René Burri


September, 2012
Dover Street Market, London


Undoubtedly one of the most important photographers of our time, René Burri has captured the worlds most iconic and historical moments on film. An early member of the prestigious Magnum Photos since 1955, his documentation of time spent in South America and Cuba have retained hold as renowned images, amongst them portraits of Fidel Castro and Ché Guevara.
Since the beginning of the year, René has been working closely with Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons to create a series of limited papers and t-shirts, developed from their strong mutual admiration. To celebrate his current window installation at Dover Street Market and the release of their collaborative t-shirts, René was in store to sign copies of his monograph 'Photographs', published by Phaidon. Taking seat in the Idea Books space at Dover Street Market, René delightfully illustrated each book in delicate watercolour paints for guests.
We sat down together with René before the signing as he spoke about his beginnings as a photographer, Magnum, and Rei Kawakubo.
Joanna Kawecki: René, what was the first picture you ever took? 
René Burri: My first picture was of Winston Churchill, which I did when I was 13 years old. It was '46, my father was a chef and he was also an amateur photographer. So he gave me a camera and said, "René, an important man is coming to Zurich". I was standing there, just taking the pictures and not thinking I would ever become a photographer.
JK: So it all happened quite naturally?
RB: Gradually in seeing things, it started to shape me. Sometimes opportunistically, but the curiosity to put your nose into things to see the world is important. But to change the world I soon found, is impossiblé… impossible. I'm an anarchist in a way. Thinking in different fields, how should I say, in an anarchic way. Always questioning things, positive still but curious. 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. You must pursue it. I wanted to photograph Picasso, because when I saw his show I was blown away. It took me 6 years to meet him.

JK: The word iconic has been used to describe many of your images. What makes an iconic image?
RB: I made a picture, and then all of a sudden maybe one that was published started to emerge and remains, and so all the others are sort of washed away. I say, usually photographers are really known by 2 or 3 pictures. So maybe Ché as you mentioned, was maybe one of them. He didn't survive, but the picture somehow survived. Simultaneously with my friend Korda, who shot the iconic picture of the revolution, with the beret. So this is maybe 100 times more known, because the picture came with the revolution.
JK: How did you come to work at Magnum Photos?
RB: I tell you, my life was never planned. But it happened by so many things. I never thought I would do reportage, but I was interested. I had met Werner Bischof who was working at Magnum at the time and had promised to introduce me to them. But on assignment, he never came back tragically. I had done this story on deaf mute children in Africa, and thought that maybe I should show them in New York. After they had seen my photos, I was introduced to David Seymour. He was Polish, and was kind of like my godfather. He sent me to take pictures of Czechoslovakia, and he sent me dramatically then to Egypt in 1956, when NASA nationalised the canal. He called me up and said, "Burri, you must go there as you have a Swiss passport." So I went there and was nearly killed. I walked around with my camera innocently, and went on the last oil tanker through the canal and sent the films back with an American pilot.
JK: René, what was the process of selection for your images in 'Photographs?'
RB: It's like a puzzle you know, there were hundreds and thousands of pictures for over 50 years and stories. Professional and personal work, and so when we said we'd make the book, we had to have an idea. It could have gone in so many different ways, I could have made 3 different books with this. And then together with a writer, and a designer friend, we started pulling pictures out. At that time, it was 2002 I think, and I had about 15000 proof prints grouped in wine boxes; Germany, France, Cuba, the whole thing. We didn't know which way to go, do we do countries, do we do political events… And when we pulled out the pictures, the theme started to emerge.
JK: How did the idea come about to create the series of t-shirts with Comme des Garçons?
RB: Rei proposed the idea to me, and I said of course. And of course, having met Rei blew my mind. She is so dynamic, that I feel like a little boy running behind her and catching up. Such admiration, we push each other and enhance each other. Since the beginning of the year we have done a few papers with Comme des Garçons. I said, "Rei, I'm a collagist". I photographed the rockets and the astronauts, scanned my collages and colour images, and here they are on the t-shirts. And she (Rei) puts these things together in a way that's just incredible.