Hard evidence of a thinking eye

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No senior photographer in the world’s top
photojournalism agency could properly be described as unknown. Yet René Burri, whose important (and outstanding) retrospective now makes its only UK stop in Manchester, could be forgiven for feeling he has had less than his full share of recognition. The reasons are not far to seek: Burri’s agency has been Magnum since the 1950s, and Magnum has always been a monstrous boiling of egos. But Magnum seems to have suited him: although not thinking of himself only as a journalist, he has been happy to travel the world on assignment, using the short-term needs of the magazines to allow him to feed his own long-term interests.

If Burri is famous at all, it is for a 1963 series on Che Guevara, then minister of industry in Havana. The genre is a coincidence. Burri was never really a portraitist. But the subject is not coincidental at all. Profoundly interested in the human condition (and not just as the empty, clichéd phrase that now represents, but really interested in the real meat of what mankind is up to) Burri has spent a lifetime seeing whether visionaries can make a difference. Che was just one of the luminaries Burri has sought out, grateful for the excuse of a journalistic assignment but in fact satisfying a deep need of his own to meet them and measure them for himself. Picasso and Le Corbusier both allowed him a degree of intimacy to reward his persistence.

Burri is Swiss and, since he was born in 1933, his nationality gave him a peculiar vantage point on the horrors of war and reconstruction. That is one sort of background. Another is that his training was split between the formal and informal. As a student he was exposed to a formalism derived ultimately from the Bauhaus. But he was attracted also to that particular kind of humanist photography so dominant among mid-century forms of documentary. To Robert Doisneau, to Cartier-Bresson, to Robert Frank in his time but above all to Werner Bischoff, a previous Swiss member of Magnum, Burri looked for guidance as to content. The result is a
photographer who was interested in big things but always got at them through the detail.

Hans-Michael Koetzle, curator of the Manchester retrospective, makes the subtle observation that, for a photographer who spent time in so many war zones, Burri’s archive contains few or no corpses. No doubt Burri has had his share of scrapes, and no doubt his what-if stories are as hairy as those of any other exper-ienced foreign or war correspondent. For a gentle photographer, his view of a burnt-out helicopter from the six-day war is not for the squeamish, a bug comprehensively squashed. But he was never a thrill-seeker, addicted to the ride for its own sake. Instead, he has tried always (and it is a simple thing all too easily forgotten by photographers whatever their milieux) to have something to say. In the language of his colleagues on the magazines, perhaps, he has been a commentator more than a reporter.

The formal method according to which Burri has proceeded has been impressive. To my eye, two recurring mannerisms stand out. One is his affection for (and mastery of) shadows coming straight towards the camera. Again and again he makes a scaffolding for the interconnections within a picture out of the long shadows of early morning or late afternoon. The other is the plunging view, which gives a chance to provide a (metaphorical as well as literal) overview. This allowed Burri to get beyond the factual details that are so often all there is to reportage. He often combines them both. In one magnificent picture (“Traffic, São Paulo, 1960”) he looks down on an intersection. The surface of the tarmac road has a texture like old skin, the tram-tracks gleam and the shadows begin to take on something of the dancing movement of musical notation. People, traffic and the city infrastructure itself each have their own separate patterns, and we can begin to see a little how the complex of their interconnections is what matters. Close to the right margin, a third of the way up, a gentleman raises his hat to an acquaintance, one foot off the ground, and becomes for a second a cut-out by Matisse (or, for English eyes, a Lowry stick figure). The shadows of both men are combined as one in a true acknowledgement of civic neighbourliness. This is classic Burri, and classic photography. Look again: near the bottom, between the tram tracks, a man holds a portfolio to shield his eyes from the sun. The tiny details are illumined by the whole, and in turn contribute their mite of humour, of anecdote, of immediately recognisable humanity.

Although Burri acknowledges the need for reflexes (“pictures are like taxis during rush hour – if you’re not fast enough, someone else will get them first”) he is not in fact one of those photo-graphers who has an itchy
trigger finger. There is an early contact sheet in the Manchester show (from negatives now apparently lost) of a plunging view over the parade ground of a military academy before a review. Twelve pictures, and not a miss among them. The sweeping graphic confidence is staggering: a lower half of a frame filled with regular ranks of perfectly disciplined troops is hilariously contradicted by the untidy rabble of figures all over the top half. In another a little confabulation takes place between the officer (clearly anxious that his recruits should understand just what is needed) and the men. The troops are at attention, laden, regular as factory components. The officer is angled, splayed, informal. It’s one of the greatest contact sheets I’ve ever seen, and Burri was 22 when he made it. He wasn’t working too fast then; he knew just what a waste of eye it is to take pictures faster than you can think. The nearest equivalent for taking such pleasure from the shapes that uniformed men can make as they move is Mario Giacomelli’s famous series (now parodied for a beer advertisement on UK television) of young seminarians at play. It is odd that his series should have made Giacomelli’s reputation, and that Burri’s be almost unknown.

Burri often reminds me of another too-little-appreciated photographer, Bernard Plossu. Both seem to me to photograph that awkward moment when a view becomes a memory. Maybe only Plossu could have matched the sensitive, delicate probing of Burri’s “Caravan, United Arab Emirates, 1975”. It’s a low aerial view (taken from a helicopter) of a sandy nowhere. Neither the road nor the tyre tracks lead anywhere much. The sea is not welcoming. The little town is not welcoming. The shadows, coming at us, as usual for Burri, offer no respite. It’s a view through a magnifying glass, meaningless hurrying and scurrying on a moonscape. It’s the observing that’s important, not necessarily what is observed.

‘René Burri Retrospective 1950-2000’, Manchester Art Gallery, until November 12, tel 161 235 8888.

René Burri Photographs, Atlas Gallery, London W1, until November 4, tel 20 7224 4192

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