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Friday, 24 October 2014


A famous photographer without a single famous image.
His photos of Che might have become famous, had it not been for that single iconic shot by
Alberto Korda.
I really don't know what to make of him.

Not everybody was really impressed with Burri's portrait of the Che, as you can see here:

The Burri photograph reminded me of a conjecture of mine which I think generally holds true, but which some people may find spurious and possibly even absurd.

That is, the more a person looks like an "artist," the less likely he is to do work of genuine merit. This idea first occurred to me when I was hanging around with a lot of art students in college, and it seemed to me that the more a guy *looked* like an artist, the weaker his actual artistic efforts were.

The question then, was, why would this be? I concluded that *really* serious artists tended to heavily focus on art, and not so much on dress or grooming or their social life. Guys who ostentatiously looked like "artists" were actually less interested in art than in other things -- status, fashion, attracting desirable partners, etc. There's nothing terribly wrong or unusual with all of that, but it takes time, thought and effort to pull off, and that's time, thought and effort not put into the actual making of art. The really *serious* guys tended to look like nothing in particular -- jeans, ordinary shirts, and so on.

I've found this is also true in other fields. There's a magazine called "Modern Farmer" aimed, I don't know, I suppose at some species of yuppie, and the people in it look like they just got their farm clothes at the Working Man counter at Barneys/New York. And don't even get me started about young white blues musicians who wear those narrow-brimmed hats on the backs of their heads...

A further question would be, does this idea really apply to photographers, whose whole aesthetic involves the capture of appearances, and who might then be extremely and legitimately interested in appearance in all of its forms, including their own? If you look at the Burri photo -- the dramatic turquoise shirt vibrating against the orange-ish face, the whole surrounded by the dramatic blacks of jacket and hat -- you see a man who is deeply interested in the image he projects. Is it possible that this interest subtracted that few percentage points of quality that would make (in your eyes) his photos compelling?

I have a copy of Burri's retrospective "Photographs," with text by Hans Michael Koetzle. There is an enormous amount of great material in it, icons capturing the appearance and the spirit of the 1950's to 1970's. I prefer his Che to Korda's poster image. It makes Pierce's reminiscence ring true, for how could he have done all that without tremendous energy and a collaborative attitude? But it seems of its time, not supporting the more analytic attitude of today. I can understand the response of Markus Spring's daughter (follow his link -- it's priceless), failing to share her parent's enthusiasm. There could be something to John Camp's comment that living the image of a globe-trotting Life magazine photographer past the extinction of the species has a cost. Koetzle's description of Burri's attempts to get access to Picasso and his family is consistent -- he was tolerated on a few occasions. But I really envy him that shirt!


I'm constantly surprised by the collective under-appreciation of René Burri. He's a great in my eyes. He shares Erwitt's visual wit, Cartier-Bresson's sense of geometry, the detail-hungry eye of Kertesz, the subject-environmental awareness of Newman.

He has some wonderful bodies of work: China, Germany, Brazil, Picasso. I cannot recommend the linked monograph enough, my only beef with it being that choice - or rather, cropping - of cover photograph. It is probably my favourite Burri shot, but 'Sao Paulo, 1960' is a landscape orientated photo, the horizontal frame brilliantly split into three parts of bustling city street traffic, shadowed skyscrapers, and besuited rooftop encounter (property developers or gangsters?). He combines and juxtaposes where others would seek to isolate and simplify. I find it a rare thing to be as drawn into the complexity and richness of composition of a telephoto shot as I am in this case.

I have both Photographs and Impossible Reminiscences. I can't say it better than Harrison Cronbi above: I" He shares Erwitt's visual wit, Cartier-Bresson's sense of geometry, the detail-hungry eye of Kertesz, the subject-environmental awareness of Newman." The joy of Impossible Reminiscences is that it shows he had a great sense of colour as well. The "how I worked memoir" sells it short (though that's how it's sold on the back of the book.) Freer and less bound by "classical" photojournalism, I find it inspirational. One can make excuses for oneself by rationalizing "I don't have a Che to shoot," but these photographs, taken on the periphery, or between assignments, inspire one to look beyond the obvious or commonplace shot.

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