René Burri's book 'Les Allemands' shows the fractured lives of the German people in the aftermath of World War II
"What counts is putting the intensity that you yourself have experienced into the picture. Otherwise it is just a document. "
- René Burri
René Burri was born in 1933 in Zurich, Switzerland, where he photographed Winston Churchill at the age of 13. From 1950, he trained as a photographer at the Kunstgewerbeschule Zürich (today ZhdK, the Zürich University of the Arts), and from 1953 to 1955 he worked as a documentary filmmaker and began to use a Leica while doing his military service.
In 1955, Burri became a nominee member of Magnum and received international attention for one of his first reportages, on deaf-mute children, Touch of Music for the Deaf, published in Life magazine. In 1956, he traveled throughout Europe and the Middle East and then went to Latin America, where he made a series on the Gauchos that was published by Du magazine in 1959. It was also for this Swiss periodical that he photographed artists such as Pablo Picasso, Alberto Giacometti, Jean Tinguely, Yves Klein and Le Corbusier. He became a full member of Magnum in 1959.
The book Die Deutschen was published by Fretz & Wasmuth in Zurich in 1962, and a year later by Robert Delpire in Paris with the title, Les Allemands. In 1963, while working in Cuba, he photographed Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara during an interview with American journalist Laura Berquist for Look magazine. His portrait of the revolutionary with his cigar traveled the world. In 1965, Burri participated in the creation of Magnum Films and spent six months in China where he made the film, The Two Faces of China, produced by the BBC.
Burri has covered historical events such as Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev’s visit to Cuba in 1974, the 50th anniversary of the Long March in China in 1985, and the fall of the Berlin Wall and events in Tiananmen Square, both in 1989.
Burri was the recipient of prizes and awards including Les Arts et Lettres in 1991, the Dr Erich Salomon Prize from the German Association of Photography in 1998, the Swiss Press Photo Life Achievement Award in 2011, and the Leica Hall of Fame Award in 2013. A retrospective of his work was held in 2004-2005 at the Maison Européenne de la Photographie (MEP) in Paris and toured many European and South American museums. His last exhibition, titled Mouvement, was also held at MEP in 2014, featuring several color photographs as well as triptychs.
He set up the Fondation René Burri in 2013, which preserves the photographer’s complete works, located at Photo Elysee in Lausanne. Collages and drawings also form part of his oeuvre. In 2020 the museum held the retrospective, Explosions of Sight.
Throughout his career, Burri published around 40 books, and he worked for magazines such as Life, Stern, Geo, Paris Match, Du and Look.
Burri passed away at the age of 81 on October 20, 2014 in Zurich.