Magazine article Newsweek International

Portraits in Motion; from Suez to Tiananmen, Rene Burri Was There

Magazine article Newsweek International

Portraits in Motion; from Suez to Tiananmen, Rene Burri Was There

Article excerpt

Byline: Dana Thomas

As a child growing up in Zurich in the 1940s, Rene Burri dreamed of becoming a documentary-film maker. But there were no film schools in Switzerland back then, so he enrolled at the School of Arts & Crafts to study photography. He hasn't stopped shooting since. Burri has covered nearly every major international conflict since the 1950s, and his pictures have appeared in Life, Look, London's Sunday Times Magazine, Paris Match and others. Now the Maison Europeenne de la Photographie in Paris has mounted a sweeping retrospective entitled "Rene Burri: Photographs" (through April 18) that traces Burri's career from his first snapshot, at 13, of Winston Churchill in a convertible. "The camera has always been a magic wand for me," Burri says, "giving me access to places where I could try new experiments."

Judging from the show, those experiments have been an unqualified success. The pictures narrate a visual history of the second half of the 20th century, from the Suez War in 1956 to the Tiananmen Square uprising of 1989. It's difficult to see a theme in Burri's work: he's obviously a free spirit who likes to push the limits of photojournalism. Yet he can be extremely conservative; in all of his war pictures, for example, there is not one cadaver. What holds the show together is two recurring elements--his precise, graphic compositions and his filmmaker's eye for detail and motion.

The first was learned. While at the School of Arts & Crafts, Burri studied with Hans Finsler, a follower of the 1920s New Objectivity movement, who taught his students how to organize their work using distinguishing lines and visual relationships. Some of Burri's most beautiful images, such as "Men on a Roof, Sao Paulo, 1960," are studies of graphically organized chaos, with distinct layers and sharp lines.

The second--his gift for seeing life from a filmmaker's point of view--was innate. …

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