Swiss Photographer Rene Burri
約翰百德 (John BATTEN)
at 3:04pm on 22nd May 2024

(An article in English about Swiss photographer René Burri's exibition ‘René Burri . Explosions of Sight’ at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum by John Batten, originally published in the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Hong Kong's The Correspondent magazine, October-December 2023

(一篇有關瑞士攝影師René Burri展覽的英文藝評。 臺北市立美術館《勒內.布里:視覺爆炸》。由約翰百德撰寫。原文刊登於2023年《香港外國記者會 - 十至十二月號》。)
Image 1:
René Burri working with his many cameras with photographs featured in his Explosions of Sight exhibition at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum. (All photographs by John Batten, unless otherwise noted)

Image 2:
Exhibition entrance with display panel and neon calligraphy inspired by Burri's design and photomontage work.
Image 3:
René Burri's iconic Men on a Rooftop, São Paulo, Brazil (1960) - seen in a display of photographs shot in Brazil
Image 4:
A reconstruction of one of the MegaPhotoMobil multimedia installations designed by Burri for his first retrospective exhibition at the Zurich Kunsthaus, 1984.
Image 5:
Display of Che with Cigar, including the Du magazine cover (1984), contact sheets, photographs, press cards and documentation of his 1963 trip to Cuba.

All photographs: John Batten


Swiss Photographer Rene Burri 

by John Batten



“It made my career,” Swiss photojournalist René Burri (1933-2014) said of his iconic photograph of Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara smoking a large cigar. Arguably the most famous portrait photograph of the 20th century, but it wasn’t until the death of Guevara and the equivalent of the image going viral for it to take its place as a great memorable photograph (see Image 5, above).


On New Year’s Eve 1963, just a few months after the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962, Burri received a call from his photo agency telling him to immediately fly to Cuba, via Prague and Moscow. It was Burri’s passport and not requiring a visa that got him the job; Swiss neutrality would subsequently help him easily cross borders on many future assignments. Burri accompanied American journalist Laura Bergquist of Look magazine, who had just received special permission from the U.S. State Department and CIA to visit Cuba to interview Guevara in Havana.


Guevara, Cuba’s then Minister for Industry and director of its national bank was interviewed and photographed for over five hours in his office at the bank. While Guevara spoke with Bergquist he continued chain smoking cigarettes, drinking coffee, and puffing on cigars. Given complete freedom, Burri captured Guevara from all angles to record a range of emotions: looking relaxed, charming, amused, serious and exasperated. Not once, Burri noted later, did Guevara actually look directly into the camera. The Look interview and photo spread was published in April 1963 with Burri’s photograph cropped and seemingly overlooked, occupying a minor one eighth section of a page.


It was only after Guevara’s death on 9 October 1967 that the image’s use became widespread after Burri allowed it to be used on a large poster. Burri remembers that “…from that moment on, it all began. People wanted to have the photo. The real boom was in Paris, in May 1968, when the photo appeared on flags.” Che with Cigar has been used and seen so widely, especially on T-shirts, that as far as Burri was concerned the image no longer belonged to him, so he ‘bequeathed’ it to the world.


The large retrospective exhibition ‘René Burri . Explosions of Sight’, first seen in Switzerland in 2020 and recently shown in Taipei was organised by the Fondation René Burri and the Photo Elyée museum in Lausanne. Curated by the museum’s Marc Donnadieu and Mélanie Bétrisey, the exhibition was sourced from the extensive archives Burri bequeathed to his Foundation which are now housed at the museum.


Burri joined the photo agency Magnum Photos in 1955 and became a full member in 1959. In a career spanning six decades, Burri had an eclectic and humanistic approach to photojournalism. His work is particularly remembered for long duration stories, portraits, communities and key moments in recent history, including political incidents and armed conflicts. Originally studying and working as a film-maker, Burri uniquely used the inventiveness of cinema as inspiration for much of his still photography.  


Dismissive of the preciousness of his profession, he advocated that: “…Photography, that’s nothing; what counts, is what you feel and express. It’s about raising awareness, saying ‘look!’ It’s the opposite of exploitation: it’s about going beyond yourself, sharing.” Working outside the usual boundaries of 1950s newspaper and magazine photojournalism, Burri was for example, an early adopter of using colour in combination with black and white photography. He would often work, in bursts of energetic enthusiasm, with four cameras around his neck, of which one would always be loaded with colour film. Throughout his career he continued making documentary films. In collaboration with his wife Rosellina Burri-Bischof, The Two Faces of China, was filmed in 1965 on his first visit to China. The photographs from that visit were exhibited the following year in Zurich as his first solo exhibition. The definitive version of their documentary, however, was presented to the wider public in ‘Behind the Great Wall of China: Photographs from 1870 to the Present’ at New York’s Metropolitan Museum in 1972.


Burri took a considered, artistic approach to photography. Both his reportage, photo essays and street photography had a structure that the Taipei exhibition curators identified around three primary structural principles, which when seeing his photographs have guided generations of photojournalists. Firstly, the curators identify that his “double plan” depicts images with “frames (and) interplays between surfaces…which render it more ambiguous, surprising and mysterious.” This can best be seen in his famous ‘two level’ image of men walking on a roof with a distant view of the street below, taken in São Paulo in 1960 (see Image 3, above).


A second principle is his unique use of dots, lines and planes often formed by light and shadow, shot “in high constrast, in transparent layers….(and) sometimes, his subjects are photographed beneath overhead lighting, or lit from below, and form lines, dots, and planes which frame or slice the framework in unexpected ways.” This approach is seen in his photograph of two young women walking across a Rio de Janeiro courtyard crossed with a pattern of “luminous shadows.” A final principle, borrowed from cinema’s filming techniques on built sets is his “blurring (of) the foreground”, often photographing a main image from a low angle, with the foreground intentionally out of focus.


In 2013, the year before his death, Burri visited Hong Kong for his exhibition at the University of Hong Kong Museum: ‘Rene Burri: UTOPIA’. This exhibition showcased one of his major photo assignments when Burri documented the construction of Brasilia, the new capital of Brazil. Built in a frantic 41 months and opened in 1960, the city was spearheaded by urban planner Lúcio Costa, landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx and featured the modernist brilliance of architect Oscar Niemeyer’s individual buildings. Burri’s photographs bring alive what could have been purely dry architectural documentation. Alongside the necessary architectural photography, Burri tells a richer story by also photographing visitors, Brazil’s workers and their families, who experience, often with pride, their country’s post-war boom and this urban symbol of optimism.


Photojournalists of Burri’s calibre inevitably are assigned to photograph famous people.  Alongside Che, he memorably photographed well-known artists and performers, including Picasso, Giacometti, Klein, Tinguely, Maria Callas, and Le Corbusier. Picasso, however, was a lifelong inspiration and he independently sought out to photograph the great artist.


In 1953, a young Burri was in Milan and saw an exhibition of Picasso in a World War II bombed-out building next to the Duomo. Although the building had been re-roofed its walls were still scorched. Guernica was the centrepiece of the exhibition and in that setting, Burri recalls in a ‘Magnum Story’ from 2004, "...it was very emotional...For me, it was like an explosion. It changed my life. I said to myself, ''I must meet this man!''" It wasn’t to happen until later that decade, much aided by serendipity.


Burri had just finished his first big assignment for Holiday magazine in San Sebastian, Spain and heard that Picasso was at the bullfights in Nîmes, France. He drove overnight across the Pyrenees, arriving in Nîmes early next morning. Booking into a hotel and intending to immediately sleep, the chambermaid seeing his camera equipment hurried him upstairs saying obliquely, "…they are all waiting for you." He entered a room to find Picasso entertaining; momentarily surprised, he quickly motioned to Picasso for permission to photograph; Picasso nodded yes.


Later that night, there was an odder coincidence. Grabbed in a downstairs corridor, Burri was bustled into a dining room. "And there in front of me was a vision like Da Vinci's Last Supper. People were sitting (waiting)...Picasso was in the middle...Picasso's son, Pablo, said, ''Papa, I found someone, it's the photographer from this morning.’ Picasso looked at me and said, ''Sit down. Eat.'' It turned out that Picasso was superstitious and wouldn't eat while there were 13 at the table." He photographed the dinner and the next day they all "went to the bullfights with (artist and film director) Jean Cocteau." Later, that summer, working for the Swiss Du magazine, he visited Picasso at the Villa la Californie in Cannes and again photographed Picasso, memorably seen entertaining and drawing together with his children.


Throughout his life, Burri filled notebooks with drawings and in the late 1950s he started collaging as a way to overcome his fear of flying. He then always travelled with sketchpads, glue, and pencils. His collage practice expanded into photomontage and book design using his excellent graphic and layout skills (see Image 4, above). This holistic approach to visual discovery complemented his photography and is an impetus for any aspiring photographer. As the curators of the Taipei exhibition highlighted, Burri lived up to the 1939 principles of Life magazine: “To see life; to see the world; to eyewitness great events; to watch the faces of the poor and the gestures of the proud; to see strange things – machines, armies, multitudes, shadows in the jungle and on the moon….”



‘René Burri . Explosions of Sight’

Taipei Fine Arts Museum (TFAM), Taiwan

18 March 2023 – 18 June 2023

Link to TFAM website exhibition page: