On October, 2014 Rene Burri passed away, at age 81. He had an incredible career of photography behind him, and produced many iconic images, which include those of Che, Picasso, and many other street photographs which perfectly combined geometry, story, and form.
About a year ago I got a copy of his color street photography, which was published in “Impossible Reminiscences”— and was deeply moved by his color work. I feel that his photographs have an emotional and cultural sensitivity to them. Rene’s work feels like a more empathetic Henri Cartier-Bresson.
I therefore felt inspired to write an article on Rene Burri. Unfortunately there isn’t too many interviews he has conducted, but based on what I could find online— here are some lessons I have learned from him:
1. Cover things that nobody else is thinking about
In an interview Rene Burri was asked what advice he would give aspiring photographers. He gave the advice to “…go and cover things that nobody else is thinking about”. He also recommends us to be curious and to “put your nose into things”:
“Everybody now has a cell phone and can take snaps which is great – even children. But my advice for young photographers – what I think young photographers should do – is to go and cover things that nobody else is thinking about. Put your nose into things. Use the third eye of the camera and don’t be completely dependent on Photoshop or the way other people want you to cast the world.”
Furthermore, Rene Burri shared the importance of discovering things by ourselves— to not take someone else’s word for it. For us to live our experiences directly, not through others:
“Go and discover for yourself, because the fantastic thing about photography is that you are able to freeze a moment that can never come back.”
As a photographer, you see the world uniquely and different from others. I think in photography it is easy to follow the crowd— to photograph what others have already photographed. This tends to be easy. When we are starting off in street photography, we cover the same subjects: street performers, homeless people, people walking by funny billboards, and people jumping over puddles.
But think about the things that you think about (that nobody else thinks about). Think about what makes your view of the world unique and different from others.
Even if you are interested in similar subject-matter as other photographers, or interested in pursuing a photography project that has already been done before (let’s say you wanted to photograph the NYC Subway)— how can you do it differently from the way others have done it before?
For example, there were tons of photographers who shot street photography on the New York City Subway in black and white in the past (like Walker Evans), but Bruce Davidson was the first to do it in color in his “Subway” book. There were a lot of photographers who shot street photography with nice geometry (Andre Kertesz and Henri Cartier-Bresson), but Alex Webb changed it up by shooting in color and also added more complexity to the geometric compositions he made.
A million photographers have photographed “America” and chose it as their main subject matter— but if you decide to pursue the topic, how can you do it differently from others?
To take it a step further— what are some other issues, concerns, or problems you see in society that you wish to cover (that nobody else is thinking about?)
Also realize if you live in a small town or city, you have a greater opportunity in making a unique body of work.
Continue to follow your curiosity, and don’t be afraid to “put your nose into things”. If there is anything that piques your interest, go for it. If you’re shooting in the streets and you see an interesting store, go inside. Talk to the people you meet inside.
If you see someone interesting at the bus stop, perhaps go over to them and have a chat with them and ask if you can shoot their portrait.
Always stay curious, and keep searching and photographing.
2. Look at your images upside-down
If you look at the work of Rene Burri, you will be blown away by the way he composes his images. He captures the beauty of humanity as well as incorporating geometry, architecture, and form.
How did he learn to compose his photographs so well? A practical tip: he learned from Henri Cartier-Bresson to look at his contact-sheets (images) upside-down. What does this do? It makes you better judge the compositions of your images, because you are no longer distracted by what is happening in the frame— you focus on the shapes and geometry of your images.
In an interview, Rene Burri tells the story of how Henri Cartier-Bresson used to look at his photos upside-down, and how he learned an important lesson:
“Henri Cartier-Bresson aggravated me very often. Why? He would look through your contacts upside down! He did this because he always wanted to see the composition. And I used to say, ‘I’m going to strangle you one day! Isn’t it interesting looking at my pictures?’ But I learned so much from that and the moment came when I too pulled the picture over the separations slip on the contact sheet and tried to look at it in the same way.
Composition isn’t the most important thing in a photograph— the emotional content and impact of an image is the most important thing.
But then again, if your photograph doesn’t have strong composition, form, and geometry— it won’t hold the interest of your viewer as long. And not only that, but having a strong composition helps add balance, beauty, and focus to your images.
Always try your best to consider composition when you’re shooting in the streets. See how you can better incorporate leading lines, contrast (figure-to-ground), diagonals, triangles, or curves in your scene. You can also learn more about composition here.
If you have a hard time seeing your compositions when you’re out shooting, judge the composition of your images afterwards and edit (choose) your images based on these factors.
A good way to judge your compositions is to flip your images upside-down. You can do this easily in Lightroom. Also you can make your images really small thumbnails, which helps you see the contrast and geometric forms in your images easier.
Another tip you can do (this is what Henri Cartier-Bresson did) is print out your photos and draw lines over your images to judge your compositions. Cartier-Bresson did it with tracing paper. You can even do it in Photoshop (if you don’t have a printer handy).
So at the end of the day, always think of composition and how you can use it to better enhance the content and emotions in your images.
3. Kill your mentor
Henri Cartier-Bresson was the mentor of Rene Burri for a long time. But after a while, it is good to “kill your mentor” — meaning, you disregard their advice after a while.
Of course during your “apprenticeship” phase it is good to soak in and learn everything from your mentor. But once you’ve reached a certain point, it is good to “graduate” from your mentor, and continue along your own path and to cultivate your own ideas and philosophies.
Rene Burri shares the story when he photographed his famous “Men on a rooftop” image— and he shot it with a telephoto lens (instead of shooting with a 35mm–90mm lens as Henri Cartier-Bresson told everyone to do):
“In those days Henri Cartier-Bresson limited us to lenses from 35 mm to 90 mm. When I showed him the photos he said, ‘brilliant René!’ I went outside and shouted ‘Hah!’ He heard me and said ‘what was that?’ I said, ‘nothing, never mind’. The lens I used was 180 mm – I never told him! At that point I broke loose from my mentor. I killed my mentor!”
When you are starting off as an apprentice in photography, I think it is important to listen to your mentor and to follow them and imitate them as much as you possibly can.
In photography if you don’t have direct access to a mentor, just find a master photographer whose work you admire and try to imitate them as much as possible.
However at a certain point, you will start to have your own world-views and opinions about photography. At that point it is important to break loose from the “rules” and “guidelines” given to you by your master— and to “kill your mentor”. Then you can really spread your wings, and go down your own unique life path in photography.
4. Provoke the memories or fantasies of your viewer
The best photographs are the ones that are engaging and open-ended. These photographs help connect the viewer with your images in a more personal way.
The most boring photographs tend to be the ones in which you look at them, see what they are, and move on.
When Rene Burri talked about his book: “Impossible Reminiscences” he talked about how he intentionally left out the captions next to his photographs to allow the viewer to challenge themselves by making up their own little stories, and to “work with their own memory or fantasy” to provoke some sort of emotion. He explains more below:
“[In Impossible Reminiscences] you have to look at the pictures, there are no captions so you have to make up your own mind, you have to look and not just read and know that it’s Chicago 1979. It’s a little tougher for the viewer this way, then in the back I have written text about each picture. Each picture has a story, when people are looking at it they work with their own memory or fantasy or whatever it provokes.”
In photography there are generally two types of images: “Open” photos and “closed” photos.
“Open” photos are open-ended. You can come up with your own interpretation of the images. You can come up with your own stories of what is going on in the image. You use your own personal history, your own memories, and fantasize what is happening.
“Closed” photos are closed to interpretation. You simply show the viewer what you saw, and that is it. There is no room for improvisation to the viewer, and the images are generally forgettable.
See how you can create more open-ended street photographs. You can do this by leaving out important information, for obscuring faces, for obscuring eyes, and by creating an image that has an interesting tension between the subject and the environment.
5. Be influenced by literature
I think the best photographers are the ones whom are able to gain inspiration and influence from outside fields.
For Rene Burri, he said that his biggest inspiration in photography came from literature. He explains below:
“The most important influence for me is literature. As a kid I would read stories about the red Indians and from once I read the text it was already illustrated in my mind and I saw the characters like a film. So I have always read great literature. One of the greatest chaps is certainly Shakespeare. I was once an extra in the theater and I would stand in the corner, or get killed or bring in a letter without saying a word so I could listen to the whole script and Shakespeare is fantastic.”
Once I learned this about Rene Burri— I can definitely see how literature has influenced and informed his photography. The majority of Rene Burri’s images are very cinematic. They are open-ended and are set in interesting backdrops. They almost look and feel cinematic. There are lots of interesting characters in his images, and there are enough blanks for the viewer to make up his/her own stories.
Think of how you can gain inspiration for your street photography in fields outside of photography. That can include literature, music, film, dance, psychology, sociology, architecture, political science, or whatever.
See how your outside influences color your existence and perception of the world, and see how you can either consciously or subconsciously apply this to your photography.
For example, I studied sociology as an undergraduate at UCLA, and now when I’m out shooting on the streets, I try to color my experiences seeing it through a sociological lens. I try to make street photographs that serve as social commentary and critique. Not only that, but I am a natural extrovert, so I love to approach strangers and talk with them and hear about their stories (while shooting “street portraits” of them).
So what are these outside interests for you? Perhaps write them down on a piece of paper or in a journal, and see how you can combine your interest with your photography.
6. Follow your curiosity
Out of all the people who I have met who are over 70 years old and in great health, they all have one thing in common: they are curious.
Curiosity is one of the most beautiful things in life. Curiosity gives you a reason to explore. Curiosity gives you a reason to wake up in the morning. Curiosity keeps you moving forward.
There is no better trait for a street photographer than being curious (and sometimes slightly nosey). No amount of cameras or equipment will help you feel more “curious.” Rather, you should simply see your camera as an outlet for your curiosity.
Use your curiosity and channel it with your camera. Buying a new camera won’t make you more curious.
Rene Burri shares the importance of photography to channel his curiosity:
“The camera is like my third eye it is an outlet for my curiosity. I was always curious as a kid and you have to use your senses. I wanted to meet the big giants of the 19th century, a sculptor, an artist, a dictator a musician and then I would find the pictures would just happen. You don’t capture a picture you are responding. I respond to situations and I am very fast – fastest gun in the West – even at my age.
So how do you cultivate more curiosity in your life and photography?
Personally I try to do this: go to an unfamiliar area, and simply bring along my camera. I start off trying to just explore the area and find interesting things. I then have my camera with me, and I simply photograph what I find interesting. I go down streets that I am curious about— which look interesting. I approach interesting looking people who I might be curious to learn more about.
I am also curious about learning more about other photographers, which is the fuel, which drives this “Learn from the masters” series. I feel the power of the Internet is that it allows us to channel our curiosity in a powerful way. In what other century could we have access to unlimited information, regardless of where we are?
So if you ever find the work of a photographer who you are curious of learning more about, buy their books, read interviews with them online, and visit their exhibitions.
If there is a certain photography project or experiment you want to try out— rather than just asking other people for their opinion, simply follow your curiosity and try it yourself.
As long as you stay curious your entire life, you will never die (creatively).
So to recap, here are the 6 lessons I’ve learned from Rene Burri:
- Cover things that nobody else is thinking about
- Look at your images upside-down
- Kill your mentor
- Provoke the memories or fantasies of your viewer
- Be influenced by literature
- Follow your curiosity
I think the common thread which holds all these lessons together is this: be curious and don’t take life for granted.
Explore the world first-handedly by yourself, and seek what you are personally interested in. Make images that are emotionally impactful for you, and use strong composition to hold it all together. Try to provoke stories in the mind of your viewer, and always stay photographing.
Rene Burri had a beautiful photographic life, and passed away at 81— and kept photographing until the very end.
How can we live our lives, make beautiful images, and not regret the chance to capture and see the world? Let’s go out and shoot.
Contact Sheets from Rene Burri
Che Contact Sheet
Ministry of health contact sheet
Six Photographs: The stories behind 6 of Rene Burri’s most famous images
In this little video, Rene Burri shares the stories behind his most famous images, a beautiful watch:
Recommended Books on Rene Burri:
1. Impossible Reminiscences (~$65)
If you are interested in color street photography and want to see truly magnificent work, I recommend “Impossible Reminiscences” by Rene Burri– which include his best color work from the past 50+ years.
You can see all the images for free on the Magnum website here.
2. Rene Burri Photographs (~$90)
If you are new to the work of Rene Burri and want a big-ass book of all his most iconic images, check out “Rene Burri Photographs” (it is a huge book).
Learn from the Masters of Street Photography
- Alec Soth
- Alex Webb
- Anders Petersen
- Andre Kertesz
- Bruce Davidson
- Bruce Gilden
- Daido Moriyama
- David Alan Harvey
- David Hurn
- Diane Arbus
- Dorothea Lange
- Elliott Erwitt
- Eugene Atget
- Eugene Smith
- Garry Winogrand
- Henri Cartier-Bresson
- Harry Callahan
- Jacob Aue Sobol
- Joel Meyerowitz
- Joel Sternfeld
- Josef Koudelka
- Lee Friedlander
- Magnum Contact Sheets
- Magnum Photographers
- Mark Cohen
- Martin Parr
- Mary Ellen Mark
- Rene Burri
- Robert Frank
- Saul Leiter
- Sebastiao Salgado
- Stephen Shore
- The History of Street Photography
- Tony Ray-Jones
- Trent Parke
- Walker Evans
- William Eggleston
- William Klein
- Zoe Strauss
Composition and Street Photography
- Composition Lesson #1: Triangles
- Composition Lesson #2: Figure-to-ground
- Composition Lesson #3: Diagonals
- Composition Lesson #4: Leading Lines
- Composition Lesson #5: Depth
- Composition Lesson #6: Framing
- Composition Lesson #7: Perspective
- Composition Lesson #8: Curves
- Composition Lesson #9: Self-Portraits
- Composition Lesson #10: Urban Landscapes
- Composition Lesson #11: “Spot the not”
- Composition Lesson #12: Color Theory
- Composition Lesson #13: Multiple-Subjects
- Composition Lesson #14: Square Format