The Museum of Design in Zürich (Museum für Gestaltung) presented a selection of colour photographs by renowned Swiss photographer René Burri. Simultaneously Phaidon published a book under the title “Impossible Reminiscence” (Phaidon, 2013). One noticeable particularity of this publication is that there is no caption accompanying the 136 images. Also, each of them is shown isolated from the others, thus inviting us to contemplate one photograph at a time, without any other interference. At the back of the publication, Burri provided comments about the context of each picture.
My general impression was a total immersion into recent history. As explained by the short notice published with the catalog of the Museum’s exhibition, Burri’s specialty is documentary photography (Museum für Gestaltung, 2013). However, he is always interested in a personal approach to aesthetics simultaneously to his commissioned work. I selected four photographs that I will attempt to analyse from a composition point of view. I advise the readers to re-arrange their web browser in such a way that they can read my comments whilst seeing the corresponding photograph. A link is available through the titles.
Chicago, 1971 (Burri, 1971)
This photograph is full of symbols, either implicit or explicit. Two focus points immediately drew my attention: the “Don’t walk” red traffic lights. They evoke for me a couple of issues that are omnipresent in modern life: the increased dependency on private means of transport (in particular the car) and, for many people, the lack of physical exercise, eventually leading to health problems. It is interesting to note that this picture was shot shortly before the first oil crisis. There is an additional focus point. The sculpture of a horse and its rider on the right side is a reminder of the importance of our equine friends to the development of society. The term “horse power” is still today commonly used to quantify the capacity of car engines.
Composition: the image is divided by a lamppost into two equal parts. The two red “Don’t walk” signs are positioned in the second and third thirds, while the horse and its rider occupy the first third. Other posts create a network of horizontal and vertical lines, intensifying in the right half of the image.
Chicago, 1981 (Burri, 1981)
10 years separate the previous photograph and this one. Its main feature is the partial visibility of one of America’s biggest brand names. The boy’s movement is fully synchronised with the diagonal writing. The composition is extremely simple but perfectly beautiful.
Composition: the boy is positioned in the first third of the image with the advert text in the background offering a white contrast and a part of the letter in alignment with his angled pose. Would it work if the boy were shifted more towards the right or left? Note the head of probably another child in the lower right corner: for me, it serves as a counterweight.
Altdorf, 1965 (Burri, 1965)
This photograph tells several stories. A focus point is the flowers in the hand of the elderly gentleman. Who is he visiting? The second focus point is the blurred running boy. Where is he going? Who will he meet? These two figures also evoke youth and old age: the boy dynamically portrayed through his blurred movement, whereas the gentleman seems stationary. Yet, both look in the same direction. Altdorf is a mythical place in Switzerland. It is in this village of the Swiss Alps that the legendary Swiss hero, Wilhelm Tell, challenged the authority of the Habsburgs.
Composition: the door is almost centered. A slight tilt of the camera emphasises the slope going from left to right, giving to the blurred running child an additional sense of speed and energy. Does it matter that the photograph is not perfectly focused?
New York City, 1986 (Burri, 1986)
I see this photograph as being very dynamic. A lot is happening. One of the main figures is the small child on his red scooter. Running away, he stands apart from a cluster of three other children. While they are close to each other, they seem absorbed in a different matter, turned towards a fifth boy crossing the road. One of them looks as if he were praying and all wear kippahs. What are they thinking about? Does it relate to the other boy of different ethnic origin? Only a longer observation of the image allows the discovery of a sixth figure, with a black outfit that makes him almost indiscernible from the dark background. Only his white shirt and imposing beard make him visible.
Composition: as in the Chicago photograph. a lamppost divides the image in two. In the background, a massive decrepit staircase attracts attention. There is a sense of balance with the six figures spread across the image almost perfectly in pairs for each third.
Museum für Gestaltung (2013) René Burri A Double Life. Zürich: Museum für Gestaltung
Phaidon (2013) Impossible Reminiscences. London: Phaidon Press Limited
Burri, R. (1965) Altdorf, 1965. [photographic print]. [online image]. Magnum Photos. Available from: http://www.magnumphotos.com/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult&VBID=2K1HZOQXVZ4Y5T&SMLS=1&RW=1261&RH=786 [accessed 5 April 2013]
Burri, R. (1971) Chicago, 1971. [photographic print]. [online image]. Magnum Photos. Available from: http://www.magnumphotos.com/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult&VBID=2K1HZOQXVKL619&SMLS=1&RW=1461&RH=929 [accessed 5 April 2013]
Burri, R. (1981) Chicago, 1981. [photographic print]. [online image]. Magnum Photos. Available from: http://www.magnumphotos.com/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult&VBID=2K1HZOQXVZ9OEM&SMLS=1&RW=1261&RH=786 [accessed 5 April 2013]
Burri, R. (1986) New York City, 1986. [photographic print]. [online image]. Magnum Photos. Available from: http://www.magnumphotos.com/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult&VBID=2K1HZOQXDLUITS&SMLS=1&RW=1920&RH=995 [accessed 5 April 2013]