“When capturing a moment, it’s just like a reaction. Like a cowboy for good or bad reasons – shoot! But of course you should have an idea why you take a photograph, you have to be motivated.”
René Burri, like many of his Magnum Photo colleagues, had a penchant apt timing and exclusive access to some of the world’s most prominent figures. Burri was capturing famous people before he even knew just how important they might be. His very first photo was of Winston Churchill in 1946. Burri’s father, a chef and amateur photographer, told him that an important person was coming to Zurich. Unaware of whom this might be, Burri took his father’s camera and acquiesced the wish for photographs of the Lion of Britain. Such grand beginnings held no foreshadowing for the Swiss 13 year-old, whose shyness and rigid cultural upbringing left him with little expectation of a future with a camera.
In addition to a strong understanding of his craft, Burri has displayed numerous traits that make for a successful photographer. Burri’s own anarchistic tendencies helped guide him towards his career and depart from the structure found at home. He has the curiosity to put his nose into things and see the world, as he told Joanna Kawecki. He has the tenacity and persistence to accomplish his goals, as it was when he spent six years chasing the opportunity to photograph Picasso. He also has frequently displayed a strong constitution, dealing with the likes of Che Guevara – who once intimated to Burri that he wished to slit Burri’s colleague’s throat – and frequently documenting political revolution and scenes of danger.
Over the course of his career, Burri’s photographs have appeared in numerous publications and exhibitions, while he himself has garnered a handful of honors. These include the Dr. Erich Salomon Prize from the German Photography Society (1998), the Canton of Zurich cultural prize (1999) and an Honorary Fellowship in the Royal Photographic Society.
More recently, in 2012, Burri was invited by Comme des Garçon’s Rei Kawakubo to take a venture into the fashion world. Kawakubo re-imagined Burri’s images into photomontages for a limited edition set of prints and three t-shirts. Additionally, all of the re-imagined images were installed at the Dover Street Market in London for the annual Frieze Art Fair. The collaboration was unexpected for Burri, who had never thought of taking part in the fashion world.
“Looking back, I didn’t have the patience to work in fashion,” Burri told AnOther Mag. “I like women so much, but I was never qualified to torture them in photo shoots. You have to be really tough and brutal.”