable eye that after nearly 500 pages the reader is left wanting more, and knowing that what has been revealed is only a taste.

René Burri Photographs, Phaidon Press, 378 Duotone and 44 colour illustrations, 448pp, Hardback, £59.95, ISBN 0-7148-4315-6.

This review was originally written for the Photographic Journal

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