René Burri: Imaginary Pyramids • Magnum Photos

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Theory & Practice

René Burri: Imaginary Pyramids

Clotilde Burri-Blanc on the fascination with pyramids that permeated her late husband's work

Rene Burri

Rene Burri Next to the age-old symbols of Egypt, the Pyramids and the camel, the Ramses car has made its appearance on the modern Egyptian scene. Egypt. 1962. © Rene Burri | Magnum Photos

As previously unseen work, of and inspired by pyramids, goes on display at Les Rencontres de la photographie d’Arles, Clotilde Burri-Blanc recalls her memories of her late husband’s affinity with the structures in an extract from the book ‘The Imaginary Pyramids’.

On his first trip to Egypt in 1958, René Burri saw the pyramid of Djoser in Saqqara, a vast tomb planted in the middle of the desert. Having spent his childhood in Switzerland in the mountains, René was instinctively fascinated by these prodigious constructions made by the hand of man; Mountains in the desert, but without the snow. He would go on to travel several times to Mexico, Guatemala and Egypt to satisfy his eye, photographing varied pyramids in black and white and in color. This personal project would never be published (until now).

Rene Burri Russian tourists. Cairo, Egypt. 1958. © Rene Burri | Magnum Photos
Rene Burri Keops pyramid, Cairo, Egypt. 1962. © Rene Burri | Magnum Photos
Rene Burri Burial of Aga Khan III, leader of the Ismailis, founder and first president of the League of Indian Muslims who died on July 11, 1957. Shortly before his death, the Aga Khan III chose a location on (...)

At this time his work adopted the triangular form; his photographs are full of unconscious references to the pyramids. Roofs of houses, tipis of Indians, modern architecture, Zen gardens … René was geometrically-minded, and he saw pyramids everywhere. He covered his notebooks with drawings and even collected objects in the form of pyramids, this perfect triangle, the four equal sides, magical and mysterious.

"René loved to escape back to those mountains that gave him the strength, rigor and energy, to find a shape of inner peace, to contemplate and to meditate"

- Clotilde Burri-Blanc
Rene Burri Collage and water colour. Paris - Abu Dhabi - Egypt. December 21, 1991. © Rene Burri | Magnum Photos
Rene Burri Collage and pastel. Circa 1980. © Rene Burri | Magnum Photos

René prolonged his travels by photocopying his own photos. He tore pieces of newspapers, postcards, flyers gleaned everywhere, and collected them in many collages enhancing them with his box of watercolors. The night was conducive to his overflowing imagination when, alone and surrounded by his memories, the making of these creations lasted until until the dawn.

Rene Burri Egyptian president Anwar El Sadat and US President Richard Nixon. Egypt. June 13,1974. © Rene Burri | Magnum Photos
Rene Burri EGYPT. Saquara near Cairo. Step pyramid of Saquara, first known pyramid known to man. 1962. © Rene Burri | Magnum Photos

"His fascination for the pyramids was his way of discovering what the mountains had hidden for so long: the horizon, a point of view."

- Clotilde Burri-Blanc
Rene Burri Rank Xerox. USA. 1967. © Rene Burri | Magnum Photos

Our first trip together was to the Yucatan region of Mexico in May 1987. René welcomed me at the airport, cheerful and enthusiastic. Two surprises awaited me: the good one being that the pyramids were located in wonderful places. The bad one being that – though I did not know it at the time – I had vertigo! I spent our expedition reading my guidebook and watching the changing light from sunrise to sunset at the foot of the pyramids, unable to climb. This exhibition is, for me, a tribute to this journey that will remain forever etched in my memory.

Rene Burri USA. 1980. © Rene Burri | Magnum Photos
Rene Burri Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. 1958. © Rene Burri | Magnum Photos
Rene Burri The Towers of Satellite City (1957) by Luis Barragan (and Mathias Goeritz). Queretaro Highway, Mexico City, Mexico. 1969. © Rene Burri | Magnum Photos
Rene Burri City of Las Vegas. Nevada, USA. 2000. © Rene Burri | Magnum Photos
Rene Burri Cuba. 1974. © Rene Burri | Magnum Photos

A nomad from his native Switzerland, René loved to escape back to those mountains that gave him the strength, rigor and energy, to find a shape of inner peace, to contemplate and to meditate. He had spent his childhood at heart of the Alps that blocked his view. He liked to say that he ran up the last meters of those mountains to see what was on the other side, and there were always other peaks. His fascination for the pyramids was his way of discovering what the mountains had hidden for so long: the horizon, a point of view.

Les Rencontres de la photographie d’Arles is open fron July 2 to September 23, 2018.

Les Pyramides imaginaires de René Burri, Éditions Textuel, 2018. With support from the Swiss Confederation and the Swiss Arts Council Pro Helvetia. A Wombat Box of this work is also available.

For all the details on Magnum photographers with work showing at Arles go here.

Rene Burri Los Angeles, CA, USA. 1966. © Rene Burri | Magnum Photos
Rene Burri Senegal.1966. © Rene Burri | Magnum Photos
Rene Burri During the "Landsgemeinde" consultative County assembly. Canton Glarus, Switzerland. 1955. © Rene Burri | Magnum Photos